While musical biopics on Queen, Elton John & Judy Garland take to the silver screen, television turns its attention to the electric Broadway duo Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon.
Fosse was the genius who took Cabaret and turned it into a star vehicle for Liza Minnelli. But this choreographer / director also left a dance legacy distinctive for his style of turned-in knees, sideways shuffling, rolled shoulders, jazz hands and constant use of hats in his work. This tortured, addicted, perfectionist was portrayed, in effect, by Roy Scheider in All That Jazz -a work Fosse himself directed.
Gwen Verdon was the talented triple-threat singer / dancer / actress who featured in Broadway hits Can-Can, Damn Yankees, Redhead, Sweet Charity and Chicago. She was also Fosse’s wife and muse, personifying the ‘woman behind the man.’ But the two had a torrid relationship, rising and falling with work and Fosse’s infidelity.
In Fosse / Verdon their lives form the Acts of an 8 part miniseries with Sam Rockwell as Fosse and Michelle Williams as Verdon.
The narrative rewinds and fast-forwards through chapters (and productions) of their lives with Broadway songs providing an infectious soundtrack. We open in Hollywood “19 Years Left” at the time of Sweet Charity, directing a young Shirley Maclaine (Laura Osnes), as he and Verdon instruct dancers how to motivate their characters. The two are a creative force but the $20m film’s sluggish sales nearly sink Universal Pictures.
He pleads with producer Cy Fueur (Paul Reiser) to direct Cabaret but Cy is not convinced.
“You do style, flash ….but this movie needs a different touch,” says Cy.
After much convincing Cy sends him to West Germany with a young Liza (Kelli Barrett) and a Hollywood crew. As Fosse meticulously creates a dark world of burlesque, homosexuals, Nazis and musical numbers the project lags behind. But he also has an affair with translator (Christiane Seidel). When Gwen is summoned to Germany, she will work wonders with the film’s creative aspects.
“I just know how to speak Bob,” she tells Cy.
But marital truths are much harder to fix than a quick flourish of jazz hands.
Throughout the script by Steven Levenson we see flashbacks to Fosse’s life, as a young dancer with ambitions of being the next Fred Astaire, but always with pangs of inadequacy.
“There’s always someone better than you,” a director tell him. “I can replace you a hundred times.”
Director Thomas Kail artfully fuses present / past into one location so that Rockwell can be looking at his own dance lessons as a child from the confines of his bedroom.
Rockwell is constantly depicted with cigarette drooping from his lips (in All That Jazz Scheider’s character was a chain smoker having a coronary artery bypass surgery). The ageing make-up and balding is somewhat distracting allowing his performance to shine as the younger Fosse, especially in rehearsal room scenes.
Michelle Williams, looks remarkably like a young Shirley Maclaine, but brings a wonderfully-grounded quality to this busy world. Or perhaps that’s just what Gwen Verdon did in real life. Her dance recreations are particularly good. Episode 2 is memorable for their first meeting at a Damn Yankees rehearsal, when Fosse was already married to actress Joan McCracken (Susan Misner).
Fosse / Verdon is based on a biography of Fosse by Sam Wasson, and daughter Nicole Fosse is one of its producers. While I can’t quite satisfy the question of “why now?” this needs to be made, there’s little doubt it makes an often-overlooked chapter of American music theatre more accessible to modern audiences.
Fosse / Verdon were a creative force and the applause for Rockwell / Williams will linger long.
Fosse / Verdon airs 8:30pm Sunday on FOX Showcase.
Bob Fosse: It’s Showtime! hosted by Caroline O’Connor also airs 7:30pm Thursday May 23rd on Foxtel Arts.