Premiering Tuesday, April 9, Fosse/Verdon marks the first television collaboration between the theater trio, Thomas Kail (Hamilton), Steven Levenson (Dear Evan Hansen) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton). The Tony winners—joined by The Americans’ Joel Fields—are responsible for bringing the complicated lives and wildly successful careers of Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon to television, with Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams expertly embodying the titular roles.
Largely based on the Sam Wasson biography Fosse, the eight-episode series explores the dynamic between Fosse and Verdon, whose romantic and creative partnership spanned five decades. Considered by many a visionary of the stage and screen whose choreography still influences modern pop culture, Fosse was also a heavy drinker and womanizer. As for Verdon, she may have been Broadway’s best dancer of all time, but she was more than a muse and sought autonomy beyond the stage. There’s song, there’s dance, there’s plenty of drama.
Filling out the rest of their world are key players—Paddy Chayefsky (Norbert Leo Butz), Ann Reinking (Margaret Qualley), Cy Feuer (Paul Reiser), Joan Simon (Aya Cash), Neil Simon (Nate Corddry), Hal Prince (Evan Handler), Joan McCracken (Susan Misner), Liza Minnelli (Kelli Barrett), Chita Rivera (Bianca Marroquin)—who move in and out of their lives as their careers bounce between the stage and screen.
While many longtime theater fans may know the highlights of Fosse’s work, the show will likely be an introduction to those who may not know his name beyond reference to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” music video. And when it comes to Verdon, with most of her prominent work limited to the stage, many may be surprised to learn just how influential she was behind the scenes of Fosse’s film career. With that said, the series will undoubtedly be an eye-opening and educational experience that will reshape how audiences view both entertainers.
To help get everyone caught up—or to let them explore beyond the show—NewNowNext put together a syllabus for watching Fosse/Verdon.
With the premiere opening with Fosse directing scenes from the 1969 film adaptation of the hit musical, this is a good place to start. Written by Neil Simon, it’s one the many overlapping projects for Verdon, who starred in the musical about a dancer-for-hire in Times Square, and Fosse, who directed and choreographed the original production. While Fosse went on to direct the film version, Shirley MacLaine (portrayed by Laura Osnes) took over for Verdon opposite Rivera. While the stage version earned nine Tony nominations and won one for Fosse, the film flopped at the box office.
Bringing Fosse’s career—and the FX series—full circle, the choreographer died of a heart attack the day the revival was opening at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C.
Early episodes of the series focus on the filming of the famed 1972 adaptation, which was fraught with troubles behind the scenes thanks to Fosse’s mix of ambition and self-doubt. Despite issues in the editing room, the final cut earned eight Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Actress for Minnelli. Broadway fans will recognize Ethan Slater as Joel Grey in recreated scenes from the movie.
Because the show does not unfold in chronological order, audiences don’t see the start of Fosse and Verdon’s relationship until the second episode, when they meet on the 1955 Broadway production of Damn Yankees. Despite initial contention for one another, they proved to be each other’s match. While the focus of the series is mostly on the duo’s creation of “Who’s Got the Pain?”—a delight to watch—Verdon’s film rendition of “Whatever Lola Wants” is not to be missed.
Riding high off of the success of Cabaret, Fosse’s ego reaches new heights during the development of Pippin for Broadway. Nominated for 11 Tonys, the 1972 production earns Fosse two for direction and choreography. Most notably, it’s where he first meets the much younger Reinking, who, after refusing advances, goes on to be Fosse’s only major relationship after his two failed marriages with McCracken and Verdon.
Liza With a Z
While mostly seen in the background of the series, the television special helps cement Fosse’s rise to the top, earning him three Emmy awards in the same year he collected his two Tonys for Pippin and an Oscar for Cabaret. Fans of Minnelli will get their fill early in the series, with her appearing on the set of Cabaret. But the special is worth appreciating all on its own.
As Difficult People creator and star Julie Klausner put it in The New Yorker, “She shimmies around the stage with ants in her pants; her breasts bounce and her slim hips, when checked, dash for the wings like pebbles out of a slingshot, but even though her star-billing body is a wild, cursive love letter, you can’t forget to study her face the whole time.” And that’s something not to be missed!
While Sweet Charity somewhat represents the arc of Fosse’s career, Chicago is that for Verdon, who spent a decade trying to secure the story rights so she and Fosse could bring it to Broadway. Mentioned several times throughout the first of the series, Chicago plays a pivotal part in the latter-half as fans get to see Verdon’s eagerness to do the project boil over.
After Verdon originated the role of Roxie in 1975, Reinking went on to choreograph (“in the style of Bob Fosse”) and play Roxie in a 1996 revival, which is still open on Broadway today. (Fans of Jerry Orbach, who originated the role of Billy Flynn, can look for Broadway’s Tyler Hanes as his stand-in on the series.) The only film version—which is worth watching regardless of the series—is the 2002 one directed by Rob Marshall and starring Renée Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
After Fosse’s meteoric rise to the top, he came crashing down and ended up spending a brief time in a mental institution. Following his release, he quickly took on two projects: Chicago and Lenny, a film adaptation of the Lenny Bruce play starring Dustin Hoffman. The latter paralleled Fosse’s own troubled trajectory of substance issues and suicidal tendencies, worrying his friends and family.
On set, Fosse and Hoffman (portrayed by Brandon Uranowitz) didn’t get along, a fact noted in Wasson’s book. But Klausner puts it best: “They were two jerks with their seventies schlongs swinging all over the place and getting away with murder because of their talent.”
All That Jazz
While it’s unclear if the making of All That Jazz will be depicted on the show—press was only provided five episodes in advance—it’s unlikely that it’ll be completely overlooked given the fact that the film is a semi-autobiographical take on Fosse’s career and life with Verdon and Reinking. Besides, it’s the film that kind of says it all.
Bonus: Cocoon and Cocoon: The Return
With most of the series focused on the dynamic between Fosse and Verdon, the dancer’s aspirations off stage are largely not depicted on screen. It wasn’t until after Chicago, which was her last stage performance, that she extended her career with screen roles. While she earned several Emmy nominations for her supporting roles in Magnum, P.I., Dream On, and Homicide: Life on the Street, her most notable (and appreciated) film work has to be her role as Bess McCarthy in Ron Howard’s sci-fi hit, Cocoon, about a community of elderly people who gain unusual powers from alien pods in a nearby pool.