Brow Beat

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Fosse/Verdon Episode 2

Did they really meet auditioning for Damn Yankees? What about the other Mrs. Fosse? We break it down.

The real Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, and Sam Rockwell as Fosse and Michelle Williams as Verdon in Fosse/Verdon.
Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon at the Tony Awards in New York in 1987, and Sam Rockwell as Fosse and Michelle Williams as Verdon in Fosse/Verdon. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Ron Galella Ltd./WireImage and Michael Parmelee/FX.

The second episode of Fosse/Verdon offers a sophisticated, time-traveling, bittersweet depiction of a marriage from early rapture to late-stage battle-scarred disillusionment. To do this, it cuts between Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse’s incendiary affair during rehearsals for Damn Yankees and the end of the relationship on a beach in Majorca, where Fosse discovers that Verdon has finally had enough and the old tricks and manipulations won’t work anymore.

While the show’s premiere focused on the more familiar, sex-and-decadence Fosse of Cabaret, this episode evokes the choreographer’s more exuberant 1950s style, when he worked on that vanished subspecies, the blue-collar Broadway musical. How closely does it stick to the real-life story of the couple’s first meeting and final dissolution? We break it all down below.

Meeting on Damn Yankees

In the episode, producer Hal Prince (Evan Handler) tells Verdon that he’s engaged Fosse as choreographer and that Fosse wants to go over some steps with her. Verdon, a hot star six months after winning the Tony for Can-Can, is furious that Fosse wants her to, in effect, audition, telling Prince, “If I don’t like him, you’ll be looking for a new choreographer.” At the studio, Fosse begins teaching Verdon the number, and over the course of working out the steps, the two discover their creative synergy, with Verdon adding her own quirky, humorous touches. She is shocked but intrigued by Fosse’s adding striptease moves and they exchange confidences about their time working in burlesque houses as teenagers.

In reality, Verdon had already encountered Fosse socially a few times, although they had never worked together. Nevertheless, it is true that they were in fact wary of working together. “I don’t know her. How do I know we can work together?Fosse asked Prince, while Verdon recalled that she had a reputation for being difficult. “I was difficult because I couldn’t stand bad dancing,” she told cable station CUNY TV in 1991. But, as in the show, her fears were allayed once he started showing her the number. “He was fantastic doing it. It was Lola,” she recalled. “It had such sex appeal and yet it was so funny.” A dance style that was at once very sexy and knowingly humorous became the team’s trademark.

Fosse did work in burlesque theaters as a young teenager, as explored in last week’s episode, but it’s less clear that Verdon did so, although she was already dancing professionally in clubs and in movies at 11.

The Other Mrs. Fosse

A photo of the real Joan McCracken, and Susan Misner as Joan McCracken in Fosse/Verdon.
A photo of Joan McCracken from her appearance in Dance Me a Song, and Susan Misner as Joan McCracken in Fosse/Verdon. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Bruno of Hollywood/Wikipedia and Pari Dukovic/FX.

In the episode, the lithe and vibrant Verdon is contrasted with Fosse’s elegant but ailing wife, actress Joan McCracken (Susan Misner), who is trying to keep the debilitating effects of her diabetes secret lest producers be scared off. Verdon, meanwhile, is intimidated by McCracken’s reputation as a serious actress. At the opening night of Damn Yankees, McCracken runs into Verdon in a powder room and tells her that when she met Fosse, he was married to his first wife, another dancer, whom he left for McCracken. She also says she was the one who got Fosse his first job as a choreographer, although he’s never thanked her. Fosse, meanwhile, tells Verdon he can’t leave McCracken. But McCracken soon leaves him and he moves in with Verdon.

Fosse’s second wife, Joan McCracken, was indeed a serious actress, and she did indeed try to keep her diabetes secret, but she was primarily known for her talents as a dancer and a comedienne—quite a lot like Verdon (she also mentored another performer with these same talents, Shirley MacLaine). She came to fame dancing in a featured ballet role in Oklahoma!, although she also established herself as a straight dramatic actress in Charles Laughton’s 1947 production of Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo. It really was McCracken who got Fosse his first Broadway choreography job, recommending him for The Pajama Game to her friend George Abbott, the immensely successful and respected director.

The couple had met when they were both appearing in a 1950 revue called Dance Me a Song, when Fosse was still married to his first wife, Mary Ann Niles, with whom he had a double act tap-dancing on various TV shows. Fosse and McCracken got closer when they appeared together in a touring company production of Pal Joey, and when Fosse subsequently got an MGM contract, it was McCracken who went with him to Hollywood.

It was also McCracken who encouraged him to take acting classes at the American Theatre Wing. “I was very show biz, all I thought about was nightclubs, and she kept saying, ‘You’re too good to spend your life in nightclubs,’ ” Fosse told the New York Times. “She lifted me out of that, and I’ll always be grateful,” though not so grateful he didn’t leave McCracken on her own (she didn’t leave him) despite her suffering two heart attacks during the run of Damn Yankees. He didn’t move in with Verdon—they maintained separate apartments—but their relationship was an open secret until Fosse finally divorced McCracken in 1957. He had been waiting for her to be released from a facility where she’d gone to recover from a breakdown.

The “Who’s Got the Pain?” Snit Fit

Bob Fosse and Sam Rockwell.
Bob Fosse and Sam Rockwell. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Alix Jeffry/Wikipedia and Craig Blankenhorn/FX.

The episode shows Fosse having a complete meltdown when Abbott and Prince suggest cutting a number during Damn Yankees’ New Haven tryouts, possibly because Fosse had given himself a part in the number. The situation is compounded when, listening through the thin walls of a hotel room, Fosse overhears the two saying the number has to go. He threatens to quit. The next day, composer Richard Adler comes up with a replacement number based on the mambo, a Latin dance craze then popular with the same middle-class audiences who went to Broadway musicals, and Fosse comes up with a comedic-but-sexy number that perfectly showcases Verdon’s talents.

This is all true, including Fosse’s listening through the wall and his furious response to hearing Abbott and Prince say they thought the original number was terrible.

The Break Up

Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon in real life, and Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams in Fosse/Verdon.
Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon in real life, and Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams in Fosse/Verdon. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Bettmann/Contributor and Eric Liebowitz/FX.

Many years later, after discovering her husband in flagrante with the Cabaret shoot’s translator, Verdon heads to celebrated playwright Neil Simon’s idyllic property in Majorca, where she has a heart-to-heart with her close friend Joan Baim Simon (Aya Cash), a former dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company who, like Verdon, has given up her dancing career to raise her family. Fosse pleads with Verdon to stay with him, even though, as he admits, he’s in love with the translator.

This is all accurate. Fosse and Verdon did stop living together after the Cabaret shoot. The final straw was Verdon discovering him in bed with two German girls, although she had already received a letter from the translator’s furious husband revealing all. Moreover, even before Fosse got the Cabaret job in 1970, the marriage was in dire condition. “I think Bob outgrew me,” she told the New York Times in 1981. “Bob started writing and he was involved in all kinds of things, and I was so involved with Nicole [their daughter] I didn’t really care if I worked or not. … He began to think, ‘Oh, you’re my wife.’ I hated that.”

According to Sam Wasson’s biography of Fosse, after the production wrapped, Fosse was spending a post-shoot week in Madrid with the translator when he started having second thoughts. He called Verdon, who agreed to come to Simon’s rented villa. Verdon and Joan Simon were indeed close, and Fosse and Simon had collaborated on Little Me in 1962 and then again on Sweet Charity in 1966, with Simon subsequently serving as Fosse’s unofficial sounding board on scripts. The reconciliation failed, with Verdon returning to New York and their daughter and Fosse to the translator.