“FOSSE/VERDON”, a new mini-series about two Broadway legends, could have been a simple paean to the magic of the stage. Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell), a director, and his wife Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams), a dancer, helped to create hits such as “Damn Yankees!”, “Chicago” and “Cabaret”. There is plenty of exquisite choreography, as legs kick in perfect time and dazzling costumes shimmer on twisting bodies, plus a sparkling rendition of “Big Spender”. Elsewhere, in a fantasy scene, Fosse twirls effortlessly down a corridor, surrounded by colourful dancers.
But the show turns out to be a surprisingly moving examination of the characters of Fosse and Verdon, as well as their extraordinary careers. It opens with the build-up to “Cabaret”, Fosse’s best-known film, which he directed and choreographed in 1971. The viewer is transported from Hollywood to damp, dark Munich, where it was shot, and the pressure is palpable. The film cannot afford to be “another $20m fiasco”, a producer warns, referring to one of Fosse’s previous misses. Fosse, in turn, takes it out on his crew. “I wanna see every muscle, every tendon,” he barks during exhausting rehearsals for “Mein Herr”, one of the nightclub songs. After seeing the first cut, he moans to his assistant that “it’s unwatchable”. On the night of the premiere, he paces in the auditorium rather than watching the film (it was a box-office triumph and would go on to win eight Oscars). His personal torment, and abject terror of failure, is clear.
The programme dances back and forth in time. Title cards, such as “Hollywood: 19 years left” and “Gwen Verdon: 14 years after her last Tony award”, contextualise the scenes, which range across five decades. It allows the viewer to see patterns emerge. A flashback to Fosse’s childhood dance classes, for example—“don’t show me the effort, Bobby, don’t show me the sweat. All they wanna see is that smile”—helps to explain Fosse’s treatment of his own dancers. Depictions of his career highs jar with his descent into depression and alcoholism, as well as scenes of childhood abuse. His wild lifestyle of pills, sex, parties and more pills, is juxtaposed with images of Verdon feeding their daughter dinner and arranging child care. The effect is troubling, and powerful.
Mr Rockwell’s thoughtful and pained performance elicits a surprising amount of sympathy for Fosse, even as he behaves appallingly. One excruciating scene shows a lead dancer refusing his sexual advances; she is subsequently fired. But the decision to give Verdon equal billing in the production was a wise one (the series was originally adapted from “Fosse”, a biography written in 2013, but the producers realised that this would result in a narrow, uneven story). She emerges as a quiet kind of hero, helped by an elegant performance by Ms Williams.
Verdon, as well as being Fosse’s long-suffering wife, was his creative collaborator. Her career peaked in the 1950s, when she won a string of Tony awards, but she gradually lost her hold over Hollywood and was eventually eclipsed by her husband. Yet when “Cabaret” hits a crisis—the endless rehearsals are ruining the shooting schedule, and the budget—it is Verdon that Fosse needs, begging her to come and join him in Germany. She sweeps in, taking charge of hair and make-up and fine-tuning the dancing. Where Fosse had used the dancers as moving props, Verdon makes them into fleshed-out characters with backstories. As such, “Fosse/Verdon” reminds viewers that great feats are rarely accomplished alone (a theme that Lin-Manuel Miranda, an executive producer of the series, touched upon in “Hamilton”, his own musical hit).
Tributes to Tinseltown and Broadway, such as “La La Land”, often focus on the glamour and romanticism of it all. “Fosse/Verdon” is all the better for lifting the stage curtain to look at the people behind it. The series understands that while show business projects an image of human perfection, its masters are as flawed as they are brilliant.
“Fosse/Verdon” is showing on FX in America now. It will be released in Britain on BBC Two later this year