“Musical theater is such an antiseptic form, or can be,” said the playwright Steven Levenson. “It kind of takes whatevers complicated and turns it into something really sincere and broad.” Coming from anyone else, that might be considered a kind of heresy—but delivered by the Tony-winning writer of Dear Evan Hansens book, it was more like self-criticism. Levenson has thought about this subject for most of his waking hours over the last few years, as a writer and executive producer (with The Americans co-show-runner Joel Fields, as well as Hamilton director Thomas Kail, and Lin-Manuel Miranda) of the FX limited series Fosse/Verdon, which premieres April 9.
Fosse/Verdon is a fractured journey into the personal and creative entanglement of Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, starring Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams as the choreographer and dancer behind some of the most delightfully louche and loopy American stage and movie musicals of the 20th century. Artfully shuffling and step-ball-changing its way through nearly 50 years, the series concerns itself with the obsessions, compromises, and self-delusions lurking behind the curtains.
Fosse was always drawn to edgy subjects, whether prostitutes (Sweet Charity) or Nazis (Cabaret). An early musical he choreographed, Damn Yankees, featured a man who sells his soul to the devil and leaves his wife. “Its Faust, and thats a dark story,” Fields admitted with a grin. “But the portrayal is fun, and its everything that you would expect from a 1950s stage musical—complete with a happy ending, and an easy out.” It was while working on Damn Yankees that Fosse and Verdon first met: he was a struggling former-dancer-turned-struggling-choreographer, and she was a Broadway star whod already won her first Tony. From there, Fields said, Fosse went on a decades-long run that was anything but antiseptic.
“[He took] all of that darkness that was hidden in musical theater, and just pumped it in to energize the form into something new,” Fields said.
By the early 70s, when Fosse was choreographing and directing productions like Pippin and movies like Cabaret, his star was rising while hers (as was customary for a middle-aged female performer) was dimming. “Watching the first episode, you might think, oh, the power dynamic seems set—but it wasnt,” Levenson said. “It was always shifting. In the beginning, she was definitely the one with the status, the power, and the money.”
“[It was] its own weird devils bargain,” Fields said of the couples relationship. “[It] had no easy way out.”
The question of whose histories get told is an important one, especially in the #MeToo era. Although the series is based on Sam Wassons 2013 biography, Fosse, Levenson said when he first began discussing the project with Kail, they both agreed that “the story of the genius—the tortured genius—has just been done so much. It was like, how do we come up with a different way into the story that isnt just about this person who made great art, and did bad things, and wasnt worth it for the art?” It wasnt until the men spent a day with Fosse and Verdons adult daughter, Nicole Fosse (a co-executive producer and creative consultant on the series), that the puzzle pieces fell into place.
“It just became so clear to us that the story of Bob was incomplete without the story of Gwen,” Levenson said. “Suddenly, we knew exactly why we were telling this story and what made it different, and why it was essential to tell this story. It just felt vital at that point.”
On the other hand, Fields (a Fosse fanatic who knew All That Jazz, Cabaret, and Pippin by heart before he began the project) hastened to note that the series wasnt intended as some kind of ideological corrective: “Were very aware that we dont have answers to any of these big questions that were all grappling with. But its our hope that this will provoke more questions and provoke more conversation about it.”
At every turn, Fosse/Verdon suggests that Verdon was no passive muse but a full, joyous collaborator in this body of work—consistently improving Fosses slinky, slanted movements; shaping his big-picture vision; embodying and communicating this aesthetic to his performers. Because Fosses legend is so pervasive, its nearly impossible to pull free of cultural clichés and create a narrative that shows Verdon casting as vast a shadow as he did—especially since that myth was largely shaped by Fosse himself, via All That Jazz. By the time Fosse made the semi-autobiographical movie in 1979, his stylized self-mythology was complete, and Verdons name had been more or less lost to the dustbin of musical-theater history.
“When Tommy [Kail] and I were just getting started and we watched that movie together, we were both really nervous because we were sort of like, didnt he already do this story?” Levenson recalled. “The things that he chooses to omit and the things he chooses to focus on are so interesting. And Gwen is virtually nonexistent in that movie. [Shes] this sort of shrewish, washed-up star, who just kind of nags at him . . . and the relationship with his daughter is so sentimentalized.”
All That Jazz is “at its core a romanticization of nihilism,” Fields said. But no one on Fosse/Verdon subscribes to that bleak vision. Instead, they look to “find the humanity, even in the dark corners that they lived.”
“Im not sure that Bob himself even believed in it,” Levenson said, jumping in. “I think part of it is a put-on. . . . Its never clear when he was being sincere, when he was being ironic, and when he was playing a part, you know. I think he creates this version of himself that has really no feelings, and says I love you to get what he wants, and thats partly true. But I do think he hid a lot of his deep pain and suffering, and turned it into kind of a gag. And our opportunity is to go in and actually examine that suffering and that pain, and see where that persona came from.”
This comes to the fore in one Fosse/Verdon scene, when the couple is creating the iconic dance number “Whos Got the Pain?” from Damn Yankees. “Thats what we do, isnt it?” Fosse says, spelling it out for Verdon. “We take what hurts and we turn it into a big gag. Were singing and were danRead More – Source