You know their work — Damn Yankees, Sweet Charity, Chicago — you just don’t know their real story. FX’s Fosse/Verdon explores the romantic and creative partnership between the iconic choreographer Bob Fosse, played by Sam Rockwell, and legendary dancer Gwen Verdon, played by Michelle Williams. Breaking down the musical moments that the pair performed in, worked on and/or created, the lavish series explains how their unique collaborative spirit created theatrical masterpieces.
Fosse/Verdon draws largely from Sam Wasson’s 2013 bestselling biography Fosse and grew out of a frustration that Verdon’s contributions have largely gone ignored and that her legacy faces extinction. “It’s not just this one man’s work. It’s also Gwen’s,” says executive producer Steven Levenson, who hopes to solidify Verdon’s artistic contributions as equal to those of Fosse. “It is wonderful to be able to put her back at the center of the story where she belongs.”
The eight-episode miniseries comes from award-winning producers Levenson (Dear Evan Hansen), Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton), Thomas Kail (Hamilton) and Joel Fields (The Americans), and the only child of Verdon and Fosse — their daughter Nicole Fosse, who bravely shares her recollections of the often complicated relationship between her parents. “It’s actually really refreshing and wonderful,” she says. “Sometimes a little exhausting, but it’s terrific.”
In The Room Where It Happened
“Nicole’s bringing us just a trove of archival material,” explains Fields. “Personal photographs from which we can re-create sets and wardrobe, stories, access to the Fosse/Verdon Legacy project, which allows our choreographer access to those dancers and those dance moves. So, there’s a level of authenticity there.”
“She’s literally the only person with her perspective,” marvels Levenson. Fields continues, “She’s been so open about her life, so open about who her parents are. … We all on some level started out idealizing these characters artistically, because they’re so important to anybody who loves theater and film, but they have to be portrayed as fully dimensional people.”
What about Bob (Fosse)?
In the world of musical theater, the name Bob Fosse is synonymous with a specific style of choreography: hip thrusts beneath angular elbows; wrist rolls with splayed fingers; character-driven routines, frequently performed by a chorus of women; and dark, sexualized costumes, often accentuated with a bowler hat. The world is easy to recognize but hard to describe.
“Before Bob, their musical theater was incredibly sunny and bright and filled with happy people singing about happy things,” explains Levenson. “Bob kind of took all of that and found the darkness and the edge and the sexuality that was just underneath the surface and really pulled it to the front. His work is angular and sharp, and instead of smiles, it’s often a little bit sinister, and there’s something just dangerous about it.”
Because Fosse’s ideas of what choreography could be were so far from the norm, they surprised and challenged his audiences, but they were a shock to his dancers, too. “All the dancers, but one,” says Fields. “And that’s Gwen Verdon.”
The First Steps of Their Partnership
When Verdon and Fosse met in 1955 — he cast her in the original Broadway production of Damn Yankees — she was already a Tony winner and was considered one of Broadway’s finest dancers. Verdon took Fosse’s powerful, sexual dance steps and infused the vampish character of Lola with her own girl-next-door charm and rapier-sharp wit. “Gwen brought this quality that nobody else could to the work,” says Levenson. “The sexuality is always a little bit of a joke, or a little bit of a put-on. And she was just so charming and so funny.”
By the time Fosse and Verdon earned individual Tony Awards for Damn Yankees and turned the musical into a smash film, they knew they’d found their creative soulmate, and their dynamic partnership was cemented forever. “They made these dances together mostly in a rehearsal room, just the two of them, in the mirror,” says Levenson. “As anyone who’s been involved in the creative process knows, it’s very difficult to disentangle who did what, and who’s responsible for what.”
“There was really just nothing that she couldn’t do and make it look incredibly effortless,” gushes Williams on Verdon as a performer. Williams is familiar with Verdon and Fosse choreography: She played Cabaret’s Sally Bowles in a 2014 revival on Broadway. In one episode of Fosse/Verdon, Williams’ character assists Fosse behind the scenes while he directs the film Cabaret. Although her character isn’t supposed to be onstage during the dance scenes, “I wanted to get up on the stage when I was watching [the dancers],” Williams laughs. “I was so jealous!”
Each episode of Fosse/Verdon highlights a specific project the pair worked on together and shows how their competition and collaboration shaped every step and snap. It’s a treat for anyone familiar with their work, but Rockwell adds, “I would hope that it would be exciting for people who aren’t musical theater fans, too. I hope that the story is deep enough and funny enough and entertaining enough that it’s not just for musical theater fans, you know?”
Fosse/Verdon > FX > Tuesdays at 10/9c, beginning April 9