'Fosse/Verdon' Executive Producer on Conveying "Troubled Behavior" Onscreen Amid #MeToo Movement
What started out as a story centered on Bob Fosse morphed into a layered drama about his relationship and partnership with Gwen Verdon, says EP Steven Levenson.
Chronicling the symbiotic relationship of showbiz couple Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, FX's eight-part series, which picked up seven noms, was made largely by the theater community (EPs include Hamilton's Thomas Kail and Lin-Manuel Miranda) for the theater community. "We wanted to make them proud," says EP and Dear Evan Hansen scribe Steven Levenson.
The show originally was focused on just Fosse. What about his oeuvre inspired you?
When I became involved, there was already Sam Wasson's biography called Fosse. Everyone who read that book, including me, was struck by how Bob Fosse is such a legendary figure. Certainly in theater, his shadow looms quite large. "Fosse" is one of those words that you hear before you know what it means. Before Bob Fosse began making the musicals that he did and he and Gwen did and the way that they did them, I think of some of his earlier stuff, like Damn Yankees, as being like a prototypical Golden Age musical. It's got all of the things that people who don't like musicals [don't like about musicals]. (Laughs.) It's got those big smiles and the technicolor emotions and it's very broad and fun. But it doesn't have a lot of edge or darkness or ambiguity, and those were all the things that Fosse's work really brought into musical theater. His work made musicals a place where you could tell stories that were dark and sexy and dangerous. That really changed the course of musical theater.
How did the series evolve into focusing on both Bob and Gwen?
I can pinpoint the exact moment: Tommy Kail and I had driven up to New Hampshire to spend a crazy 24-hour jam session with Nicole Fosse [Bob and Gwen's daughter], whom we'd only met once before. In that weekend, it became so clear that Gwen was the missing piece of this story. What made the story so different and not just another story of self-destructive and destructive genius was this presence of Gwen Verdon and her unsung role in his work and in his life. We realized there was an incredible story of marriage — both the literal and the creative marriage. The fact that he died in her arms on the way to the opening of their musical in D.C. — it's such an incredible mystery in some ways. Like, how did these two stay together?
How did the #MeToo movement inform this story?
We were working on it right around the time that the movement really started to explode. The more we learned about Bob Fosse and delved into his psyche, we saw troubling behavior there. He did a lot of bad things with his power. There was a moment where it felt like, "How could we tell this story about this guy who wasn't really such a great guy?" But as the movement happened, it felt like we have to tell this story. We have to fly right into the face of that if we're going to do this. And maybe this is an opportunity, especially factoring in Gwen, to talk about how men like this can thrive in the entertainment industry and the kind of culture that encourages and allows them to behave that way.
Just thinking back to so many episodes, you see him hooking up with all the dancers …
Yeah, totally. And it's not like that was a secret. Anybody who's seen All That Jazz knows that, but the way that we view that behavior has changed so radically. I mean, since All That Jazz and especially in the last couple of years, I think we've had to grapple with the real implications of a culture like that. In All That Jazz, it's kind of presented romantically, like, "Oh, Bob. He's helpless to his instincts and his needs." But there's no real sense of the damage that he's doing to these young women.
How involved was Nicole Fosse?
I will say, far from just watching the dailies, she was on set almost every day. I have been surprised by Nicole at every step of this process. I was terrified when we sat down to meet her and proposed telling this story. If somebody asked me if they could tell the story of my parents, I would be wary. (Laughs.) At first it felt like she was gonna consult and be there to help us along the way, and then, as the actors got involved, she became an invaluable resource to them. They looked to her for help with dialect. She just had 100 million tiny little details that only she knew that I think give these performances such specificity and these bizarre little particularities that these two people have that only Nicole would know. She seemed to understand intuitively as the daughter of these two great showpeople that the truth wasn't always about fact. Sometimes we were making posits of events or squeezing things together and it wasn't exactly how it happened, but it was truer than if we had done a dry, fact-by-fact biography. She really helped steer us toward the emotional truth of what we were trying to do. There are just so many things in the series that she told us about that are not otherwise available.
What's an example?
The fertility issues Bob and Gwen had. She knew her father had immediately doubted the paternity. That to us was such a fascinating moment. She also provided a mountain of photographs that our production team relied on to rebuild all of those places. One of the coolest moments in the process was the day before shooting began, Tommy and I walked Nicole through her parents' apartment, which had been re-created inch for inch based on the photos she'd given us. It was so uncanny, and her surprise at turning a corner and the hallway that she remembered was the hallway that was there. It was really special and also very singular and peculiar. I don't think I'll have that experience again. (Laughs.) And one of the earlier scenes we shot was this party that involved a moment with Bob and Neil [Simon, played by Nate Corddry] and Paddy [Chayefsky, played by Norbert Leo Butz], and that's what she grew up with. Those were the parties she went to, where those three guys were chatting in the corner. It was all very real to her.
You cover so much of both of their lives and jump around often in time. How did you decide on your structure and which days to feature in the title cards? Like 365 days till his death, 11?
We stole the structuring device from Sam Wasson's book. It is written in this reverse chronology, counting down to Bob's death because Bob was so obsessed with death and mortality and this sense that I think all artists have to some extent of, "How much time do I have left?" And then we realized as we were cutting the show that it didn't make sense that we were telling the story of these two people and yet we were using the countdown to his death. We loved the idea of using those Chyrons to tell that timeline and also the other timeline that was both of their lives, and that is so much of what all artists experience, which is, "How long ago was my last success? And how long until the next one?" That is constantly how the two of them measured their lives.
How did you decide what to keep and what to lose of their life stories in that process?
it was very difficult deciding what to keep and what to lose. We made the decision very early on in casting and just in thinking about the show that the '70s were going to be the show's home base. That was the time period when the most revolutionary things that they made were made and it's also the time period when their marriage really collapsed and then collapsed again. And culminating in Chicago, which strangely, I think both of them would be surprised to have found out that that was their most successful project. (Laughs.) But it also ended a certain period of their life together and created some damage that never went away. And once we knew that we tried to figure out what we want to know to contextualize these people to understand where they came from. But we also had to make some really hard decisions knowing that, ultimately, it's the story of this couple. That's why we ended up not showing things like Bob's early years in Hollywood or Gwen's time with Jack Cole. We see fragments of that, but we don't spend time in those places because ultimately the tree trunk of the show was Bob and Gwen. We always wanted to come back to that relationship and that love story.
As you and the other producers like Tommy Kail, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Joel Fields are all integral in the theater scene and are musical theater fans yourselves, what was one moment where you all felt like, 'Wow, we're re-creating theater history here?"
(Laughs.) One of the first sets that we shot in and that was built was the Kit Kat Club [from Cabaret], and walking onto that set and seeing these dancers re-creating that choreography, it just felt like, "I can't believe they let us do this. I can't believe nobody's gonna come and shut this down." The craziest and most fun and fulfilling time was making episode four, which was about Pippin. Joel Fields and I discovered that we both know a lot about Pippin for some reason. (Laughs.) We know that score really well. And Alex Lacamoire, who did the music for the show, knows Pippin even better. So when we arrived at this idea of using the score of Pippin to kind of tell the story of Bob in the last act of the episode, we all really geeked out and kept geeking out through the rest of the process. (Laughs.) We wanted to tell the story of Pippin, and we wanted to tell the story of Bob having this nervous breakdown as he has the most success in his life. We realized, "Oh wait, they're the same exact story." That felt really exciting. Like, "Oh, we can do something with the score in a really interesting, cool way."
What's the response been like from the theater community?
From the beginning, we wanted to make a show that could reach a wide audience. But we always knew that that core audience of people who already were fascinated by this and had a great deal of respect and admiration for these people was the audience we were most eager and anxious to please. We wanted to make sure we were making something that they would be proud of. There are so many depictions of theater in film and television that just aren't quite right and that you always feel a kind of nagging feeling of like, "People just don't get it." We didn't want to be another example of that. We really wanted to make something that people could look at and say, "That's my world." We've heard from a lot of people that have said that and that means the world to us because we want to make them proud, you know?
Was that key in a lot of theater actors signing onto the show? Like Santino Fontana and Norbert Leo Butz?
Yeah, people were really excited to be part of this. These people are larger than life. The chance to play these characters, the chance to write these characters, was very enticing for everyone that got involved. Even down to something, which I didn't really know until beginning this project, like how important Fosse is to editors. He and his editors completely reshaped the way films are cut. Lenny and All That Jazz were so revolutionary. Everyone who signed onto this show in any capacity was so thrilled to be there. It was a really great place to work.
You and Lin-Manuel Miranda are also going to continue working together on Tick, Tick ... Boom!. Him directing the autobiographical musical by Jonathan Larson, and you penning the screenplay. Did conversations for that start while you were making Fosse/Verdon?
No, actually! Well, I guess we started talking about it around the same time of Fosse/Verdon coming together. It's such an interesting companion to this story in some ways, because again, it's a beloved figure and a brilliant artist. Jonathan Larson had his own quirks and foibles, but he lacked a lot of the pathologies that Bob Fosse had. I think the myth of the artist that has to be a drug addict and a womanizer to make great work is belied by Jonathan Larson, who was really a good guy. He worked really hard and never achieved the success in life that he deserved. But it's kind of a fascinating counterpoint. It's a much brighter story in some ways. (Laughs.) It's a lot less dark.
You're also bringing Dear Evan Hansen to the screen, adapting the screenplay. How surreal is it to develop your own musical into a film?
It's very exciting because we get to revisit it and we get to change and play around with some things. But it's also terrifying in the same regard. (Laughs.) Making a musical feels like a small miracle. Any musical. Anything that gets up onstage where characters are breaking out into song. They're just so difficult to crack. To reopen it and try to re-crack it is daunting but exciting. Wish us luck.
How about break a leg?
(Laughs.) That's great. That's much better. Indeed.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.