‘Fosse/Verdon’ is not just for theatre nerds

Monday, April 15, 2019 - 8:52pm

"Fosse/Verdon"

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Though not only for theater nerds, the FX miniseries “Fosse/Verdon” requires a bit more background than usual to appreciate the story it tells. The works of Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell, “Vice”), director of legendary musicals and movies such as “Chicago” and “Cabaret,” are household names by now, this series instead focusing on his relationship with his wife Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams, “Venom”), one of the greatest Broadway actresses/dancers of all time. It paints a familiar portrait of the artist as a complete asshole, but offers it in a compelling manner, even if the show is somewhat disjointed at parts.

We watch the relationship of this legendary couple unfurl through a series of reversals in power, celebrity and a combination of time and place that let it all happen. In 1969, Fosse’s directorial debut “Sweet Charity” was an enormous flop, leaving critics questioning why Verndon, who originated the role to acclaim on Broadway, was replaced by the underwhelming Shirley Maclaine.

From there, we follow Fosse as he pursues his “second chance” of sort, what would later become “Cabaret.” Verdon is a catalyst throughout, and Williams skillfully portrays the real-life figure through different eras. Verdon clearly struggles at balancing the different aspects of her career, from being a mother to being an artist to being a supportive wife to her talented, but frankly quite difficult, husband. She makes sacrifices she has no obligation to make and mediates the myriad conflicts her husband has with the producers attempting to give him his second chance.

Rockwell renders Fosse with a familiar intensity, constantly teetering on the edge of the desire to live and create and the desire to jump off the balcony of his apartment. While he and Verdon were certainly instrumental in changing the entire landscape of dancing in theater, the show doesn’t (and rightfully so) fully commit to glamorizing its main subjects. Fosse is shown as a serial adulterer, harasser and manipulator, but stops short of analyzing the impact of this behavior further, at least early on.

One thing the show does get right is the depiction of the art of dance. While I’m not familiar with the more nuanced aspects, I came out with a greater appreciation of it. We’re all familiar with “Jazz Hands(!!)” and turned-in knees, so it is even more fascinating to learn the intricate the ideas behind them.

What I ultimately want to see from the show moving forward is a deeper understanding of the complex relationship between Fosse and Verdon. As of now, their combined story feels entirely disjointed. The strongest moments of interaction are shown in the first time they met, but other than that, we see little of the great creative collaboration we’ve come to expect by the show’s promotional materials. It would also be great to see the disintegration of their relationship primarily through Verdon’s perspective — we’ve seen stories of “complex,” artistic men and their vices before, and the weakest direction “Fosse/Verdon” could take is simply becoming a regurgitation of the same thing.