tv review

Fosse/Verdon Is Made for Hardcore Fans of Showbiz History

Sam Rockwell as Bob Fosse in Fosse/Verdon. Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/FX

It’s hard to imagine more delectable bait for fans of Broadway and Hollywood history than Fosse/Verdon. Based on Sam Wasson’s biography Fosse, this eight-part FX mini-series premiering Tuesday is not content to simply dramatize the volatile artistic and romantic partnership between Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) and Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams), nor to get the choreography and costumes right, nor to cast the story’s big-name supporting characters, including Neil Simon (Nate Corddry), Paddy Chayefsky (Norbert Leo Butz), Liza Minnelli (Kelli Barrett), Ann Reinking (Margaret Qualley), and Ben Vereen (Ahmad Simmons), with performers who feel cosmically correct but aren’t doing impersonations. (Butz’s humanist bulldozer take on Chayefsky, in particular, is rich enough to merit a spin-off.) No, this series is hardcore showbiz history, each frame deserving of footnotes. It delves into the type of marginalia that would obsess a person who has multiple shelves of Broadway histories, and is worried that the filmmakers might not get Fosse’s fedora or Verdon’s hairdo exactly correct as captured in photos from 1973, the year Fosse won a triple crown of directing awards for Cabaret (the Oscar), Pippin (the Tony) and Liza with a Z (the Emmy).

If you are that person, breathe easy: Fosse/Verdon is a steam-heat soak in fanatically exact period detail, plus speculations and educated guesses that might have come from Fosse and Verdon’s daughter Nicole, a series adviser who’s depicted onscreen as, arguably, the story’s third protagonist. (We watch her grow up, though not in chronological order, as the story jumps through time as in a Fosse picture.) It’s hard to say how the totality of Fosse/Verdon will play for somebody wandering into it without preexisting knowledge of American theater and cinema between roughly 1955 (when Fosse choreographed Damn Yankees and fell in love with Verdon, the musical’s female lead) and 1987 (when Fosse died in Verdon’s arms after a heart attack in Washington, D.C., site of a Sweet Charity revival). Probably it’ll be like stumbling into a room full of people speaking Esperanto.

The list of executive producers is a murderers’ row of heavy-hitting theater people, including Steven Levenson (Dear Evan Hansen), longtime collaborators Lin-Manuel Miranda and Thomas Kail (Hamilton and In the Heights), and TV producer George Stelzner (who brought Wasson’s book to FX and co-produced the CBS version of Gypsy). Fosse/Verdon sometimes feels like the end product of a post-show party at the home of theater producers arguing about the lives of their predecessors and pulling first-edition books from shelves for fact-checking.

The production takes a while to hit its stride, and the first couple of hours may seem forbidding if you’re not already invested in the time, place, and people. The first two episodes anchor characteristically Fosse-esque flashbacks and musical fantasies to the 1971 production of the screen version of Cabaret, and Fosse’s concurrent, marriage-busting infidelity with a translator in Munich, where the film was being shot. It’s all sumptuously produced but heavy spirited, and perhaps too immersive for its own good. It proves the miniseries’ Broadway-and-Hollywood–geek bona fides, but as it powers through the postwar era, it settles into a boozy, smoky, prestige cable groove that’s like a glitzier, slower, less thematically on-point cousin of Mad Men. (Among the many odd points of comparison between Bob Fosse and Don Draper: They’re both sexually compulsive, substance-abusing creative genius New Yorkers who grew up poor in the Midwest surrounded by sex, lost their virginity before the age of consent — Draper to a sex worker, Fosse to strippers — and have regular Proustian flashbacks.) Rockwell’s restless, uncompromising but opaque performance as Fosse is a far cry from Roy Scheider’s wry satyr incarnation in the Fosse-directed All That Jazz, and much closer to the man captured in biographies and personal testimonies: a psychologically damaged, self-loathing, often self-punishing genius, as well as a narcissist who would always rather ask forgiveness than permission, whether hard-selling Cabaret producer Cy Feuer (chronic scene-stealer Paul Reiser) on letting him direct the film, or impulsively deciding that his Munich fling is the real great love of his life. (The affair ended three months after it began; Fosse and Verdon continued working together and never officially divorced.)

Even though Fosse is better known to the general public than Verdon, it might’ve been a mistake to lead with him, because even though the details of his story are unique, the gist initially plays like post-Sopranos same-old, chronicling the damage done by a charismatic and powerful but toxic and damaged man. He’d be insufferable if we weren’t aware that he’s reenacting damage he suffered in childhood and adolescence — and if his malignant selfishness wasn’t leavened by Verdon, who has a deep artistic connection to Fosse, and tends to give him the benefit of the doubt because she still loves him, despite his chronic awfulness. Things perk up around episode three, “Me and My Baby,” written by Deborah Cahn and directed by Adam Bernstein, because the focus shifts to Verdon and to Williams’s performance, which is as committed as Rockwell’s but more accessible and comprehensible. By accident or design, Fosse makes more sense as a character when he’s dancing or choreographing other people dancing, while Williams comes most fully alive when she’s interacting with the supporting cast — in particular Rockwell; the various actresses who play Nicole; and Aya Cash’s doomed Joan Simon, wife of Neil.

In the post-#MeToo era, it seems miraculous that Fosse, who went through chorus girls as fast as tap shoes and tights, hasn’t already been posthumously canceled. It’s easy to imagine this mini-series doing the trick, though it’s so empathetic from start to finish — in the manner of a biographer — that it couldn’t possibly have been intended that way. The many scenes of Fosse treating the production as his personal harem are a partial corrective to All That Jazz, which was once viewed as brutally honest (deservedly so; it was a long time ago), but which now seems too forgiving of the way Fosse tied artistic opportunity to sexual availability. In Fosse/Verdon, we see dancers resisting him as well as offering themselves to him. One Pippin dancer knees him in the crotch to stop an unwanted pass, and Fosse retaliates by cutting her from the lineup, telling Verdon, “She couldn’t take direction.” Verdon tells Fosse that Reinking, who met him while dancing in Pippin, ignored his overtures because she’s “too good … she knows she doesn’t have to visit your hotel room to get the solo.”

To its credit, none of this is presented in an ahistorical, anachronistic, judgmental manner. Verdon, Reinking, and other women in Fosse’s orbit seem to have absorbed sexual harassment as an employment risk that everyone in show business takes as a given, even as they loathe it. Some of the most unsettling conversations find Fosse and Verdon bonding in ways that endorse the status quo. (Verdon asks if the dancer Fosse cut was a “bad dancer or a bad lay,” then surmises she was “both,” and they share a laugh over her.) The writing is attentive to Verdon’s own damage, noting how, as a dancer, she was sexualized before she was sexual, and building one of the mini-series’ most affecting moments around a traumatic encounter that triggers memories of being married off at 17 to a lecherous reporter (played by Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Santino Fontana).

The inequities between men and women in the entertainment industry, and in life itself, are often in Fosse/Verdon’s spotlight. Some of the most emotionally complex and conflicted parts of the drama show how Fosse leaned on Verdon for what contemporary sociologists might call “uncompensated emotional labor,” and what Verdon herself probably would’ve described as “support.” She loved Fosse in spite of it all because they had a creative connection strong enough to endure his nonstop emotional battery, and because he was still the father of their only daughter, whether he was teaching Nicole to dance, parking her at a card table in a rehearsal hall, or bringing her to Paddy Chayefsky’s hotel room for unscheduled babysitting. In the series, he phones Verdon whenever he needs an emotional or creative sounding-board. Keenly attuned to Fosse’s depression and suicidal tendencies, Verdon is always available to talk him off a figurative or literal ledge, whether or not she decides to be physically present. Most of the time she makes a point of going to wherever Fosse is, even if it means getting on a plane to Munich to help him choreograph a Cabaret number and finding him in bed with another woman. When Fosse wins the Tony for Pippin, his list of thank-yous includes “my special friend, Gwen Verdon,” a vague citation as noteworthy as his failure to thank his daughter, considering how much uncredited advisory work Verdon did on that and every other Fosse-directed production.

By the time the mini-series hits episode five — a Kail-directed hour set entirely at Fosse’s beach house during a rainstorm, and that features Neil Simon, Reinking, and Chayefsky as supporting characters — Verdon blows her stack and unloads on her since-separated husband in Reinking’s presence, warning her that she should expect to give Fosse everything, be cheated on constantly, and get nothing in return. In this searing moment, Fosse/Verdon reveals its stealthy second agenda as a reclamation project. The title is the revised directorial credit that most of Fosse’s film and stage productions should have carried in the first place.

An earlier version of this review misidentified the actor playing Neil Simon. It’s Nate Corddry, not Rob Corddry.

*A version of this article appears in the April 15, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!