Every now and then along comes a TV production that is great, has first-rate performances, looks gorgeous and has smarts in spades, but isn’t an easy recommendation.
Fosse/Verdon (starts Tuesday, FX, 10 p.m.) is one such production. It’s gloriously good but demands a lot of the viewer. First, it demands that you care about the creation and execution of Broadway musicals and movie adaptations of the genre. Second, it obliges the viewer to enter into a non-linear storyline, one that flits back and forth over several decades of showbiz-life triumphs and failures. Third, and and most forcefully, it demands that you care deeply about Bob Fosse, the celebrated New York choreographer and film director, and his on/off relationship with the great dancer and actress Gwen Verdon, a woman who was Fosse’s often unaccredited collaborator and muse.
Enter into it and the eight-part series is fabulous, a fine and sometimes searing depiction of creativity and self-destruction. It’s about a relationship and a man selfishly wreaking havoc, and yet it approaches the relationship without an easy judgement in mind. It’s about those long, long hours in the rehearsal rooms and studios where the magic is created but only after gruelling repetition and furious arguments. It is both funny and moving. It makes you think yes, go into that cauldron of hard physical labour, raging egos and terrifying insecurities, and an addiction to pills and booze is understandable.
Of course, it wouldn’t work without two superb actors committed to the lead roles. Sam Rockwell, an Oscar-winner for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, plays Fosse with a formidable command of the layers of doubt, egotism, desperation, depression and fragility in the iconic figure. If this were a movie, the Fosse figure would be a one-dimensional, self-destructive genius. Here, he is no such thing. There is a profound subtlety to Rockwell’s depiction of a very complicated, needy man who seems to be longing for death as much as he longs for applause. Michelle Williams plays Verdon with a wonderfully controlled sense of the woman’s total commitment to her art and craft while always standing on the edge of an emotional abyss.
At first, Fosse/Verdon concentrates on the period that made Fosse legendary. He’s directing the film version of Sweet Charity while anxious studio bosses try to diminish any overt sexual themes in it. Verdon is helping with the choreography and essentially saving the movie by adding sex to the dancing. Then the series goes almost seamlessly into Fosse prepping and directing the film version of Cabaret. There is a wonderful scene in which Fosse demands that real prostitutes be found to sit in the audience of some nightclub scenes. There is a visceral sense of the toil and sweat that went into the radiant dance sequences. Verdon is helping out with the choreography and Fosse is, inevitably, sleeping with someone else.
Later, the series – which often amounts to sequences that are more than vignettes but less than full theatre-like acts – dwells on the beginning of the romantic and creative relationship between Fosse and the dancer who would bolster everything he did. The second episode has a gloriously good depiction of that first meeting as Verdon, already a star, is obliged to audition for Fosse, who is then an upstart, a fiendishly clever, obsessive man with cigarette permanently in his lips and a permanently calculating look in his eyes.
In a way, Fosse/Verdon is out to set the record straight. It wants to give credit to Verdon for the input she had into Fosse’s lauded work. It does that without depicting Verdon as an angelic, blameless victim. There is real emotional heft to the scenes in which Verdon manipulates Fosse into taking charge of a production of Chicago (in which she will star) while the man is obviously in a frighteningly fragile state. Along the way, the series assumes the viewer knows something about Broadway, about theatre and about musicals. In some advance reviews this assumption has been attacked but, as the critic for The Washington Pose pointed out, “No one complains that a movie about a baseball legend never stops to explain baseball.”
The fact that Fosse/Verdon exists and demands that you accept a non-linear plot and the importance of dance and choreography is both a testament to the limitless possibilities of TV drama right now, and to FX’s commitment to confronting viewers with drama as art. The series is essentially the work of Broadway creators, with some of the writing by Steven Levenson (Dear Evan Hansen), one of the directors being Thomas Kail (Hamilton), and one of the producers being Lin-Manuel Miranda who wrote the book, music and lyrics for Hamilton.
This is not a love note to Broadway, or anything of the sort. It’s a ravishing, compelling depiction of creativity, work, betrayal and personal failure and glory. It’s about how performance ravishes the people who make it glorious.