The new FX limited series is a cornucopia of riches for musical theater fans thirsty for some song, dance, and drama.
Bob Fosse is such a massive figure in Broadway history that any iteration of his life has an uphill battle. All That Jazz does an incredible job of capturing the emotional turmoil of the man behind the stagings of Pippin, Sweet Charity, and Chicago without actually uttering his name. The new FX limited series Fosse/Verdon focuses on the connection between Fosse and his wife, Gwen Verdon. By shifting to their shared home life and marriage arrangements, the limited series creates a compelling behind-the-applause drama, anchored by a career-best performance from Michelle Williams.
Fosse/Verdon had me from the opening sequence. Bob Fosse (played by Sam Rockwell) is trying to perfect “Hey Big Spender” for the big screen adaptation of Sweet Charity—his directorial debut. He soon realizes that he needs to cut dancers to get the shot tighter, and Gwen helps some of the actresses build their characters during the long shooting day. The blaring music and sweat of the shoot is thrilling and a great way to kick off the series.
Fosse/Verdon immediately shows us the difference between the pair’s star power. While Bobby (we’re on a first name basis) is lauded by his peers for bringing Charity to the screen, Gwen was overlooked for the title character for Shirley MacLaine (played by Laura Osnes in a brief appearance). Rockwell and Williams are so charismatic together. Early party scenes show them mingling with the creme de la creme of Broadway, and they flow around as easily as the booze does.
The structure of the series shoots back and forth between time and productions of shows, but the title cards always tell us how much time Bobby Fosse has left. His death is inevitable (hey, it comes with the genre), but here it’s a ticking time bomb. Sometimes he has years ahead of him and sometimes mere minutes. Any time you find out there isn’t much time left, you want him to succeed more. You want more dance and you want more spectacle.
I was a bit worried that the show would be more Fosse than Verdon, but the subsequent episodes alleviate that fear. Yes, Bob Fosse was a huge influence on musical theater, but Verdon was, too. She just had to prove herself more. Men are called geniuses much more frequently. Rockwell does an admirable job of embodying one of the most complex figures in Broadway history. Yes, this is another tale about how a white man has to overcome his demons, but Rockwell lets that desperation shine. He’s constantly haunted by his history as a young dancer and that drives him to be more than a showman.
Williams has never shied away from emotionally fragile characters, but her Gwen Verdon is never someone to be pitied. When the show delves into Verdon’s entry into the performance world, it hits you like a truck, and then Williams shines later in the season as she pushes Bobby to mount the first production of Chicago after years of struggling to secure the rights. That entire episode feels like a stage play with tensions mounting as it goes along.
While Fosse/Verdon follows biopic beats, it’s really a cry for correcting Verdon’s contributions to Fosse’s celebrated career. They were an unstoppable duo, but he needed her guidance and assurance as much as he basked in the glory of success. There were many women brought into his bed (and his stage) to help stoke his insatiable fire, but only one woman truly mattered.
Fosse/Verdon debuts on April 9th on FX.