For eight weeks, FX is airing Fosse/Verdon, a limited series about iconic choreographer/director Bob Fosse and legendary dancer Gwen Verdon, his wife and creative partner. Besides being catnip for theater fans, their story raises thoughts and questions about love, art, sacrifice, exploitation, abuse, and other topics that are both timely and timeless. This series explores both the aesthetic aspects of the show and its handling of those topics.
Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. King Solomon wrote that, but if he hadn’t, Bob Fosse might have. In 1973 he experienced a level of success that few other artists have achieved, winning an Oscar for directing Cabaret, two Tonys for directing and choreographing Pippin, and three Emmys for directing, choreographing, and co-producing Liza Minnelli’s television concert Liza with a Z. But in this week’s episode of Fosse/Verdon, the more the awards pile up, the more miserable Bob becomes.
He’s immersed in what a therapist would call “negative self-talk,” constantly telling himself and anyone else in the vicinity that everyone is going to hate his work. And when it turns out they love his work—when his work is so lauded that he has “total freedom” to do whatever project he wants—he’s miserable anyway. He works harder than ever, and when he’s not working, he resorts to drugs, partying, and women—lots and lots of women—for consolation. But none of it can pull him out of his downward spiral.
Fosse’s friend Paddy Chayefsky, slumped in the back of a limousine with him, accurately diagnoses the thinking behind his misery: “It’s all just bull****. . . . [But] it’s not that the world is bull****. You’re bull****. You’re bull****. And if you’re bull****, and they’re giving you an award, they must be bull**** too. . . . You could win a hundred [awards], Bob; it’s bull**** all the way down.” (Stop helping, Paddy.)
The worst of it is that although Bob feels uneasy with all this acclaim and power, he has no problem abusing it. In an incident apparently drawn from several such real-life incidents, he tries to force himself on Sherry, a dancer from the cast of his new show, Pippin. After she resists—to the point of knocking him down—she loses her featured role in the show. “Lousy dancer or bad lay?” Gwen asks perceptively, watching Bob make the change in the rehearsal room.
It’s worth noting that Sam Wasson’s biography of Fosse, on which the show is based, is pretty good on this deeply troubling aspect of the man. There are moments when Wasson looks at Fosse’s abuses through glasses that are entirely too rose-colored. (Dealing with him was a bonding experience for dancers! Isn’t that special!) But to his credit, he interviewed many of the dancers whom Fosse exploited, and potently portrayed the mixture of desperation, ambition, and low self-esteem that made many of them easy prey. Equipped with a toxic blend of power, talent, and self-absorption, coupled with the ability to charm and the ability to bully, Fosse lured in enough women to start a #MeToo movement all their own.
While Bob’s professional life is soaring and his personal life is crumbling, Gwen is moving in the opposite direction. Her play is a colossal flop, closing after one night. But regarding family life, she gets a wake-up call from her dear friend Joan Simon (Aya Cash), who’s in the hospital with an illness that we soon discover to be terminal. The show executes a neat little bait-and-switch here, for just as we think Joan is about to beg Gwen to watch over Joan’s children, Joan instead begs Gwen to watch over her own child. As a former dancer and the wife of playwright Neil Simon, Joan knows a thing or two about the showbiz life. Children who grow up in rehearsal rooms, she warns, tend to “grow up too fast.”
Gwen takes the words to heart and concentrates anew on motherhood. She’s also moved on romantically, finding a new boyfriend. (When Bob stumbles into Gwen’s apartment one night and attempts to surprise her in bed, hilarity ensues.) She’s still interested in getting Bob to direct Chicago for her, but at the moment he’s focused on Pippin, the show about—who’d’a thunk!—a man trying to find meaning and purpose in life.
The parallels between Pippin’s quest and Bob’s life are a little on-the-nose at times, but they’re so obvious that it would have been hard not to take advantage of them. Of course, Bob has to take that quest to extremes. To the dismay of the show’s writer/composer, Stephen Schwartz, Bob pushes for a scene showing the other characters tempting Pippin to set himself on fire. With seemingly everything to live for, both the character and the director are grasping for a reason, any reason, to go on.
A Broadway musical of the old school might have suggested that romantic love was the answer to all of its lead characters’ problems, the hope of salvation right here on earth. Fosse/Verdon knows better. For Fosse, romantic love is something to fall back on when lust lets him down, but by that time the lust has eaten away at the love until there’s little left. He and Gwen are still able and willing to comment on each other’s work, but at this point they’re unable to be there for each other in the way they once were.
When Gwen comes to rehearsal and watches Bob give dancer Ann Reinking (a spot-on Margaret Qualley) the featured role that had belonged to Sherry, we’re watching a faint echo of the earlier scene where Joan McCracken watched Bob rehearsing with a young Gwen. Unlike most, Ann has held out against Bob’s advances for a while, but those who know their Broadway history know that she won’t hold out forever. They also know that Ann won’t be Bob’s last or only romantic interest.
There is no permanence, no lasting comfort, in romantic love for Bob Fosse. But there’s still Nicole, who has come to serve as a sort of touchstone for both her parents. When Fosse is finally driven to a colorful Pippin-themed hallucination of various loved ones urging him toward suicide, telling him it would be the bravest and most memorable act of all, it’s the image of his little girl that yanks him back from the brink. In a nicely creative touch, the Pippin song “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man” is repurposed for Nicole to sing to her father in this dream sequence, and young Blake Baumgartner nails it, singing with a quiet but piercing matter-of-factness.
We end with Bob waking up in the psychiatric ward to which he has committed himself, having decided that not quite everything is vanity and chasing after the wind. There’s one relationship he hasn’t damaged, one person worth going on for. His daughter still loves him and needs him.
It’s a bold move for a show that has taken us so far into this man’s darkness and despair to end a cliffhanger on a note of hope, however tentative. But there are still questions to be answered. Can he be the man that his daughter needs him to be? What will that require of him? What will “going on” look like, and is it possible to do more than just “go on” the way he has been? Choosing life was a start, but only a start; figuring out how to live is going to be the hard part.