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A review of the movie version of Sweet Charity sticks in Bob Fosse’s (Sam Rockwell) craw early in the premiere of FX’s limited series Fosse/Verdon. It isn’t exactly a negative review. It’s actually a rave review for Fosse’s wife, Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams). The catch? Verdon starred in the Broadway production of Sweet Charity, casting a long shadow over the film, which featured Shirley MacLaine in her place.
At the risk of doing something similar to Tony-winning Fosse/Verdon writer Steven Levenson (Dear Evan Hansen) and director Thomas Kail (Hamilton), I’ll just note that the name that casts a long and nearly unavoidable shadow over this FX series is that of Ryan Murphy. Of course, Murphy had nothing to do with Fosse/Verdon. It just happens to feel like exactly the sort of FX production he’s been using to decorate his house with Emmys for years. I’d wager, in fact, that more than a few viewers have seen trailers for Fosse/Verdon and just assumed it was the latest installment of Feud or American Crime Story or, for those with a particular animus toward musicals, American Horror Story.
AIR DATE Apr 09, 2019
The thing Murphy has done spectacularly well in his various FX minis is take the specific and make it universal. You may not have thought you needed to revisit the still-fresh wounds of the O.J. Simpson trial or to watch a backwards empathetic exploration of the psyche of Andrew Cunanan or to choose sides between two middle-aged actresses on the set of a movie released over 50 years ago. But you did! Whether you came in interested or indifferent, those shows found a way to make you invest.
Through the first two episodes, out of eight, sent to critics, Fosse/Verdon feels like a more restrictive thing. If you’re familiar with Fosse’s choreography — obligatory “jazz hands!” jokes need not apply — and the who’s who of ’60s and ’70s Broadway and can sing along to the entirety of Sweet Charity and Cabaret and Damn Yankees, there’s a lot to enjoy here, starting with Rockwell and Williams. Beyond that, however, the early installments of Fosse/Verdon lean way too heavily on familiar genre tropes relating to self-destructive geniuses and the long-suffering women who love them. The love story of Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon should open up as something bigger than just another well-cast prestige TV antihero saga. So far, it hasn’t.
The series presents Fosse and Verdon as a pair of difficult-to-satisfy strivers, whose successes and failures are always being compared to what they’ve done before. Fosse is literally haunted by his own aspirations to be a famous dancer, with Young Fosse’s tapping constantly intruding on the soundtrack or sliding into the frame or cutting into his quieter moments. When he was just a choreographer, he wished he was a dancer. When he was starting as a director, he wished he was a serious director. For Verdon’s part, even as the most decorated star on Broadway, there was always a level of respect she felt she wasn’t getting — as a singer if she was being revered as a dancer, as an actor if she was being revered as a singer, as integral to Fosse’s process if she was being acknowledged as a contributor.
If Fosse/Verdon has a wide-reaching or universal theme it wants to explore, it’s the precarious nature of personal and professional collaboration and the struggles of blending the two. Can you be a wretched, draining spouse and yet a nourishing creative partner? Can you be a nourishing creative partner while still being plagued with jealousies and competitive instincts? Can you be a loving spouse and simultaneously sabotage the marriage at every turn? Well, sure!
Levenson and Kail avoid making these two arcs conventional by fragmenting the story. The first episode focuses largely on Fosse’s frustrated effort to follow up the box office disaster of Sweet Charity with what would become the triumph of Cabaret, but it’s intercut with those flashbacks to Fosse’s dancing training and his preparations for what will turn out to be the last night of his life. The second then backtracks to how Fosse and Verdon first met in the lead-up to Damn Yankees and a moment of marital erosion over a decade later in photogenic Majorca. It’s a strategy that effectively thwarts viewing either their careers or lives as a simple rise-and-fall and also sometimes thwarts the building of character development, charting growth in terms of Debbie Zoller and Christopher Fulton’s solid aging makeup and hair work in lieu of storytelling. Owing to the nature of these choices, the first two episodes are driven by Fosse’s actions, behaviors that fall into self-defeating patterns long before they’ve been organically justified as character-driven.
That is not to say that Fosse/Verdon has sold Verdon short by positioning her as the too-patient wife to an unimpeachably brilliant auteur. Professionally, she’s marvelously capable and we see her effectively translating Fosse’s muddled thoughts in a way nobody else can do, generating her own ideas and solutions and, most importantly in terms of character agency, taking pride and joy in the opportunities she’s getting and making for herself. It’s just that when he asks, “What did I do to deserve you?,” and she replies, “You know, I don’t know,” it sounds both correct and like an exchange we’ve heard before in too many TV shows and movies.
Rockwell has the initially meatier role, one dominated by external business like Fosse’s accurately depicted comb-over, tilted fedora and a perpetually dangling cigarette that seems integral to his bearing and his balance, like the way a suave dancer might wield a cane and top hat. That he never gets lost in the makeup and hair and props is all Rockwell, who charts Fosse’s weariness and exuberance in a way that isn’t always clear in the rest of the story. And with only limited opportunities to actually dance, he still conveys a former dancer’s effortless grace.
In that respect, Williams has the more complicated task, because she has to recreate multiple routines impersonating one of the best dancers to ever hit the Great White Way and all you have to have done is see the movie of Damn Yankees to know that the comparison is unfair and futile. Instead, she captures Verdon’s joy and intelligence and her fraying love for Fosse, which are all much more important to the purposes of this series than a flawless evocation of “Who’s Got the Pain?”
It’s smart the way Levenson and Kail treat every dialogue-driven scene between the actors as a dance and then treat their one actual dance rehearsal just as straight-forward flirtation/courtship. It’s here that Rockwell and Williams especially shine.
Thus far, Fosse/Verdon is thin on supporting characters. Paul Reiser is funny in the first episode as producer Cy Feuer, who embodies dramatic irony walking around the set of Cabaret nattering things like “You’ve got your little bag of tricks, but there’s no substance!” to Bob. The Americans veteran Susan Misner is quietly terrific in the second episode as Joan McCracken, Fosse’s pre-Verdon wife, and apparently Misner served as choreographer for the second half of the series, which I can’t wait to see.
Most of the rest of the cast exists in a series of in-the-know gags, nestled within larger in-the-know gags. There’s amusement in recognizing that Evan Handler is playing Hal Prince, that Norbert Leo Butz is playing Paddy Chayefsky, that Nate Corddry is playing Neil Simon (married to Aya Cash’s Joan), that Bianca Marroquin is playing Chita Rivera, but if you aren’t adroit with the necessary checklist to make those associations, it’s close to meaningless. Kelli Barrett gets a little more to do as Liza Minnelli in the Cabaret sequences. Margaret Qualley, whose Ann Reinking stands to have the most actual characterization in this wax museum tableau, has yet to appear in these early episodes.
Beyond the presence and chemistry between the two leads, most of the pleasure from the first two episodes comes from that sense of recognition. Can you chuckle when Harold Prince describes the plot of Company and Fosse is dismissive? Do you get a little shiver when you see Fosse trying to find the right angles to shoot in production designer Alex Digerlando’s recreation of the Kit Kat Klub? Do you immediately know what Fosse is complaining about when he rejects the gorilla costume from “If You Could See Her”? Can you instantly appreciate the effort costume designer Melissa Toth put into mimicking each outfit from “Hey Big Spender”?
It happens that I do and I did. Even being part of a target audience for Fosse/Verdon left me with a mixture of elation and disappointment. There’s easily enough in the first two episodes to have me looking forward to the rest, but I’m still waiting to feel more, to get a sense of something deeper here. Perhaps that will come.
Cast: Sam Rockwell, Michelle Williams, Norbert Leo Butz, Margaret Qualley, Paul Reiser, Aya Cash, Nate Corddry, Evan Handler, Susan Misner, Kelli Barrett, Bianca Marroquin, Blake Baumgartner
Writers: Steven Levenson, Joel Fields, Charlotte Stoudt, Tracey Scott Wilson, Debora Cahn
Directors: Thomas Kail, Jessica Yu, Minkie Spiro
Premieres: Tuesday, April 9, 10 p.m. ET/PT (FX)
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