I resisted watching Fosse/Verdon (streaming on FX) at first because it seemed like Bob Fosse’s life as one of the premier Broadway/Hollywood choreographers and directors had been covered in his self-made biopic, All That Jazz(1979). In the thinly-veiled guise of director Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) we saw his pill-popping (“It’s showtime, folks!”) philandering, and neglect of family—three wives, a serious girlfriend, and a daughter. We witnessed his exasperating combination of manipulation of others and self-pity. All of this, with several dynamite Fosse-directed production numbers, including “Take Off with Us,” “Who’s Sorry Now,” and “Bye Bye Life.”
What we have to remember about All That Jazz is that it’s told through
Fosse’s own blurry vision, and doesn’t really let anyone else have a say. Fosse/Verdon elevates Gwen Verdon,
previously seen as wife and muse, to the place of collaborator. If All that Jazz is autobiography, Fosse/Verdon is biography, with Verdon
finally given proper credit.
Verdon had already won a Tony when Bob Fosse was hired as choreographer for the Broadway production of Damn Yankees (1955). Her role as Lola, the Devil’s own temptress in the Faustian baseball story, won her a second Tony. She went on to win four.
Some of the most enjoyable moments in Fosse/Verdon are watching the two of them work together on a film set or in a rehearsal room. Fosse (Sam Rockwell) may have had a vision of what he wanted, but Gwen (Michele Williams) embodied that vision, and could explain it to struggling dancers or skeptical executives. As Gwen says in episode one after saving Fosse’s film production of Cabaret from an uptight producer, “I just know how to speak ‘Bob.’ It’s my native tongue.”
Sweet Charity (premiered 1966) was their Broadway baby, and perhaps reflected their strongest collaboration. Unfortunately, Hollywood in its supreme wisdom decided to cast Shirley MacLaine as Charity rather than Gwen in the film version (1969). The movie, which is a catalogue of classic Fosse numbers like “Hey Big Spender,” “The Rich Man’s Frug” and “If They Could See Me Now” lacks Gwen’s magnificence to tie it all together.
“If They Could See Me Now” has been ruined by those TV ads for Carnival Cruise Lines. I can’t think of this song without lapsing into the commercial jingle lyrics sung by Cathy Lee Gifford. This is just one more example of Cathy Lee Gifford’s unyielding assault on Western culture.
If, as John Lennon sang, “God is a concept by which we measure our pain,” then Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon were two of the most godly people that ever lived.
In episode two, when they need to add some energy
to the flagging first act of Damn Yankees,
they find a strange little song called “Who’s Got the Pain When They Do the
Mambo?” It’s supposed to refer to the delirious shouts on the 1950’s recordings
of Tito Puente or Beny Moré. But Bob offers another interpretation: “That’s
what we do, isn’t it? We take what hurts and we turn it into a big gag. We’re
singing and we’re dancing and the audience they’re yukkin’ it up. They’re
laughing so hard they don’t realize all they’re laughing at is a person in
agony, a person who’s peeled off his own skin.”
During the period from around 1972-1975, Fosse was the biggest name in show business. In 1973, he won 2 Tonys for his direction and choreography of the Stephen Schwartz musical Pippin, 3 Emmys for the Liza Minnelli musical/dance special, Liza with a Z, and an Oscar for Best Director for Cabaret. (In this he beat out Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather.)
If Fosse was a mess during his years with Verdon when they created their signature style of dance, his years of success, which happened after they separated, were brutal. Without Gwen and without financial and creative restraint, he doubled down on his Dexadrine/Seconal cycles. He drank and smoked constantly, living by himself in a hotel, where he would bed the girls in his productions. His projects, likeLenny, a biopic about Lenny Bruce, and All that Jazz, became more self-indulgent.
I hate the word “womanizer.” It sounds positive
and transformative, like “exerciser” or “energizer.” To say Fosse was a
womanizer is a nice way of saying he harassed and exploited women who were desperate
to get into show business. Women who were afraid that turning him down would
mean not getting into the show or being cut from the big number. I doubt his
reputation would have survived the #MeToo era.
The performances in Fosse/Verdon are magnificent. Sam Rockwell gives you an idea both of Fosse’s ecstasy of creation and the paralyzing self-doubt that led him to work himself into an early grave. Norbert Leo Butz (from PopTheology favorite Higher Ground) does excellent supporting work as his best friend, playwright Paddy Chayefsky. Bianca Marroquin, Kelli Barrett, and Ahmad Simmons show off their vocal talent as Chita Rivera, Liza Minnelli, and Ben Vereen, respectively. Lin-Manuel Miranda even makes a cameo as Roy Scheider (!)
It’s Michelle Williams as Gwen Verdon that’s the revelation. In a red wig, she looks like Gwen. But she also does the mannerisms and the voice perfectly. Though not formally trained as a dancer, Williams channels Verdon’s goofy-sexy spirit in the dance scenes. She miraculously and gradually ages in body and voice such that you can mark time with her despite the editing that chops up the chronology of her life. As you’re watching, you forget you’re watching a performance, and become completely engrossed in the person being brought to life on screen. Fosse may have won the director’s “triple crown” of Tony, Emmy, and Oscar in one year, but expect Williams to get the TV exacta of an Emmy and Golden Globe for this performance.
Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon in “Who’s Got the Pain,” from Damn Yankees