Television

Fosse/Verdon Can’t Break the Myth of Male Genius’ Grip

The series complicates Bob Fosse’s legend but doesn’t give Gwen Verdon a legend of her own.

A hat-clad Sam Rockwell, as Bob Fosse, leans over Michelle Williams, as Gwen Verdon, gesturing off-camera over her shoulder with a hand holding a lit cigarette.
Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams in Fosse/Verdon.
FX

The penultimate line of the New York Times obituary for Gwen Verdon, the Broadway dancer, actress, and singer who died in October 2000, belongs to Verdon herself. In it, she gives the credit for her creative identity to Bob Fosse, the choreographer and director who was married to Verdon for over 30 years. “I was a great dancer when he got hold of me,” she is quoted as saying, “but he developed me, he created me.” The final word on Gwen Verdon—Gwen Verdon! Broadway’s best ever dancer, a four-time Tony Award winner, Lola, Roxie, Charity, the woman whose body Fosse’s choreography was designed on, for, and in collaboration with, a woman whose origin story is one of those Broadway legends in which a supporting player has to be whisked out of her dressing room, half-clothed, to quell the crowd, still on its feet after her performance, chanting “We want Verdon”—was about the greatness of Bob Fosse.

FX’s sometimes wonderful, often maddening Fosse/Verdon, which stars Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams in the lead roles, seeks to put Verdon in her rightful place, to make her more than a female footnote to a male genius’ story even as it tells another tale about a particularly flawed male genius. It is a strange moment to be making a TV show about man like Fosse, a tempestuous, pill-popping workaholic and compulsive womanizer, a reality that was not entirely lost on Fosse/Verdon’s producers, a group that includes Broadway heavyweights Lin-Manuel Miranda; Thomas Kail, the director of Hamilton; and showrunner Steven Levenson, who wrote the book for Dear Evan Hansen. Originally, the series was to be about Fosse alone, but as the creators learned more about him they began to wonder why, exactly, they were doing so. “Like, why is this an interesting story?” Levenson says he wondered to the New York Times. “Is this just another awful person who made great art?” The solution was Verdon herself: She transforms an out-of-step ode to lechery into a revisionist two-hander about the sexism of memory, history, and show business. “Thank you to the movement,” Michelle Williams said in the same Times piece. “We’re now going to find out who Gwen Verdon is.”

But we don’t, entirely. Fosse/Verdon is an elegant and flawed series about how art has historically been made and credit historically distributed that fails to distribute credit fairly or fully surmount the sexism that is its very subject. This period piece about the complicated, generative, decade-spanning professional and personal relationship of two showbiz creatures ends up being as much about contemporary fantasies, hang-ups, and mistakes than it is about the past.

The show begins at a low point for Fosse that turns out to be the beginning of a propitious ascent: just before the premiere of the 1969 movie version of Sweet Charity, a Verdon vehicle on Broadway that was made into a film starring Shirley MacLaine. Fosse was already a successful Broadway choreographer and director, but Sweet Charity was his first feature film. It was a costly flop. In the years following, living in New York with Gwen and their young daughter, he struggles to hustle up his next project, which ends up being the movie version of Cabaret, now widely regarded as the best stage-to-screen transfer ever made. As Fosse works on Cabaret, the audience is given a crash course in the Fosse style: the bowler hat, the sharply angled legs, the awkwardly splayed silhouette, the sleaze, the dangerous, louche, dark aspects of sex and adulthood ripping through the musical comedy form.

It also introduces us to Verdon and Fosse’s dynamic. He’s the high-strung, temperamental artiste, Verdon his calming, smiling muse and helpmeet, ready to provide assistance, inspiration, a cool head, whatever Bob needs. She soothes the producer, picks Liza Minnelli’s costume, flies to New York for the perfect gorilla costume, and then gets hurt, one last time, by Fosse’s shameless and compulsive cheating.

Bob Fosse was more problematic than a differential equation. A towering creative figure, he grew up a dancer and wanted to be a performer, even as he became an in-demand choreographer and powerful director—still the only person to win a Tony, Oscar, and Emmy in the same year, all for different projects. After this triumph, he checked himself into a psych ward, suicidally depressed. These events are chronicled in the show, which seems to be matter-of-fact about his Seconal habit, his temper, his suicidal ideation—after learning of Sweet Charity’s failure, very early in the series, Fosse imagines himself walking off his Central Park West balcony, as if he’s jackknifing into a swimming pool—and his sexual habits, until you learn what his sexual habits actually were.

The real-life Fosse was a man who only wanted to be working or fucking, both of which are part of his myth. In the series, as in life, Fosse’s early sexual experiences—by the age of 13, he was working burlesque houses and strip clubs as a dancer—are treated by his friends as a stroke of luck, when they were actually sexual abuse. This too-early introduction to sex infested his work and infected his life. Rockwell’s Fosse is seen having sex with a lot of women—a montage of their faces hitting the pillow gets the point across—most of whom he appears to charm. His Fosse is a jerk and a narcissist: He wants to stay coupled while screwing whoever he wants! What’s the problem?! But this does not capture, in fact, it soft-pedals the scope, the skeeze, and the desperation of Fosse’s real sex life.

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. (In response, she bought him a jockstrap.) He insisted on being able to sleep around relentlessly while demanding fidelity from his wives and girlfriends. He abused his power, having sex with most of his female dancers and picking on the ones who declined. In the hospital for open-heart surgery, he stuck his hand up every nurse’s shirt while cracking remarks about his erections.

You only have to read Fosse, the 2013 Sam Wasson biography on which Fosse/Verdon is based, to see just how recently Fosse’s behavior was thought of as part of Fosse’s damage, but also part of his swagger. “Adding sex complicated matters enormously, but rarely did it hurt the work,” Wasson writes, a few pages before relaying the story of a dancer who rejected Fosse and then was relentlessly bullied in rehearsal until she agreed to have sex with him, a sequence chronicled in the show. “It could hurt a dancer, maybe,” Wasson writes, “but never the dance.” Maybe?

Gwen Verdon was Fosse’s primary dancer: his lifelong muse, but also his colleague. Fosse/Verdon situates itself at a moment when Verdon’s career, because of age and gender and the particular demands of dancing, is on a downswing, and Fosse’s is on an upswing. While the show is knowing about this imbalance—the shortened careers of women, and dancers especially—it doesn’t change that we see Verdon in her prime only via fleeting flashbacks, while Fosse’s peak provides the frame for the series.

Verdon, like Fosse, grew up dancing. As a child she had rickets, which misshaped her legs. In order to correct them, her mother put her in dance class at the age of 3. As a teenager, Verdon got married and had a child, putting her career on hold until her divorce. To pursue dance she left her young son in her parents’ care, joining a dance company run by Jack Cole—another famously perfectionist, difficult, even abusive choreographer—and assisted him in working on a number of movies, including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, where she coached Marilyn Monroe: the idea of how to be sexy and send-up being sexy at the same time was not just a Monroe specialty, but a Verdon one. She idolized Charlie Chaplin—she thought of herself as existing in the tradition of the tramp, the Harlequin, the sad clown—before eventually having her breakthrough in a Broadway show called Can-Can. Long before she began working with Fosse on Damn Yankees, she had her own style and ideas about dance and choreography. One of Fosse’s other biographers, Martin Gottfried, sees Damn Yankees’ “Whatever Lola Wants” as more of a quintessentially Verdon dance than a Fosse one.

Fosse/Verdon touches fleetingly on a few of these details, but not most of them. In Episode 3, the show’s fills in Verdon’s backstory in artful, quick-flashing scenes that emphasize not her professional skills, but her personal traumas: how she was coerced by an older man into premarital sex and marriage; how the relationship turned sour and abusive; how she left her son with her parents, to their disparagement and dismay. All of this did happen, but the effect of this truncated backstory is to emphasize her identity as both a long-suffering victim and a mother. Fosse/Verdon is a TV drama, not a biography, but in glossing over the particulars of Verdon’s life, we get a picture of Gwen Verdon as a stoic, occasionally manipulative, feisty, and fascinating woman who is not a creative powerhouse in her own right. Fosse/Verdon is a story that is very comfortable with the idea that a woman could be victimized, overshadowed, overlooked, and misused, that sexism could have had deleterious effects on her career and her place in history, but it can’t quite make the leap to showcasing female genius in its own right.

There is one sequence, in the second episode, that is a window into the show Fosse/Verdon could be: a flashback to when Fosse and Verdon, both in their prime, first meet—she’s a star and he’s a choreographer, but she still has to try out for him—and begin working on the choreography for “Whatever Lola Wants.” The show stages it as a dance-and-talk, their minds moving nearly as fast as their feet, and they find, to their mounting delight, that their respective rhythms synchronize perfectly. Their collaboration instantly seems to be all work and all pleasure, an intellectual and erotic bond. The scene immediately entered my personal pantheon—alongside some songs from Sunday in the Park with George and the sequence from Hustle & Flow when Taraji P. Henson’s character lays down the hook to “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp”—of irresistible depictions of artists actually making art. I loved it. I had to go back and watch it two more times just while writing this paragraph.

In Michelle Williams, Verdon has a charming, fierce, and appealing advocate. Her Verdon, apparently like Verdon herself, is a reflexive smoother of social awkwardness, sarcastic instead of angry, and often ludicrously gracious, particularly about Fosse’s long-term paramours. Williams does a little eye flick while having a drink with Ann Reinking (Margaret Qualley), Fosse’s long-term girlfriend after Verdon and Fosse had separated, that I can’t wait to use as a GIF for quiet disdain. Williams even does some dancing—much more than Rockwell—including an almost full re-staging of “Who’s Got the Pain,” a goofy but perfectly named mambo from Damn Yankees. (You can see Fosse and Verdon dance it together in the movie version.) Williams is generally so winning that she almost obscures how much her character is just the quintessential long-suffering wife.

The Verdon story gets even more complicated when you consider Verdon’s self-effacement. She is certainly a product of her time, but she seems to have been remarkably self-abnegating for a star even so: Not just anyone would say of someone else, “he developed me, he created me” no matter when they were working. Verdon embraced her identity as Fosse’s muse, his best interpreter. In the late 1970s, she was a dance supervisor on the Fosse show Dancin’. After his death, she and Reinking spearheaded the revival of Chicago and the Broadway revue of Fosse’s work, Fosse. She made her life’s work the continuation of Fosse’s work, which was in some regard her work as well but for which, by the end, she was given little credit.

Fosse/Verdon is extremely watchable and totally fascinating. I enjoyed almost every minute of its first five episodes, from its witty interstitial titles to its artful and fast use of flashback to its musical numbers and all the scenes of artsy theater people—Neil Simon! Paddy Chayefsky!—jabbering and making stuff. But it’s full of the shoddy and cruel compromises it purports to be about. It’s a show in which a grotesque man is made to seem less grotesque than he was, and a brilliant complicated woman seems less brilliant and complicated than she really was. Just because Gwen Verdon is the revelation of Fosse/Verdon doesn’t mean that the show does her right.