Fosse/Verdon makes for great TV but shows the downsides of collaboration

Though all anyone can talk about is the final season of Game of Thrones, there is another show that has captivated my heart and DVR, but this one has just a bit more jazz hands.

The show is Fosse/Verdon, which stars Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams, and it is about the super successful – though very dramatic (both onstage and off) – relationship of iconic choreographer Bob Fosse and showstopping dancer Gwen Verdon.

Though like many FX series it comes with plenty of fun musical numbers, what the show really highlights, unlike in previous depictions of Fosse’s career, is the pivotal role Verdon played in making his many theatrical and cinematic masterpieces.

Follow Ladders on Flipboard!

Follow Ladders’ magazines on Flipboard covering Happiness, Productivity, Job Satisfaction, Neuroscience, and more!

Verdon was a huge Broadway star, arguably one of the best dancer’s The Great White Way had ever and will ever have seen. And though she had already won a Tony (her first of four) – and had, in true Broadway theater legend history, been demanded by an audience to come back out on stage (in a towel no less, as she was in the middle of her quick change) after a show-stopping number in Can-Can – Fosse somehow became the household name while Verdon really never did. Well, at least not in every house.

Whatever Lola wants … but didn’t get credit for

Because what Verdon did not get credit for, until FX and a producing team that includes Lin Manuel-Miranda came along, was that she was a very big part of the Fosse machine that earned him Oscars, Tonys, Emmys, and established him as one of the most important figures in not only choreography but American musical theater.

After all, there are not many other choreographers that are forever, intrinsically-linked with one simple hand gesture (jazz hands) and a dramatic shoulder hunch except for maybe Twyla Tharpe.

When they got together on the first production of Damn Yankees (him, the somewhat under doggish choreographer … her, the fresh Tony-winning darling of Broadway) she was the bigger star and, as the series shows, he had something more to prove.

But the problem was, as with many a creative genius, Bob Fosse had a short fuse and couldn’t always get his vision past his frustrations. But Verdon could (and she was a genius too in her own right). As she says in episode one of the series to an anxious producer on the set of the then-troubled Cabaret film set (it would go on to win the Oscar for Best Picture): “I just know how to speak Bob. It’s my native tongue.”

She could translate what he wanted and help him execute it. It was she that provided dancers with a backstory and therefore the motivation behind his, at the time, unconventional choreography. As we see in the first scene in the series when they meet, he had those steps (for the famed “Whatever Lola Wants” number from Damn Yankees) but she made them better and damn she made them look good.

Verdon played pivotal, but uncredited roles, with the film versions of Sweet Charity and Cabaret. She did everything from choreography to film editing to providing costumes. And she managed to do all of this even as their marriage was falling apart due to Fosse’s widely known discretions and drug and alcohol addictions (though they actually never divorced just remained estranged but working together often for 30-something years).

Writer Steven Levenson (Dear Evan Hansen) told The Atlantic: “At that point, we were still very much thinking we were making a show called Fosse, and we left that meeting certain that the only way to tell this story was to make it a two-hander, because Bob’s story is incomplete without Gwen.

There’s something about his relationship with Gwen, and that love story — however strange and twisted it was — that really fills out the picture of who he was. It felt that at every point in Bob’s career if you widen the angle just a bit, you find that she’s there — and that felt really important.”

The man in front

Now, it was a different time. One in which a philandering womanizer but brilliant director and choreographer was still helmed as successful even though his sexual harassment of the chorus line dancers in his productions was well known and simply accepted (which we get a closer glimpse of in episode four).

That wouldn’t fly today. However, a partnership, even with two named powerful people, where one gets more of the fame and glory could still happen. And because this was not the year 2019 (their partnership spans the 1950s through his death in 1987) it was going to be the man who got to be the face of it.

Though Verdon, at least during the first half of her career, got to be the bigger stage star, she too felt constantly drawn to Fosse and their partnership. In the third episode, when she is frustrated by a nit-picky director for a play she did called Children! Children! (which would go on to be a disastrous failure), she goes back to work with Fosse on helping him edit Cabaret after refusing to the week before because he wasn’t being a devoted father.

“We do see some troubling behavior with the women in the show,” said Levenson, “but the women aren’t able to voice the kind of things that women today, thankfully, are able to voice. If they had voiced them, nobody would have listened. Bob did overpower people with his will and personality, and one of the struggles is how does Gwen get out of that orbit, or can she?”

It takes two to tango

But really, what Fosse/Verdon beautifully articulates is the complexities of collaboration between two talented people.

They both craved (and thrived) when they were serving an audience and that was what drove them as individuals and together. They both had traumatic childhoods and early adulthoods and that business that we call show was their escape and savior out of mediocre lives. And, perhaps, it was that passion and workmanship, above all, including being parents to their daughter Nicole (who serves as a producer on the series) that kept drawing them back together despite a failed romance.

The collaboration may have had some missteps but Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse’s work never did.

Fosse/Verdon airs on Tuesdays at 10/9c on FX.

You might also enjoy…