Brow Beat

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

Was the choreographer a cad—or worse? Did Verdon really fly across the Atlantic just to pick up a monkey mask? We break down the first episode.

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.

In the midcentury heyday of the Broadway musical, Bob Fosse was one of theater’s most celebrated choreographers. He was nominated for a Tony almost every year between 1955 and 1966, winning five for best choreography. Then in the ’70s, he moved into directing movies, adding a darker, more cynical edge to musicals and collecting both Tony and Oscar nominations, and wins including the Academy Award for Best Director for Cabaret. Even people born long after his death in 1987, or who have never been to a musical, are familiar with his trademark style—the pelvic thrusts, tilted hats, splayed hands, and paused half-steps—thanks to his huge influence on Michael Jackson and in turn the dance vernacular of nearly every pop music video made subsequently. According to Fosse biographer Sam Wasson, who wrote the book on which Fosse/Verdon is based, Fosse was even Jackson’s first choice to direct “Thriller.

Without directing credits to her name, Gwen Verdon’s fame has been less enduring, but in the ’50s, she was one of the biggest stars on Broadway, winning four Tonys in six years. Primarily known to the public as a sensational dancer and comedienne, by the time she first worked with Fosse, on Damn Yankees, in 1955, she was far more than just an instrument or a muse. She had already spent several years assisting another leading Broadway choreographer, Jack Cole, later working as his assistant choreographer and an uncredited dancer on several movie musicals. So does Fosse/Verdon, which charts the course of their entwined lives and careers, do justice to both the professional and personal relationship? And are its most outlandish details really true to life? We break down the first episode below.

Sweet Charity and Their Collaborative Style

Gwen Verdon and Michelle Williams.
Gwen Verdon and Michelle Williams. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Murray Korman/Bureau of Industrial Service via Wikipedia and Craig Blankenhorn/FX.

We first see Fosse (Sam Rockwell) at work on set as he’s blocking the “Big Spender” number for Sweet Charity. He’s having trouble getting the dancers to give him what he wants until Verdon (Michelle Williams) suggests they think of how dead on their feet the 10-cents-a-dance girls (a more prudish version of today’s lap dancers) would be at the end of the night. The couple’s working method is so symbiotic it’s hard to say who thought of what. Verdon selflessly advises Fosse even though she has been passed over (in favor of Shirley MacLaine) for the starring role she originated on Broadway.

Verdon and Fosse’s seamless creative collaboration is no invention (“they read each other’s minds,” as a chorus dancer told the New York Times), although according to Kevin Winkler, author of Big Deal: Bob Fosse and Dance in the American Musical, the note to the dancers was actually inspired not by taxi dancers but by “the women behind the make-up counter at Bloomingdale’s, whose feet burned from standing all day. To relieve the pressure, they cocked the hip of one leg while sharply flexing the heel of the other, pushing down into the floor.”

Pitching to Direct Cabaret

Cy Feuer and Paul Reiser.
Cy Feuer and Paul Reiser. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Souvenir Program for Guys and Dolls via Wikipedia and Pari Dukovic/FX.

Fosse pitches hard to direct the film version of Cabaret, but producer Cy Feuer (Paul Reiser) is resistant on the grounds that Fosse is known for style and flash while Cabaret is a more “intimate” piece. The real reason, of course, is that the film version of Sweet Charity cost $20 million and only made $8 million, a loss widely attributed to Fosse’s perfectionism.

This last part, at least, is faithful to reality. “I thought while I was making it that the picture was terrific,” Fosse said of directing Sweet Charity. “And then I got so cold. No one called me. No one wanted anything to do with me.”

Although Feuer is presented as something of a crass moneyman, in fact he had been a musical director for dozens of B-movies and himself directed the musical version of Patrick Dennis’ camp classic Little Me, for which Fosse won a choreography Tony. He had also engaged Fosse to choreograph the 1961 hit How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

Fosse persuades Feuer that he is more than a glib stylist by recounting his experience performing for terribly wounded soldiers as part of the Navy’s “entertainment unit” in World War II, which impressed on him a sense of his own mortality and what he owed an audience. Fosse was indeed part of a Navy entertainment unit that toured the Pacific theater, though the insights may be dramatic license.

But Fosse did not get the job by going over Feuer’s head, as the series has it. In fact, studio heads Manny Wolf and Martin Baum wanted a bigger name like Billy Wilder (who turned the job down) or Gene Kelly, but, according to author Keith Garebian in his book The Making of Cabaret, “The simple truth was that Feuer was set on his friend before he met Wilder and Kelly,” even telling Fosse, “If I don’t see them, I’ll seem unreasonable. But after I see them, I’ll tell Marty I’ve met with everyone and I want Fosse.” Despite Feuer’s preference for Fosse and their long-standing collaborative relationship, the two did clash on Cabaret, mostly over Feuer’s concerns that Fosse stay on budget.

Fosse’s Self-Destructive Streak and On-Set Behavior

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

Throughout the episode, there’s barely a frame where Fosse is not seen without a cigarette dangling from his mouth. He also pops Seconals, a popular ’60s barbiturate, like candy from a giant prescription bottle. Then there’s the constant flirting with—and harassment of—the many attractive women he works with, especially a German translator on Cabaret, thus sabotaging his relationship with Verdon. Although he appears to be the man who has everything—a loving family, professional recognition, material success—he is eaten up with angst and feelings of inadequacy.

This is largely true, and Fosse was very public about his self-destructive urges, telling the Times in 1973 he was fascinated “by that thin line between a person’s jumping or not jumping, shooting himself or not shooting himself. I was drawn to the idea of self‐destruction.” Indeed, Fosse put it all out there with his autobiographical film All That Jazz, whose main character is a chain-smoking, unfaithful, narcissistic director who confronts his own death by imagining it as a big production number.

In Fosse/Verdon, we see brief flashes of Fosse’s career as a teen vaudevillian, and he talks about working in burlesque. Wasson speculates that Fosse’s self-destructive streak, as well as his simultaneous adoration and fear of women, arose from being abused by mature strippers as a boy. This theory is reinforced by Fosse’s own psychiatrist on a tape recording, where the doctor says Fosse’s experience dancing in Chicago strip clubs as a 13-year-old to pay for his tap lessons led him to be compulsively drawn to sex and dancing, in which joy and shame were inextricably linked.

Still, as manipulative as Fosse’s behavior in the series may seem, the show arguably takes a forgiving “genius must be indulged” attitude toward his sleazeball tendencies. As Slate TV critic Willa Paskin points out in her review, “the real Fosse was the kind of man who, working with Debbie Reynolds on a 1953 musical, would stick his penis into her back as a joke.”

The Gorilla Mask

Liza Minnelli in Paris in 1982, and Kelli Barrett as Liza Minnelli in Fosse/Verdon.
Liza Minnelli performing in Paris in 1982, and Kelli Barrett as Liza Minnelli in Fosse/Verdon. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Philippe Wojazer/AFP/Getty Images and Pari Dukovic/FX.

Fosse/Verdon shows Verdon abandoning her own preparations for a stage role in New York to fly to the Cabaret set in Germany after being summoned by a desperate Fosse (despite his current hot affair with the translator). Having just arrived, she immediately flies back to New York to find the perfect gorilla head for the number “If You Could See Her,” then returns with it.

Vernon’s mission to procure the ideal gorilla face, as well as the affair, actually happened. (As for the episode in which Fosse goes to a brothel to recruit sex workers as extras to portray suitably authentic-looking KitKatClub patrons, we couldn’t find any accounts that either confirmed or debunked this.) The program shows her just off the plane about to enter her husband’s hotel room, unaware that he is in bed with the translator. This is almost true—in real life she walked in on him and a “couple of German girls.

Read Slate’s review of Fosse/Verdon.