Two years on from the premiere of Feud: Bette and Joan, FX is bringing us another ravishing Old Hollywood saga about a complex, decades-long relationship. But unlike Feud, Fosse/Verdon is a love story, chronicling the creative and romantic partnership between director and choreographer Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell), and his muse, dancer Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams).
Though the show (based on the book Fosse by Sam Wasson) is still in production in Los Angeles, Williams and Rockwell made an appearance at the Television Critics Association press tour Monday alongside the show’s writers and producers, and offered some hints about what to expect. At the center of the show is “a collaboration between a woman who, in her prime, was the greatest dancer of her generation, and a man who wanted to be Fred Astaire and was not allowed to be Fred Astaire,” executive producer Thomas Kail said.
Below, everything you need to about Fosse/Verdon ahead of its April 9 premiere.
1) The show will dismantle the narrative of “the lone male genius”.
And not a moment too soon! “This felt like an opportunity to examine how things are actually made,” Kail said, “and a chance to address the narrative of the lone male genius, and try to look beyond that to see what’s happening where your eye is not supposed to go.”
While Fosse is the more recognizable name of the two, Fosse/Verdon will emphasize Verdon’s importance, bringing to mind the idiom that behind every great man is a great woman. “There’s an incredible photo of Bob on the set of Sweet Charity, directing the dancers,” executive producer Steven Levenson recalled, “and if you crop it in such a way, it looks like it’s just Bob, this lone white male genius, creating the film out of whole cloth. But if you zoom out, you see that Gwen Verdon was standing right next to him directing another group of dancers.”
2) You may want to re-watch All That Jazz before the series premiere.
Bob Fosse’s 1979 movie All That Jazz was a semi-autobiographical drama about the staging of a Broadway musical, and as such loomed large for the writers of Fosse/Verdon. “We’re tasked with telling the story of these two people, one of whom already told the story of his life as he wanted it told,” Levenson acknowledged. “That puts a certain responsibility on us, but also gives us a certain freedom. We know enough to know what he left out, the things he embellished, the things he might have glided over, now we have the task of telling it in our voice from our perspective.”
The biggest difference between the two is that All That Jazz is entirely Bob’s story, and “the character who is closest to Gwen is not as central a figure as she is in this show. We’re amending the story that he told there and reinserting Gwen, who we think is of primary importance.”
3) Fosse and Verdon’s daughter was a consultant on the series.
Nicole Fosse, the daughter of Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, was also on hand at the panel to discuss her parents’ legacy, and how All That Jazz (in which she appeared at the age of sixteen) sits alongside Fosse/Verdon. “All That Jazz is a bit of a whitewashed, romanticized version of his life,” she said, “and I think this really goes much more deeply into what was really going on in his relationships with Gwen and all of the people in his life… All That Jazz was a nod to Fellini, and this is not a nod to Fellini.”
Fosse was a vital resource to the writers in terms of authenticity, Levenson added. “Nicole has been a constant from the very beginning of working on this show, and has given us a tremendous wealth of information and archival materials,” he said, adding that Fosse also introduced the creators to many dancers who worked with her parents. “We have the Vernon Fosse Legacy where we’ve collected dancers that worked with Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon the way a ballet company or a repertory company would be run,” Fosse explained. “We reconstruct the dances and pass on the choreography to the next generation, and so we had some of the Legacy dancers come and work with Michelle and Sam.”
4) The writers exercised extreme caution when it came to depicting real people.
FX could be forgiven for having some concerns on this front, given that Olivia de Havilland sued the creators of Feud (unsuccessfully) over her depiction in the series. “I will say we are incredibly careful when we talk about living people, and it’s certainly not our desire to impugn anyone at all,” said Levenson. Executive producer Joel Fields added, “We are also careful when we are depicting non-living people. We are looking to do something that is authentic. And having Nicole is an incredible asset because she’s able to share not only the facts as she remembers them, but the emotional experience.”
5) Both protagonists are depicted as deeply complicated.
“From the people that I’ve spoken to, the thing I kept hearing over and over again was that she was like the sunshine in the room,” Michelle Williams said of discovering who Verdon was. “I’ve come to think of her as someone who is always trying their hardest, and will occasionally be backed up against a wall where she’s cornered and things aren’t in her control anymore. But as much as she could … she was constantly trying to rise above and be her best self at all times.” Williams added that Marilyn Monroe once said, based on her experience with Verdon: “If Verdon can’t teach you how to dance, you are rhythm bankrupt with two left feet.”
Of Fosse, Rockwell said, “He’s a very complex guy, Bob, and there’s maybe a little bit of narcissism, but he was also a very kind man.” In reference to Fosse’s muses—including Gwen and other women—Rockwell added, “I think there was an addictive thing with him.”
6) Rockwell and Williams went through intensive training to convincingly depict Fosse and Verdon’s dance moves.
“Michelle and I can hoof,” Rockwell quipped during the panel. “I think we’re pretty good movers, but this is a whole other realm. As Michelle said one day, they look like normal people, and then they get up and dance and they’re superheroes.” Williams, who has appeared on Broadway a number of times herself, said that dancing is a passion that’s come to her only recently. “I danced a little bit as a kid, but not anything to write home about, and all of a sudden in the last decade, it just keeps coming up for me. It’s a place that I have found an unexpected amount of joy, and so I keep wanting to return to it.”
7) The show will not sugarcoat the darker side of its central relationship.
Fosse and Verdon may have only been married for eleven years, but they remained deeply connected throughout both of their lives, and the show will explore both the touching and troubling aspects of that fact. “This becomes the story of this marriage which never actually ended,” Levenson said. “Bob Fosse actually died in Gwen Verdon’s arms on the way to the opening night of Sweet Charity, the revival, in Washington DC.” (So… finale spoiler!)
“You think that you know what this is, but their relationship does unexpected things, and that dynamic is constantly shifting,” Levenson continued. “There was a rivalry between them. There was a love between them. There was a friendship between them. And throughout it all, they together and separately create this astonishing work.”
One of the central questions of the show becomes what exactly is keeping these two people bound together, Levenson added. “They were together in one another’s lives for the rest of Bob’s life, and it doesn’t feel like that’s what’s going to happen. It certainly didn’t to me. And so what keeps two people together? It’s not necessarily in a healthy relationship, but these two people never were able to separate.”
Williams poetically called the pair “twin souls, yin and yang, always chasing each other and shaping each other,” while Rockwell added that they’re “Siamese twins in a way, emotionally.”
8) The Time’s Up era had a major influence on the show.
Early on in the project, Levenson admitted that he and his fellow writers wondered “Is this a story that needs to be told?” and were convinced to do so after revelations about male abuse in Hollywood began to emerge. “There are so many troubling aspects of this story. And it was right around then that this incredible explosion of the truth, in this industry in particular, came to light. It suddenly felt like, oh, no, we have to tell this story.”
Fosse added that the show aims to cast light on Hollywood’s present abuses by depicting its past. “It’s a conversation that never ends,” she said, “and we need to see how far everything has come, and how different things used to be. We’re looking at what was marginally acceptable in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, and how vastly different that is now.” The show focuses on “the effort made to find the gray areas, and not go into black and white thinking, because people can do terrible things and still be good people.”
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