LOS ANGELES – “Fosse/Verdon” may celebrate one of show business’ most successful couples. But be assured: Everything’s not coming up roses.
Theater lovers will undoubtedly be thrilled to learn how choreographer-turned-director Bob Fosse and dancer Gwen Verdon put the razzle dazzle in hit productions of “Cabaret,” “Chicago” and “Damn Yankees.” But even those who would rather visit the dentist than spend a nanosecond on Broadway will be turned on by their erotically charged love affair and decadent backstage behavior.
“I hope the story is deep enough, funny enough and entertaining enough that it’s not just for musical theater fans, you know?” said Academy Award winner Sam Rockwell, who plays the toe-tapping, two-timing musical theater titan.
The red-hot Rockwell is joined by four-time Oscar nominee Michelle Williams as Verdon, Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz as playwright Paddy Chayefsky, stand-up icon Paul Reiser as celebrated producer Cy Feuer and University of Minnesota grad Aya Cash (“You’re the Worst”) as Neil Simon’s wisecracking wife, Joan.
Laura Osnes, the Burnsville native who has become a genuine Broadway star, signed on to play Shirley MacLaine, even though she only has one line.
“I didn’t do too much, but I got to be on set while they shot ‘Big Spender’ and I just sat there all afternoon and watched them like a fly on the wall,” Osnes said. “It was thrilling.”
The star wattage behind the scenes is just as impressive. The “Fosse/Verdon” writers room included Joel Fields, who won an Emmy for “The Americans,” and Steven Levenson, best known for creating “Dear Evan Hansen.” Three-time Tony winner Andy Blankenbuehler set the choreography for the first three episodes. Lin-Manuel Miranda and his “Hamilton” director Thomas Kail are among the executive producers.
“The hope is through the specificity of this relationship we reach something universal,” said FX chairman John Landgraf, who previously greenlit “Fargo,” “The People v. O.J. Simpson” and “The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” all of which went on to win Emmys for best limited series. It’d be a shocker if “Fosse” doesn’t follow in their footsteps. “I’ll admit, it won’t do as well as ‘O.J,’ which was a big tabloid story,” Landgraf said. “But it will get a plenty big enough audience. I’m excited and optimistic.”
Fosse’s secret weapon
Fosse’s back story has been explored before in both Broadway’s 1999 revue retrospective “Fosse” and his 1979 semi-autobiographical film, “All That Jazz,” released eight years before his death. His transition from second banana in movie musicals to revolutionary director comprises a big chunk of the new eight-part series, which leapfrogs back and forth over the span of five decades, starting in the 1940s.
“ ‘All That Jazz’ is a bit of a whitewashed, romanticized version of his life that was told in an hour and 45 minutes,” said Nicole Fosse, the real-life daughter of the show’s title characters, who also served as a creative consultant on the new series. “This really goes much more deeply into what was really going on in his relationships with Gwen and the other people in his life.”
The show’s biggest revelation is the enormous contribution made by Verdon, a peerless dancer whose stage success (four Tonys in six years) never quite transferred to the silver screen. Instead, she became Fosse’s key collaborator and confidante, even after he broke her heart.
“There’s this incredible photo of Bob on the set of ‘Sweet Charity’ directing the dancers, and if you crop it in such a way, it looks like it’s just Bob, this lone white male genius creating this film out of whole cloth,” Levenson said. “But if you zoom out, you see Gwen Verdon was standing right next to him, directing this other group of dancers. What I hope this show does is help viewers understand that it wasn’t just one man’s work; it was also Gwen’s.”
She didn’t just assist on the set. Near the end of Sunday’s premiere, Verdon flies across the ocean just to secure the perfect gorilla costume for the film version of “Cabaret,” released in 1972. Upon returning to Munich, where the movie was rehearsed and filmed, Verdon discovers Fosse has cheated on her with his translator.
“One of the fascinating questions that we wanted to leave viewers with in the first episode is how, after what happened in Munich, do we get to the fact that they remained in each other’s lives?” Levenson said. “I mean, it doesn’t feel like that’s what’s going to happen. It certainly didn’t to me. In a certain way, the art is not the central idea here. It really is about what kept binding them together. It was not necessarily a healthy relationship, but these two people were never able to separate.”
Having Nicole Fosse on set was invaluable in helping to answer that question, Williams said.
“From what she shared with me, Gwen was always the sunshine in the room,” she said. “Marilyn Monroe once said, ‘If Gwen Verdon can’t teach you how to dance, you’re rhythm-bankrupt with two left feet.’ She was this wonderful ambassador who would put her own spin on things. She’d occasionally be backed up against a wall and things weren’t in her control anymore, but she always tried to rise above and be her best self at all times.”
Playing Verdon, who passed away 19 years ago, made sense for Williams, who earned raves as Sally Bowles in a 2014 Broadway revival of “Cabaret” and hoofed with Hugh Jackman in the 2017 movie musical “The Greatest Showman.”
“I danced a bit as a kid, but nothing to write home about,” said Williams, who nails the cuckoo moves for the song “Who’s Got the Pain?” (from the musical “Damn Yankees”) in the series’ second episode. “Then all of a sudden, it just keeps coming up for me. It’s a place where I’ve found an unexpected amount of joy and I want to keep returning to it. But it feels like something that I’m still building on. I had a little bit of training before going into this, and the vocabulary I sort of knew, but this was the next level of difficulty.”
Rockwell, who has a reputation for being the first one on the dance floor at Hollywood parties, said working on this project forced him to enter a whole other realm.
“As Michelle said one day, ‘You know, they look like normal people, but when they get up and dance, they’re superheroes,’ ” he said. “They are superheroes. Amazing and daunting. It’s incredible.”
The fact that the actors make it look so natural is just one of the many reasons “Fosse/Verdon” should connect with viewers, even those who usually give their disregards to Broadway.
“We started talking with Sam and Michelle a long time ago. That was followed by months of dancing work, vocal work, character work and working out the material,” Fields said. “Then they showed up on the first day and gave the illusion of it being effortless. That’s real magic.”