FOSSE/VERDON

Two years ago, I saw HAMILTON on Broadway with my partner, Emma, and her family. That weekend, we also scored last-minute tickets to one of Broadway’s longest running musicals: the 1996 revival of CHICAGO. For the rest of the weekend, Emma, a trained modern dancer and musical theater enthusiast, entertained us with sudden subtle hip pops, snapping fingers, and shoulder rolls characteristic of Bob Fosse’s dramatic choreography in CHICAGO.

“I did a Fosse revue in middle school,” she’d laugh, casually. Of course, HAMILTON was the weekend highlight. Over the last two years, Lin Manuel Miranda’s popularity has skyrocketed for obvious reasons. Now, Miranda has turned his attention to Bob Fosse himself, producing a limited series on FX about the director and choreographer. FOSSE/VERDON premiered on Tuesday, April 9. The show expressly sheds light on Fosse’s often-overlooked but equally talented creative and romantic partner, Gwen Verdon.

Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon
Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon. Image courtesy of the Verdon Fosse Legacy LLC.

Setting the Stage

The first episode finds Fosse (Sam Rockwell) and Verdon (Michelle Williams) already in the throngs of Fosse’s Hollywood directorial debut, SWEET CHARITY. It’s a brilliant start to FOSSE/VERDON. Indeed, Fosse’s first film was a financial catastrophe for Universal Studios. To make matters worse for the duo, the producers replaced Verdon (who originated the role of Charity on Broadway) with actress Shirley MacLaine. Interestingly, the replacement thematically references Verdon’s place in dance history. She haunts Fosse’s choreography but is often uncredited for her own genius.

FOSSE/VERDON fills the premiere episode with similar homages and hints. For example, the show briefly explores the famous Liza Minnelli (played by Kelli Barrett) performance of “Mein Herr” in CABARET. While Barrett (as Minnelli as Sally Bowles) sings “It was a fine affair, but now it’s over,” we see Fosse’s (numerous) romantic affairs are far from over. As a result, FOSSE/VERDON directs audiences to the powerful ties between the creators’ lives and their works.

One Really Excellent Dance

Now, as a non-dancer and recent convert to musical theatre, my knowledge is limited. Audiences of FOSSE/VERDON who are not familiar with the pair’s work might consider a trip through YouTube to get a feel for their dance works. Luckily for me, I brought in my resident expert to guide me through the first episode of FOSSE/VERDON. My partner explained that Fosse’s work fits into the sub-genre of jazz dance and is now characteristic of musical theatre. Additionally, Verdon was famous for her versatility. She trained in ballet, as well as tap, jazz, ballroom, and Balinese. Indeed, FX claims Verdon as none other than “the greatest Broadway dancer of all time.”

What is important to understand when beginning FOSSE/VERDON is that both artists made a tremendous impact on the dance and entertainment world. FOSSE/VERDON will make audiences want to take a deep dive into the vast collection of choreography, interviews, and reviews of Fosse’s work. After watching a clip of CHICAGO followed by “The Rhythm of Life” choreography from SWEET CHARITY, then snips of CABARET, you’ll realize something about Fosse’s choreography. As my partner puts it: “Fosse has one dance, but it’s a really great dance.” His best-known choreography is so iconic it verges on being the same in every piece. But damn if it’s not a satisfying set of moves.

FOSSE/VERDON
Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse. Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection

Behind Every Great Man…

The first episode of FOSSE/VERDON satisfies the audience’s interest in Fosse’s creative process. It exposes the brutal cuts Fosse makes, and the hours he demands from his dancers. It also begins to hint at Fosse’s treatment of women. What the episode does best, however, is expose the huge role Verdon played in supporting Fosse’s work. Indeed, the first episode suggests that without Verdon, Fosse would have been directionless at best and insufferable at worst.

CABARET
Liza Minnelli in 1972 CABARET. Photograph: Bob Fosse/Alamy Stock Photo.

The premiere episode doesn’t fully indict Fosse for overshadowing Verdon. The two had a dynamic and fruitful relationship spanning many years. It is unlikely Fosse intended to eclipse Verdon. However, the era and profession gave more room to Fosse for his genius. Emma pointed out that due to subtle sexism and misogyny, cisgender men are sometimes elevated to the status of artistic genius. It also helps men escape being perceived as effeminate. In dance — where traditionally there are more women — a man like Fosse might indeed stand out. Ascribing genius status gave Fosse more immediate freedom and renown.

Retrospectively, we can all agree, Verdon was Fosse’s muse as well as his equal.

Life is a Cabaret: The Brilliant Drama of FOSSE/VERDON

The first episode of FOSSE/VERDON jumps around chronologically to an annoying degree. Additionally, the show occasionally glazes over interpersonal interactions and simplifies some of Fosse’s backstory in an attempt to humanize his experience of dance. However, the genius of FOSSE/VERDON lies in the flashy Hollywood studio scenes. Not only is Verdon the clear heroine — delivering pep talks, building character backstories, and manifesting costumes when Fosse can’t — the show celebrates showbiz itself. In the episode, producers criticize Fosse directly for being overly flashy and lacking substance. FOSSE/VERDON is overly flashy and that’s why it works.

Emma points out that Fosse’s choreography may feel a little dated (SWEET CHARITY came out in 1969, after all!) But FOSSE/VERDON breathes new life into the iconic choreography. As a result, Emma loves the dynamic dance scenes in FOSSE/VERDON because she performed it; I loved it because I wish I could perform it, too.

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