This review of Fosse/Verdon contains no spoilers.
The Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon of Fosse/Verdon know exactly what they want to see. Fosse, the legendary choreographer played with typical careful precision by Sam Rockwell, walks around his dancers, taking in every angle and occasionally muttering “that’s nice” as they execute a particular move the correct way – the only way.
His wife, equally legendary dancer/actress Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams), lights up with girlish delight upon seeing a simple black vest wardrobe has uncovered for Liza Minelli in Fosse’s film 1972 film adaptation of Cabaret. What should be worn under it? “Nothing,” Gwen purs with utter clarity. A lifetime of experience married with preternatural talent has turned Gwen and Bob into the ultimate crowd whisperers. They know what they want to see but more importantly they know what we want to see. Thankfully, Fosse/Verdon knows what we want to see too.
It’s impossible to know if the Fosse and Verdon of Fosse/Verdon capture the essence of the real Fosse and Verdon though it’s reasonable enough to assume that it gets damn close. FX’s miniseries comes from individuals who really know their musical theater with Lin-Manuel Miranda producing and his Hamilton partner, Thomas Kail, directing. More importantly, it features the involvement of someone who should know Fosse and Verdon pretty well – their daughter Nicole Fosse.
It’s understandable why musical theater and dance fans would want to see industry titans Fosse and Verdon onscreen. It wasn’t always clear why everyone else would though. Fosse/Verdon’s best feature is that it almost immediately makes the case for itself to people who wouldn’t know a sissonne from a soussus. This is a lovely little depiction of the larger than life concepts of talent and love, and the two human beings who found themselves under their sway.
I’m one of those aforementioned philistines who wouldn’t have known a Bob Fosse or Gwen Verdon if they pirouetted through my living room. Truly a product of my time and the vile Internet that raised me, I know Cabaret only because it starred Lucille Austero from Arrested Development. The boringly titled Fosse/Verdon was always going to have to make its case to someone like me, and I’m happy to report that it does so, early, often, and impressively.
Fosse/Verdon (the first two episodes of which were screened for this review) develops a compelling visual and narrative style from its first moments onward. To say the first episode begins in media res would be a disservice to the high school juniors who just learned the term “in media res.” The whole series is essentially one big “now.” The first episode covers decades of Bob and Gwen’s professional and personal lives with helpful title cards informing us where the characters are and how many years left they have.
Fosse/Verdon’s fudging of the timelines isn’t just clever Roshomon-esque theatrics, it’s central to everything the show is trying to communicate. Both of the first two episodes feature a quick cycling through of eras before settling on one self-contained story. That, combined with the “XX Years Left” title cards create a fascinating timing mechanism for the show in which it feels like the editor is really the firing synapses of a dying brain – casting memories about until it settles on one it likes and wants to see more of. As viewers, we can’t help but view the story of Bob and Gwen in a hindsight is 20/20 hindnight, but the editing makes every day spent with Fosse and Verdon feel like today.
And therein lies the real appeal. The series must find a way to juggle two personalities who are larger than life while still making them seem human. The Fosse we’re introduced to is coming off a big professional disappointment and preparing to embark on the biggest creative project of his life, Cabaret, in Germany. Gwen is equally as successful, if not moreso, and is set to help guide Bob through this massive undertaking and beyond. Fosse and Verdon are both enormously talented, seemingly supernaturally so as the wonderful choreographed numbers reveal. But their relationship with each other grounds them in our eyes. How could the guy who always knows what he wants continue to fuck up so spectacularly and messily over and over?
It’s somewhat disarming how much this series is about cheating. Somewhere along the way, modern television decided to give up on exploring the human wreckage left behind by marital infidelity. On something like Mad Men, Don Draper was a serial philanderer and it eventually led to the dissolution of two marriages – but the show viewed that infidelity as a sort of inevitability. This is what a Don Draper type does and these are the consequences – now sit back and enjoy the real story about the building of an American mythology. In Fosse/Verdon, the infidelity is kind of the whole story, which is a little surprising and impressive, given Nicole Fosse’s involvement.
While the slick editing and story presentation is perhaps the real star, Rockwell and Williams are predictably pitch perfect as well. Rockwell uses Fosse’s soft-spoken confidence as the proper jumping off point to the character. Williams feels both larger than life and utterly, believably human. She knows how to portray just the right amount of veiled frustration with the balancing of her husband’s ascendant career and her own.
Beyond Rockwell and Williams, however, a lot of the casting is noticeably weak. The ensemble features a lot of the usual FX players to the point that it’s almost distracting. Aya Cash is an excellent actress but she didn’t really need to be Joan Simon – nor does Evan Handler need to be Hal Prince. There are also quite a few moments featuring famous names that come across as fan service-y – though I can’t fully confirm, not being a musical theater fan myself.
Still, Fosse/Verdon is much better than it needed to be. Thanks mostly to Ryan Murphy (who is not involved at all here, but whose presence still weirdly looms large), FX has developed a brand as the go-to place for biopics about old Hollywood types. That branding awareness combined with the star power of Rockwell and Williams likely made Fosse/Verdon a commercial success before it even filmed a single minute. Like any good choreographer, however, Fosse/Verdon isn’t satisfied with good enough.
One of young Bob Fosse’s instructors tells Bobby that the audience doesn’t want to see the sweat – only the smile. Fosse/Verdon gives us both.