The music supervisor talks about his personal connection to Cabaret and the responsibility to Bob Fosse’s legacy.
Who would want to tackle the times and troubles of Bob Fosse? I don’t say that because he and his wife, Gwen Verdon, are lackluster subjects. They are musical theater legends who are responsible for more Broadway hits than you’re probably aware of. We are still feeling their influence today, and that was not lost on music supervisor. For Gizicki, recreating Broadway and musical films from the 1960’s and 1970’s for F/X’s Fosse/Verdon was an absolutely surreal experience.
The pilot starts with Bob and Gwen collaborating on the filming of Sweet Charity‘s “Big Spender,” a knockout sequence that yanks the viewer into this world. From there, we see how a musical is put together, and it makes an audience realize how much work goes into creating a new piece of theater.
A music supervisor touches every piece of music on a television show, so one can imagine how enormous a project like Fosse/Verdon can feel. Since Gizicki joined Broadway powerhouses Lin-Manuel Miranda, Thomas Kail, Andy Blankenbuehler, and Alex Lacamoire behind the camera, he was able to bring his best to the series, and it shows. A lot of biopics that center on a musical figure tend to have distance between their performances and their personal lives. Gizicki breathes life into what could have been a stale or standard story. In Fosse/Verdon, the music truly lives on.
There is so much iconic musical theater in Fosse/Verdon. This time period is very dense. What was it like trying to find a way into that much material?
We felt a responsibility to get everything right. Much like Mad Men, for example, the creative team behind Fosse/Verdon was meticulous behind the scenes in every sense of the word. In the music department, we had to do that as well. We were very obsessed with making sure our orchestrations were accurate and our vocals were on point and the music choices were the right choices. Not just to fit the time period but were helping to tell the right story. We were also working alongside Nicole Fosse, and we were telling the story of her parents. There was that additional level with it the entire show.
The “Big Spender” sequence that opens the series is so striking. It’s shot so well and the score is so intoxicating and in your face. It’s like the perfect gateway drug into this series.
Gateway drug—I’m going to use that.
Go right ahead.
That’s very accurate. The opening sequence is an extended prologue. Right now it’s four minutes of dialogue with Bob and Gwen staging it. Then it goes into the musical sequence and then the title card. As scripted, “Big Spender” was only present in those individual vocal moments. As we were putting it together, Alex Lacamoire and I looked at each other, it became obvious that the whole piece needed to be “Big Spender.” To his credit, Alex built a really engaging arrangement of that song that really builds and builds and builds. It has a great arc to it.
I just rewatched the pilot earlier this week, I did notice how the music kept getting louder and how it builds. It got me in the mood for some musical theater.
Musically, we were trying replicate what you were seeing narratively. Through that sequence you see Bob and Gwen construct “Big Spender” and Sweet Charity, and we were trying to do the same thing. That was my goal. Introduce one element of “Big Spender” here and another thing here, and little brass here, and little percussion here. It all builds and builds until it becomes “Big Spender” and locks into place at the same time the visuals do.
Is this the first time you got to work with Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tommy Kail?
They have such an established working relationship. What was that like?
I just felt like the luckiest guy in the world. Who let me in here? It was also Steven Levenson and Alex Lacamoire. These guys have worked together since college, and here I am some outsider. I was terrified, but what a great opportunity because I was observing the best of the business. They are just as they appear to be on the outside. After I got over my initial star struck-ness, it was inspiring to be around them all the time, because they are bringing to television a theatrical sensibility that not a lot of other people bring. You just describe the gateway drug of the prologue and it exemplifies that. It feels like something different. It doesn’t feel like a television show or a biopic.
Everything felt better because of everyone coming from that background. I could feel that instantly from when we see it coming together in the pilot.
We would just look around and think, ‘I can’t believe they are letting us do this.” Episode 4, for example, is Pippin. Every note is from that show. It’s an underscore and background source of music throughout that episode. We thought maybe we might be pushing it too far? But that was the fun of this project being able to push the envelope.
I found myself rewinding the show to see if I could tell if they were just different arrangements of musical theater songs or if it was just brand new music.
You’re welcome! In episode 5, “Where Am I Going?,” there is even a lack of music for the majority of it. Of course, Michelle sings that song in the episode, but it felt like a film version of a drama. Is it just as important to know when to not implement music into scenes as it is to infuse a scene with music?
That episode is also a bit of a palette cleanser for the show and a transition from part one to part two. It realigns the characters before they move into the finale. It’s right after episode 4 which is full throttle Pippin insanity, and you do get settled in. It felt like the right thing to not have wall-to-wall music. They’re in a beach house and it could be nonstop source music with record players and radios since it is such a musical show. That would feel natural to do. It felt more appropriate to give it space. Earlier in act one when they’re drinking around the bar and later on when they’re drinking—there’s a lot of drinking in the show—and the guys are swapping stories of losing their virginity there’s very little source music. Otherwise it felt right to let the drama take over.
For you, was there a musical number that you really wanted it to get right?
Cabaret was a really special movie for me, and that was the first show one up to bat besides the “Big Spender” intro since it’s the first episode. I felt such an extreme pressure to get all the Cabaret scenes right—”Cabaret,” “Mein Herr,” “Two Ladies”—because it keyed up the whole series. We also needed the audience to know that this wasn’t an impression of Liza Minnelli. We were presenting Cabaret and these actors were inhabiting Liza and Joel and not performing caricatures of them. It’s kind of a fine line. Kelli Barrett is being very authentic but also putting in some of Kelli Barrett to shine through. When I was a kid, Cabaret was one of the first grown up musical I saw after a diet of Disney and traditional musicals like My Fair Lady. Cabaret hit me like such a lightning bolt and was something totally new, and it’s responsible for me being involved with musicals in the first place. I just felt like an internal pressure to get all the music right.
After the pilot premiered, I watched Cabaret again and I think you really capture the essence of that movie.
That was one of our first days on set.
Just dive right in, right?
Oh yeah. And the sets, that is part of all our DNA in a way because we were brought up on Bob Fosse, made us feel like we were transported back to Berlin in that time. It was so meticulously put together and reproduced. We looked at each other and were like, ‘Where am I?’
Since music supervisors touch every piece of music, did you look at Bob Fosse’s musicals in a new light after this?
In what way?
Since you are recreating the music and you listen to it nonstop, did you view any of the musicals or specific numbers in a different light?
That’s a really interesting question and I’ve never thought of it that way. I think I looked at things different in terms of nostalgia. Now when I think of Sweet Charity, I won’t think of the movie with Shirley MacLaine, but I’ll have nostalgia of back in November 2018 freezing my ass off on a soundstage. I devoured the Sam Wasson biography that burrows deep into Bob’s life, and our show goes many levels deeper. Knowing the backstory of all these numbers and Bob’s creation absolutely affects how I feel about them. It gives it a resonance that maybe wasn’t there before. Maybe I was living with nostalgia for so long but now there’s additional depth.
I wanted to ask about the In the Heights movie really briefly. Fosse/Verdon deals with so many…the word iconic keeps coming out of my mouth—
I mean, I’ll take it (laughs)
In the Heights is so important to a lot of people. What’s it like to work on that when you are coming off of a show that means to much to musical theater fans?
This isn’t to knock any of my other projects, but I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun in my entire life. Sometimes—and this goes for no matter what kind of line of work you’re doing—you realize in a moment that you are doing something special. You’re part of a team that is so inspired and thrilled to be there and everyone is there for the right reasons. That’s how we all feel. To be honest, it’s really magical, and it feels like we are doing something important. I sort of don’t want it to end.
Just keep telling people you need more recordings and you need to tweak the orchestrations.
In the Heights 2?
All episodes of Fosse/Verdon are available at FX.com.