FOSSE/VERDON - A PAIR OF ACES
Bob Fosse grew up wanting to become Fred Astaire.
Problem was - when he grew up Fred Astaire was still dancing and, more importantly, the public didn’t want another Fred Astaire. Musicals were a dying movie genre.
One thing Fosse did have in common with Fred is that they both lost their hair. Unlike Fred who went out and got a great hair piece made, Fosse started to wear hats. Not only did he wear them, he incorporated them into his dances and, when he started to choreograph, into his choreography. Hats went out of style but not in Fosse’s world.
Fosse did get to perform in a great movie musical, Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate based on Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. Ann Miller, who played Bianca, tells the story that Fosse did his own choreography in the movie - and with the legendary Hermes Pan (Astaire’s personal choreographer) as the movie’s choreographer, it was incredible that they let Fosse do that, but the result is one of the first modern dance routines to be put on film.
Gwen Verdon was a broadway baby who danced and sang her way to four Tonys in six years. She was incredibly versatile, making hits of some musicals that have long since been put in mothballs (Redhead). Her lasting fame is as part of one of the great marriages of artists. While they never rivaled the publicity showered on the most famous husband and wife team of their time (Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton), they made more and better art together. Fosse pulled off one of the great trifectas in entertainment history winning a Tony, Oscar and Emmy in 1973 for directing Pippen, Cabaret and Liza With a Z.
FX’s new series, Fosse/Verdon wants you to know that the iconic musicals produced by Fosse were really a team effort. Written by Steven Levenson and Joel Fields, the series starts with a look at the team in the 1960s. Fosse has directed the movie, Sweet Charity, which he directed on Broadway starring Verdon. Of course, the studio wanted a big name so it hired Shirley MacLaine ( who started as a dancer). If you ever saw that movie, you know that while the movie has some Fosse touches, they get buried in the glitz of then-Hollywood’s idea of a musical. The public wasn’t buying it. The movie cost $20 million ($146m today) and made less than half that at the box office. Strangely, another great director, Francis Ford Coppola, would make his Hollywood directing debut that same year with Finian’s Rainbow which bombed at the box office. Four years later both would make comeback classic films, Fosse with Cabaret and Coppola with The Godfather. Fosse would beat Coppola for the Oscar for Best Director while The Godfather would win Best Film.
Sam Rockwell has transformed himself again, this time as a charming devil who just happens to have a vision of what the musical should look like for an audience that no longer wants to see Fred and (fill in the blank) dance off into movie musical bliss.
And Michele Williams does that voodoo that only she does so well, transforming herself into Gwen Verdon. Williams has taken on some of the most difficult roles and made them look easy - from Marilyn Monroe on film to Sally Bowles in theater.
While there is much to love about Fosse/Verdon, the series does suffer from some enduring cliches, like the Hollywood producers who never seem to understand that great art can be very profitable. It seems that Hollywood is always underestimating the geniuses whom it hires in the first place because of their genius. I have heard it so often, it must be true, right?
Fosse and Verdon had intertwining careers but as his career took off in the late 60s and 70s, Verdon was having trouble finding good roles as aging actresses always had in those days (are we any better today?).
The series, judging from the initial episode, looks like a winner. And in trying to tell the story of how great art is made, that is not an easy task. Few movies or TV series have pulled it off and the reason is simple - artistic genius is not easily explained, and, often, defies explanation (think of all those theories about who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays because it couldn’t be an uneducated rube like Shakespeare, could it?).
Unlike the streaming giant Netflix, FX is releasing one show a week for eight weeks so you’ll have to be patient - a thing that Fosse never was.
Fosse/Verdon airs Tuesdays on FX at 10 pm Eastern. Episodes will be on FX’s streaming platforms after air.
1. All That Jazz from the musical Chicago which Fosse directed, choreographed and wrote the book while Verdon starred in the original stage version as Roxie Hart.
2. Heart from the musical Damn Yankees which Fosse did the choreography for both play and movie while Verdon starred as Lola in both, too.
3. Cabaret from the movie Cabaret which Fosse directed (winning an Oscar for Best Director) and choreographed.
4. Big Spender from Sweet Charity which Fosse directed and choreographed while Verdon starred on Broadway. Fosse directed the movie which lost a ton of money, many thought because Shirley MacLaine couldn’t do the title role as well as Verdon.
5. From This Moment On from Kiss Me Kate which Fosse starred in as one of the dancing suitors of the Shrew’s younger sister. Take a look at this great dance sequence form the movie.
6. Whatever Lola Wants from Damn Yankees - take a look at Verdon in this classic.
7. It’s Alright with Me from Can-Can which verdon starred in and won her first Tony.
8. Just In Time from Bells Are Ringing which Fosse choreographed along with Jerome Robbins.
9. I Could Write a Book from Pal Joey. Fosse played the lead in the 1963 revival and won a Tony (unlike the movie, the original B’way musical saw Joey Evans as a dancer not a singer and so Fosse was a natural for it).
10. On Broadway from the autobiographical movie, All That Jazz written, directed and choreographed by Fosse. Take a look at this incredible opening sequence of the movie.