'Fosse/Verdon' Surges With Creativity, Excitement And Dance

Apr 5, 2019
Originally published on April 10, 2019 10:32 am
Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today's show is dominated by song and dance. First up, we'll listen back to an archive interview with Gwen Verdon, the Broadway actress and dancer who electrified audiences in everything from "Can-Can" and "Damn Yankees" to "Chicago." Along with one of her husbands, choreographer and film director Bob Fosse, she's the subject of a new FX miniseries called "Fosse/Verdon," which premieres next Tuesday. Let's begin with my review of FX's "Fosse/Verdon."

If you're a musical theater fan, just the title "Fosse/Verdon" is enough to make this new FX miniseries one of the most exciting TV prospects of the year. Gwen Verdon, who originated the onstage characters of Lola in "Damn Yankees" and Roxie Hart in "Chicago," was one of the best dancers on Broadway. Bob Fosse's particular style as both choreographer and movie director was dazzlingly different and, captured in such films as "Cabaret," still crackles with energy. This eight-part drama sets out to tell how they met, collaborated, fell in love, got married and had a daughter. But that's only part of the story, which is about a relationship that keeps going long after the marriage has been dissolved.

Two of the executive producers of "Fosse/Verdon" should be noted at the start. One is Nicole Fosse, the real-life daughter of Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon. Another is Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose Broadway success with "Hamilton" has been nothing short of phenomenal. His presence alone suggests that the musical numbers recreated here will be done with precision and reverence, and they are. And while her presence dictates that this biography of her parents is authorized, it is not an entirely flattering portrayal of either of them. The portrayals, however, are so good, it's almost a relief.

Gwen Verdon is played by Michelle Williams, who's come a long way from the WB's "Dawson's Creek," and she was good even there. In "Manchester By The Sea," "Brokeback Mountain" and "My Week With Marilyn," she's shown her versatility and sensitivity. And when I saw her take a turn starring in the recent Broadway revival of "Cabaret," she was one of the best Sallys (ph) I saw at the Roundabout Theatre, and I saw them all. And speaking of versatility, Bob Fosse is played by Sam Rockwell, who's done terrific work in everything from "Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind" and "Galaxy Quest" to "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri."

In "Fosse/Verdon," these two inhabit their roles completely and convincingly. The story isn't rolled out sequentially. It starts with the filming of "Sweet Charity" and keeps hopping backwards and forwards, revealing bits of their past a scene at a time. So I'm not doing any spoiling here by presenting a scene from when after the couple is separated but still seeking support and advice from each other. He visits her after a day working on the movie "Cabaret," and she welcomes him warmly at first, but not for long. Any worries about this drama taking it too easy on the characters are instantly alleviated.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOSSE/VERDON")

SAM ROCKWELL: (As Bob Fosse) I saw a cut in the movie.

MICHELLE WILLIAMS: (As Gwen Verdon) What's wrong with the movie?

ROCKWELL: (As Bob Fosse) Oh, just a few things. The numbers are flat. The story doesn't make - there is no story. What is the story? I'm going to see if they'll let me reshoot the whole thing. You think they'll spring for it?

WILLIAMS: (As Gwen Verdon) You felt the same way after you saw the first cut of "Charity."

ROCKWELL: (As Bob Fosse) Yeah, look how well that turned out. I was thinking maybe you could come to the editing room for a few weeks, you know, and maybe you'd see some things that I don't see. I'm feeling a little lost right now.

WILLIAMS: (As Gwen Verdon) I can't.

ROCKWELL: (As Bob Fosse) Why not?

WILLIAMS: (As Gwen Verdon) Didn't I tell you? I found a play.

ROCKWELL: (As Bob Fosse) Oh.

WILLIAMS: (As Gwen Verdon) I'm going to be in rehearsals.

ROCKWELL: (As Bob Fosse) A play, yes. A straight play?

WILLIAMS: (As Gwen Verdon) Yes.

ROCKWELL: (As Bob Fosse) Oh.

WILLIAMS: (As Gwen Verdon) So it's called "Children! Children!" It's from a brand-new writer. It's a terrific part, and then the play is just phenomenal.

ROCKWELL: (As Bob Fosse) Well, that's - congratulations. When do you start?

WILLIAMS: (As Gwen Verdon) Mel is setting up a meeting with the director first. I just want to make sure we have a good rapport and we can establish trust 'cause it's a difficult role.

ROCKWELL: (As Bob Fosse) You're going to hate it.

WILLIAMS: (As Gwen Verdon) I don't know why you would say that to me.

ROCKWELL: (As Bob Fosse) When's the last time you acted?

WILLIAMS: (As Gwen Verdon) An hour ago when you walked in the door. How'd I do?

ROCKWELL: (As Bob Fosse) That's very funny.

BIANCULLI: FX has made half of "Fosse/Verdon" available for preview. That's enough to recommend it highly, but not quite enough to allow for the rendering of a final verdict. I really like that it makes room for some of Fosse's famous friends, like Neil Simon and Paddy Chayefsky, played respectively by Nate Corddry and Norbert Leo Butz. And while I'm intrigued by others, like Margaret Qualley as Ann Reinking, I need to see more to see how this all plays out. That's because "Fosse/Verdon," written and directed by a tag team of other producers and executive producers - including Thomas Kail, Steven Levenson, Joel Fields and Charlotte Stoudt - is all over the place, emotionally and artistically. It recreates scenes from classic stage shows and movies while framing them within a frenetic, sometimes fantasy narrative. That's exactly what Bob Fosse himself did while directing the 1979 movie "All That Jazz," which was his barely fictionalized story of his own physical breakdown while juggling work on several simultaneous projects.

This FX series isn't just an homage to "All That Jazz." It plays almost like an expanded director's cut, with Verdon's half of the story given equal prominence. But the difference is Bob Fosse's "All That Jazz" was all Bob Fosse's vision and voice. And I know how he ended "All That Jazz" - boldly and brilliantly. With "Fosse/Verdon," I still haven't seen anything from the "Chicago" musical or anything else from the later years, yet I'm very eager to see what "Fosse/Verdon" presents in its second half because the first handful of episodes, like the musical numbers they recreate, are surging with creativity and excitement. It's showtime.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEIN HERR")

KELLI BARRETT: (Singing) Don't dab your eye, mein herr, or wonder why, mein herr. I've always said that I was a rover. You mustn't knit your brow. You should've known by now... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.