Fosse, Verdon, And The Seamy Side Of Show Biz

FX has been airing the limited series Fosse/Verdon.  Admittedly I miss out on a lot of television, but being a longtime fan of Bob Fosse I decided to make room to see this engaging series.

The first episode starts with Bob Fosse looking at himself in the mirror, sporting a tuxedo, a cigarillo dangling from his mouth, and on the last day of his life.  There’s a knock at the door, and his life partner and long separated wife Gwen Verdon reminds him that it’s ‘time to go,’ one of the various double meanings which appear throughout the series.

The timeline of the series begins with the filming of Sweet Charity in 1968, Fosse’s first movie, and immediately you see the collaborative relationship they had co-directing the dancers, including Gwen speaking to the dancers alone so she can explain what the scene is really about.  Then three years later when Bob is in Munich directing Cabaret and running into obstacles, he asks Gwen to fly over to help with the production.  She saves the day, and also discovers Bob’s dalliance with the English/German translator which lead to their lifelong separation, though they remained married.  The series also goes back to key moments in the early lives of Fosse and Verdon, including Fosse as a child being driven by taskmaster dance instructor, and Verdon being forced onto the casting couch to get an important dance gig, the result of which was pregnancy and a short lived, shotgun marriage.

Of course there was a lot more to Gwen Verdon than just being Mrs. Bob Fosse.  In 1953 she was a hit on Broadway in Can Can while he was still up and coming.  And when they worked together for the first time a couple of years later in Damn Yankees, she was the star and he was the choreographer, his second choreography job on Broadway.  The series shows their first meeting, rehearsing the number Whatever Lola Wants, and in keeping with the theme of the song it plays like a real life seduction (they would marry in 1960, her second marriage and his third).  This would presage their relationship.  They loved each other and respected each other’s talents, but they were not above getting the other to help with their own careers.

The series then progresses to the heady year of 1973.  To Fosse’s surprise, Cabaret turns out to be a big hit, commercially and critically (Sweet Charity wasn’t).  The experimental Pippin, which Fosse altered considerably, is the toast of Broadway.  And for television he directs and choreographs Liza with a Z, starring Liza Minnelli.  The results were one Oscar, two Tonys, three Emmys, and a never ending party with a non stop supply of drugs, booze, and women, which will eventually lead him into a psychiatric hospital.  Meanwhile Gwen fights for a lead role in a straight Broadway play called Children! Children! and has also acquired the rights to a musical version of Chicago.  Bob and Gwen are separated but still very much in each other’s lives, for professional reason and also because of their daughter Nicole who has to navigate through life as an only child in a mercurial show biz family.  It’s also a year of tragedy as their friend Joan Simon, wife of Neil, dies of cancer.

All these story lines culminate in episode five.  Bob has just gotten out of the hospital and is ready to start working again against his doctor’s wishes, Gwen is planning out Chicago and is insistent that Bob direct and choreograph, both of them are seeing new people, Neil Simon is grieving over the untimely passing of his wife, Paddy Chayefsky places himself at the center of the group of friends, and all of them are at a vacation house, along with Nicole, where all their cross purposes ally and clash into each other in what comes across as a 90 minute stage play.  The central conflict is Gwen trying to persuade Bob to work on Chicago while he’s planning his next project, a film version based of a play about Lenny Bruce that will be starring Dustin Hoffman, but radiating out of their conflict are subplots that reflect how ambition affects everyone who comes into contact with the ambitious.

I very much enjoyed the first five episodes, but episode six surprised me quite a bit.  It jumps ahead to just over a year later, Bob is editing Lenny after a much longer shoot than expected, he’s directing and choreographing Gwen in Chicago, and he’s continuing his steady diet of Seconal, Dexedrine, cocaine, cigarettes, and women.  This all catches up with him and he’s finally hectored into going to the hospital, where he has a heart attack in the middle of an examination.  While recuperating, Bob projects himself onto stage in place of Lenny Bruce, a sequence shot in black and white to match Lenny, and he confesses to the audience through a series of revealing jokes how strongly he relates to the doomed comedian.  He also recounts how some 40 year old strippers sexually molested him when he was 13, a sad event that would damage his ability to maintain relationships in the future.  Meanwhile, behind the scenes Gwen arranges for Bob to have his own room, and does what she can to speed up his recovery, for both altruistic and selfish reasons.  I was wondering how the series was going to handle this section of their lives because it matches the timeline of All That Jazz, Fosse’s semi-autobiographical 1980 masterpiece, and I thought they may try to copy from it.  Instead Fosse/Verdon takes its own original approach and lays bare the inner pain that can be both a driver and a destroyer.

Fosse/Verdon is well written, expertly directed, and superbly acted.  It stars Sam Rockwell as Fosse, Michelle Williams as Verdon, and gets strong support from the rest of the cast, including Norbert Leo Butz as Paddy Chayefsky, Aya Cash as Joan Simon, Blake Baumgartner, Juliet Brett, and Chandler Head as Nicole Fosse, Margaret Qualley as Ann Reinking, Nate Corddry as Neil Simon, Jake Lacy as Gwen’s boyfriend Ron, Evan Handler as Hal Prince, and Paul Reiser as producer Cy Feuer.

There are two more episodes left of Fosse/Verdon, and even though we know how it’s going to end, I still feel a sense of dread over the eventual demise of Fosse in Verdon’s arms on a Washington DC sidewalk.  Show business, whether it’s theater, movies, dance, music, television, or stand up comedy, requires a major commitment, especially if you want to rise to the top of your art form, and can also lead to neglecting other aspects of life.  The pressure to succeed and the fear of failure in a highly competitive field where relatively few make it can be so stressful that some try to relieve the stress through methods that can be even more damaging.  And the seamy side of show business emerges, not from an inherent immorality within artists, but from the unnatural way the demands and technologies of the entertainment industry can exploit and chew through talent.

But hey, that’s show biz! 😀

The real Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon performing Who’s Got the Pain? in the movie version of Damn Yankees (1958).


©2019 Robert Kirkendall

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