Brow Beat

How Fosse Became Fosse/Verdon

Showrunner Steven Levenson on telling Gwen Verdon’s story when “everything always becomes about Bob.”

Steven Levenson.
Steven Levenson. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images.

Playwright and screenwriter Steven Levenson is probably best known for his Tony-winning book to the musical Dear Evan Hansen. But for the past year, he’s been working as the showrunner for FX’s limited series Fosse/Verdon, which tells the story of the complicated and emotionally bruising relationship between Bob Fosse, a brilliant choreographer, drug addict, and sexual predator, and his wife Gwen Verdon, at one point the most famous musical theater actress alive. Shortly after FX ordered the show, which adapts Sam Wasson’s doorstop biography Fosse, to series, revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s predatory behavior as head of Miramax broke, and the #MeToo movement began.

I spoke with Steven Levenson about how the changing cultural moment affected the writing of the series, about the challenges of writing about real-life people who have already created autobiographical work, and about whether it’s possible to dramatize the life of Bob Fosse without glorifying him. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Isaac Butler: So how did the show go from Fosse to Fosse/Verdon?

Steven Levenson: [Director and producer] Tommy Kail immediately brought on Andy Blankenbuehler, who was the choreographer of Hamilton, who was in the original production of Fosse on Broadway. Andy actually knew [Fosse and Verdon’s daughter] Nicole Fosse through that production. So we sat down with her and met her and started talking and it immediately became clear that she was going to be a lot more than just somebody saying yes or no to this project; she was an incredible source of information and she just was an open book to us about her parents.

Tommy and I made this trip to New Hampshire to sit down with her for 24 hours and go through her scrapbooks and talk about her parents, and it was in that trip that we realized that the only way to tell this story was to make it about the two of them and that relationship.

I have to imagine a unique challenge to doing all of this is that All That Jazz exists. Bob Fosse has already told a lot of this story himself in that movie.

All that Jazz hovers over everything, but we felt like it gave us a tremendous amount of freedom because we could also see where Bob distorted things and where he skipped over things and what he left out. And to me, the big blind spot of that movie is Audrey, who is played by Leland Palmer, and it is really a caricature of Gwen, a mean depiction I think, of her as a shrewish woman who is past her prime, and he’s kind of propping her up. She has virtually nothing to do with what’s going on in his life. And the truth is like … what he’s depicting in that movie is partly the making of Chicago, which she was instrumental in making happen.

It was her passion project.

It was her idea, and she was in the studio with him working out all that choreography.

The first sequence of All That Jazz is a thinly veiled stand-in for Fosse doing Dexedrine and preying on women who are auditioning for him. It’s immediately, you know, “This guy is a charming monster.” You deliberately go the opposite route, the drug addiction slowly creeps in, and we see him having a more conventional love affair. Why start there?

With these horrible stories you hear, especially in the entertainment industry, it’s so hard to imagine anybody falling for them or giving into their charms. It feels easy, I think, as an outsider, to say, “Well I would never have put up with that.” So we deliberately wanted to create a structure whereby the audience would be a little bit seduced by Bob too. Also, part of the long arc of Bob’s life is that Bob was very charming in the beginning. It’s quite difficult to find any dancers that worked with him who were willing to say anything bad about him. The people that defend him the most are the women who worked with him. As he got older and they stayed the same age, and he got darker and he had a heart attack, like with any addict, the behavior gets riskier and you have to go to further and further lengths to get the high. So we wanted to sort of allow you as an audience member to see Bob a little bit as a rake and a cad and then the bottom begins to drop out the further we go along.

And of course he himself was sexually abused as a child, right? His origin story as a dancer is also him being molested.

I mean that’s a huge thing—the huge meta story of the series is this idea of “Can you escape your past? And can you escape the trauma that you suffered?”

Especially when your career is built around restaging it.

Exactly, and that is what he really did. He really did restage those scenes again and again and again. And Gwen had her own traumas and her own addictions. Hovering in the background always is Nicole, their daughter, and wondering, “Does the cycle continue?”

But this is also a craft question too, right? Like, how do you go about tackling the story of a sexual predator, who is also a genius, in this moment when we’re renegotiating how we think about that stuff as a culture?

The question with the series from the very beginning was, “How do you do this in a way that’s not exactly the same thing that we expect it to be?” Which is the story of this “tortured genius” and asking the question “Was it worth it? He created all of this amazing stuff, he did all these terrible things, was it worth it?” Like, the answer is so obviously no.

As a writers’ room, we all went on a field trip last summer to see Nanette when it was at the SoHo Playhouse. [Writer] Tracey Scott Wilson was obsessed with it and insisted we go. One of the things that was so interesting was this idea that she talks about how the artist’s behavior is already in the work. “How do you separate the artist from the work?” And … you can’t, because you look at Manhattan or something like that, it’s like these artists are often screaming what’s going on.

Were you careful to have a lot of women in the writers’ room as part of the process?

Yes, we hired one male writer other than me and Joel [Fields] and three women. The writers’ room itself was kind of divided constantly between impugning Bob and understanding Bob, or impugning Bob and sympathizing with Bob. The thing that we really did want to get to was understanding that it’s bigger than the casting couch; it’s the way he treated all the women in his life. The way that he looked at women and the way that everything came down to sex for him.

One of the stories we’re telling in the series is that we meet Gwen when they know one another’s deals, there’s no illusions left. But then we meet Ann Reinking, who’s this young up-and-coming dancer, and she goes on the journey of discovering who Bob is.

Lots of shows face this challenge in dramatizing bad men—how to show the behavior, show the appeal of the man, and also not glorify him. How did you and the writers navigate that in the writing itself?

I think the trajectory of the series is that we see the work corroded by his behavior. The work changes. I think Chicago is less good than Pippin and less good than Damn Yankees. And also we aim to show the real suffering that’s been inflicted on people like Gwen and Nicole and his collaborators and the dancers and actors especially. There are real victims of his behavior. And also everything became­—this was a trap in the writers’ room too—everything always becomes about Bob. Both in his life and in our talking about it. You can’t stop talking about him.  He’s a figure of fascination even when you’re trying to stay away from him.

Michelle Williams sits on Sam Rockwell's lap and leans her forehead against his.
Michelle Williams as Gwen Verdon and Sam Rockwell as Bob Fosse in Fosse/Verdon. Craig Blankenhorn/FX

Even when you want to focus on Gwen Verdon, who’s not a narcissist and is actually a genius in her own right, it’s very hard. It’s clearly been hard for me in asking these questions! So let’s talk about her. She’s a triple threat, she’s fixing his choreography, she’s co-creating it with him, and she’s very often written out of the story, so much so that you had to retitle your show so we know to pay attention to her.

Yeah, and also, Gwen is putting herself in the background too. There’s this great story that a dancer told us. During Sweet Charity in 1987, which was Bob’s final production, there was one day when she was working with the dancers and they found out Bob was on his way, and they saw her completely change. She’s a woman that’s, I guess at that point in her 60s and they haven’t been together in 20 years, and she was fixing her makeup and fixing her outfit and still trying to impress him, this guy. And that’s fascinating.

And one of the stories the show begins with is the moment when she makes the overt choice to put her career at the service of his, right?

I was fascinated about this part in the Wasson book where she apparently had a conversation with a friend who said, “Aren’t you angry that he cast Shirley MacLaine instead of you [in the film of Sweet Charity]?” And she said, “The truth is, being in Sweet Charity eight times a week nearly killed me and I can’t dance it anymore. The one thing I can do is know Bob’s work better than anyone.” There’s an awareness that that’s her value at that point in show business. That’s very sad. There’s this idea that the dancer dies twice: when he or she stops dancing and when he or she dies.

Their relationship is very odd. Even after they split up, as his behavior gets worse, they remain close artistic collaborators, they stay legally married. I’ve always found it mysterious. Do you feel you understand it? 

I think there is fundamentally something mysterious, but I do think that the biggest source of attraction that Gwen had toward Bob—and this tells you something about both of them as people—was his talent. And she even says that in later interviews as people are talking about his behavior, she basically says, “Nobody could do what he did.” And she just keeps going back to that.

Both of them were, in their own ways, addicted to the adulation of others, for their own reasons and because of their own wounds. They just could not get away from the spotlight. Whatever it took to get back onstage and to get in front of people and be loved by strangers, they would do. Their relationship enabled one another constantly to get back into the spotlight. And it’s a really bizarre thing, but I think they both needed that.