8:00pm PT by Emma Dibdin
‘Fosse/Verdon’: Inside That Ambitious, Surreal ‘Pippin’ Dream Sequence
[This story contains spoilers for episode four of FX's Fosse/Verdon.]
The fourth episode of Fosse/Verdon wrapped up on a rousing and surreal musical number that is unlike any other in the show to date, largely because it’s not real.
Rather, it’s playing out inside the increasingly unsettled mind of Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell), who in the final months of 1973 is coming off a year of unprecedented career highs, yet finds himself at an equally unprecedented psychological low. Fosse’s suicidal thoughts are brought to life in a medley of songs taken directly from Stephen Schwartz’s Broadway musical Pippin — the show Fosse was working on at the time — performed by Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams), Paddy Chayefsky (Norbert Leo Butz) and Ben Vereen (Ahmad Simmons) alongside a quartet of Broadway dancers.
A bewildered Fosse watches as the group moves seamlessly through a medley of Pippin songs from "Simple Joys" to "Extraordinary" to "Glory," and the lyrics become a malevolent inner monologue pushing him toward suicide. "The ones who die young — those are the ones who live forever," Verdon tells him with an eerie smile.
“We're dealing with two characters that are essentially addicted to applause, and addicted to the adulation of others,” executive producer Joel Fields tells The Hollywood Reporter, explaining that the starting point for Tuesday's episode was showing “Gwen’s star fading while Bob’s star explodes.” In a single year, Fosse won an Oscar (for Cabaret), two Tonys (for Pippin) and three Emmys (for the Liza Minnelli television special Liza With a Z) — he remains the only person ever to have done so in a single year — and, shortly afterwards, checked himself into a psychiatric unit.
“Pippin is a story about a man who’s searching for happiness and can’t seem to find it anywhere, and the more he gets the less fulfilling it is,” executive producer Steven Levenson says. “We thought it was interesting that Bob was working on that show in the same year that he won the Tony, the Emmy and the Oscar, and instead of ending that year exuberant and on a high, he ended it in a mental hospital on the verge of suicide.”
For Rockwell, the factors feeding into Fosse’s situation were not difficult to understand. “I think he got completely overwhelmed,” he says. “He was on a lot of drugs, and he didn’t know how to handle all of the adoration, and he just kind of flipped out. There’s only so much pressure I think somebody like that can take, a guy like that who comes from a tricky background. You win the triple crown — Emmy, Tony, Oscar — and I think if your feet are not grounded, you can implode.”
Once Fields, Levenson and their fellow producers realized that Fosse had been working on Pippin in the year prior, it quickly became clear that the musical was a perfect prism through which to depict his breakdown. “Bob thought about his death a lot,” Fields says. “He was rather obsessed with it, and it's notable that Pippin [the character] was also. If you're obsessed with finding meaning in life, you're also going to be struggling with the nature of its impermanence.”
As explored in the episode, Fosse’s breakdown comes partially out of his realization that no amount of applause — not even a record-breaking amount — was enough. “As with any addiction, you need it in higher and higher doses, with less and less intervals in between," says Fields. "I read once about a psychiatrist who theorized that the reason so many rock stars wind up drug addicts is that when you go on stage every night in front of an audience of thousands, and they applaud and scream for you, your brain gets a dopamine hit. If your brain gets a big flood of dopamine, every night, non-stop for 10 months of tour, then when you finish your tour, it still needs that fix.”
Fosse does not, of course, commit suicide. As depicted in the show he’s held back by the thought of his young daughter Nicole (Blake Baumgartner), who appears late in the sequence to mournfully sing another Pippin number, "I Guess I’ll Miss the Man." “Pulling in Nicole at the end was an example of a moment where a song from Pippin just repurposes perfectly for what she would say about her father there, even though it's in an entirely different context in the musical,” Fields says.
The rest of the episode depicts Fosse struggling to put together the finale of Pippin in real life, which lays the groundwork for lines from the musical's actual finale — "You got everything you wanted, and it still isn't enough" — to be repurposed later in the episode. 'It made sense to us that these lines, and these ideas about the search for meaning, would be on his mind as he's in crisis," Fields said.
Butz recalled filming the sequence as an “extraordinary” day on set. “It was incredibly difficult technically, and very, very long,” he says, praising Simmons and the four Broadway dancers in the scene for their athleticism and endurance. “I remember Sam, Michelle and I all got very emotional at one point, because there’s nothing like watching a trained, flexible, passionate Broadway dancer. It’s so hard, what they’re doing in that scene. These might be four of the only women on the planet who could do this movement in this moment, take after take after take, for 14 hours. The athleticism, the passion, the energy, the love of it all, was just incredible. It was a day I’ll never forget.”