Embodying the Dazzle of ‘Fosse / Verdon’

Fosse VerdonGorgeous-looking, high-end limited series with top stars doing Emmy-worthy work depicting in many cases real people has usually been under the aegis of Ryan Murphy at FX.

But with Murphy moving to Netflix with his impending projects, the network with so many impressive original shows has turned to some of the top names in musical theater to tell the love stories of two giants in the same field.

“Fosse / Verdon” (FX, 10 p.m.), the sumptuous story of Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon over five decades of their involvement, starring Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams, comes from no less a team than those behind “Hamilton.” Lin-Manuel Miranda is an executive producer, but more involved is “Hamilton” director Thomas Kail, whose previous TV work involved directing “Grease: Live” for Fox. He directs five of the episodes here.

And writing half the episodes is executive producer Steven Levenson, book writer of “Dear Evan Hanson.” They are aided by more of a TV veteran in Joel Fields, coming off six seasons of the acclaimed series “The Americans.”

And while the premiere episode may seem jumpy from its cuts to different time settings — if only to set the perimeters of the rest of the series — it soon sets to dazzle with replications and reimagining of dance sequences from “Cabaret” to “Pippin” and “Sweet Charity” while showing the challenges of their personal life together. Rockwell seems at first a smaller figure to take up a Fosse who may be fixed in the public mind as Roy Scheider in “All That Jazz.” But Williams is near-perfect as Verdon.

When the two leads talk about how entwined their characters are, they show as well as tell.

“It’s a dense, complex story,” Rockwell says, speaking to reporters at the TV Critics Association press tour earlier this year. ”There’s so much going on. I mean, there’s career stuff and love. And it’s such a big subject what happened between them, but it was you know, someone said that they’re almost like twins in a way. They’re like they’re lovers and there’s a love story there..”

“They’re, like, twin souls,” Williams says.

“Like, the male and female representation of this. I think of them as, sort of, like yin and yang…”

“Yeah,” he says, “they’re not going to shake each other.

Sort of, like, light and dark that’s, like always, sort of, chasing each other and shaping each other,” she adds.

“Yeah,” he says. “That’s a good way of putting it. They’re like they’re, kind, of Siamese twins, in a way, emotionally…”

That kind of interaction is how the real Fosse and Verdon communicate in the series, that flashes forward and back with impunity. But it’s based on research, its impressive roster of theatrically-trained producers say.

“Our goal is to explore a relationship between these two characters and to do it in an authentic way,” says Fields. By relying on books, archival materials and the memory of Nicole Fosse herself, he said “it’s been easy to follow what the truth was as we see it and to try to let the drama flow out of that.”

Williams in particular shines in the role, which may have been necessary because of her subject.

“The thing I kept hearing over and over again was that she was like the sunshine in the room,” Williams says. “I’ve come to think of her is someone who is always trying their hardest and will occasionally be backed up against a wall where she’s cornered and things aren’t in her control anymore. But as much as she possibly could, from what Nicole shared with me and from what other people have shared with me is that she was constantly trying to, sort of, rise above and be her best self at all times.”

For Fields, who spent seven years as co-creator of “The Americans” for FX, “this this has been a spectacular palate cleanser,” h says, describing “Fosse/Verdon” as “More dancing, less killing.”

And it’s clear that getting up to snuff on dance was the hardest things for the leads.

“Early on, as we were learning this physical vocabulary, we were taken to task a little bit,” Rockwell says. “I think we are pretty good movers, but this is a whole other realm” among pros who “are amazing, and it’s daunting.”

Kail said the series offers the opportunity “to address the narrative of the lone genius and to try to look beyond that and see what’s happening where your eye is not supposed to go.” He said he was fascinated by a pair in which one was a failed dancer who thrived on the contribution of what he called “the greatest dancer of her generation.”

“Watching that partnership evolve as he started to accelerate as she had to find a different way to grapple with something that I think is very human, what the dancer does often grapple with, which is, who are you when you can’t do the thing that defined you?” Kail says. “So the dancer dies twice. They die when they stop dancing, and they die when they die. And that was something that felt really rich for us to explore.”

Some may think they know the story of Fosse, especially through films like “All That Jazz.”

“We are tasked with telling the story of these two people, one of whom already told the story of his life as he wanted it told, and that puts a certain responsibility on us, but I think it also gives us a certain freedom,” Levenson says. “We know enough to know what he left out, you know, the things that he embellished, the things that he may have, you know, glided over, and now we have the task of telling it in our voice from our perspective.”

And that involves establishing Verdon to being a key to who Fosse was. “In a way, we are amending the story that he told,” Levenson says, “and reinserting Gwen, who we think is of primary importance.”

For Nicole Fosse, watching the series made her learn a bit about her own growing up. “I find it fascinating,” she says, “because all the information that’s coming together to create the characters and the situations and the interactions has so much emotional authenticity to it that watching it now, as an adult, I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s what was going on. Now, I get it.’”

And while “Fosse / Verdon” may remind FX viewers of the glossy, high-quality depictions of American show biz, glamour and flash they’ve produced in ”Feud: Bette and Joan,” “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” and “Pose,” there is something that the theatrical team brings that is different, such as the kind of flashbacks that occur not with cuts but within the same setting, as one would see on stage.

I asked Kail about that approach.

“Those ideas came from very early conversations,” he says. “There were three moments where you go back in time in the first episode, and, what seemed to be true and seemed to be a way to explore and express this was this fluidity between the past and the present; the constant conversation that so many of us have and that Bob, in particular, was having.

“And I think we can probably all imagine our own version of it, but you can be in a room that you were in five years ago and you see who you were talking to. Bob and Gwen did four shows together in the same theater. Those ghosts remain.

“And so, to have Bob in a moment where he’s trying to do something desperately in the present and he hears the echoes of the past, and those echoes overlap. And so, that, sort of, theatricality, that kind of fluid motion felt like it was a way for us to articulate that that conversation never ends.

“There’s no short stories. There’s no beginnings. And there’s no endings,” Kail says. “And so, for Bob, it felt like it was, you know, a way that he could be all of us and let us know that those echoes were heard by him, just like they’re heard by us.”

 

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