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.
“Welcome, ladies and gentlemen,” coos a top-hatted, tuxedoed Gwen Verdon at the outset of this week’s episode. “You’re about to witness a story of greed, exploitation, adultery, and treachery—all the things we hold near and dear to our hearts.”
Imaginary emcee Gwen takes us through this episode much as imaginary standup comedian Bob took us through the last one, offering her own stylishly cynical take on the unfolding events. Not that they require much extra cynicism. As we follow Chicago through the rehearsal period and into its first few months on Broadway, the relationship between its star and its director is even darker than anything in that famously dark musical. For all that Gwen has given him—patience with his foibles, support in his recent illness, and the chance to create another hit musical—Bob seems bound and determined to punish her.
If Bob had been able to accept the fact that Gwen had gifts and connections that he didn’t, things might have been very different.In the blandest and most nonchalant of voices (and Sam Rockwell excels at this passive-aggressive business), he undermines Gwen in dozens of little ways, always with the excuse that he’s doing what’s best for the show. Behind her back—sometimes when she’s just barely out of earshot—he mutters to others about how her age is affecting her performance. He makes her sit on co-star Jerry Orbach’s lap for one dance number, instead of modifying the choreography or slowing the number down for her. When Gwen begs for a new closing number to end the show on a more triumphant note, Bob has the songwriters come up with a terrific new song, “Nowadays” (though only after other cast members support her request). Then he suggests making it a duet between her and co-star Chita Rivera.
At this, Gwen finally loses it. If Bob likes to inflict death by a thousand cuts, Gwen prefers to plunge a knife straight into the jugular: “I could have let you stay a failed, bald dancer, a wannabe Fred Astaire, but I picked you up on my back and I carried you. Through Charity, through Cabaret, I’ve been carrying you . . . and you have never forgiven me for it. But you know damn well if I get this song, it’ll be my show and not yours, and you can’t stand the thought of it, can you? You just can’t stand the fact that I’m the star, not you.” She ends by threatening to have him removed as director.
Michelle Williams, who has consistently been doing brilliant work as Gwen Verdon, surpasses herself here, delivering this speech with enough rage to shatter the windows and blow the roof off. But Bob takes it with remarkable calm, knowing that, as the man whose skill and vision Gwen wants for the show, he still holds all the cards. We cut to opening night and, sure enough, there are Gwen and Chita performing “Nowadays”—as a duet. The two women share a lovely little backstage moment of solidarity and support, but it’s overshadowed by the big picture. Gwen had her moment of truth, but Bob won the battle.
There is, as we already know by now, a deep and painful history behind their clashes: a history of letdowns, betrayals, and resentment. In her rant, Gwen unerringly identifies what’s been bothering Bob all these years. He is, as I’ve said, the vision behind the performer, the one who showcases the performer, the one who molds and shapes and directs the performer . . . but she’s the performer. She’s out there playing to the audience, basking in the glow of their admiration. And whether or not he’ll admit it openly, it guts him.
Gwen’s friend Joan Simon, who stepped away from the spotlight for her playwright husband, called it all the way back in episode 2: “Neil and I—it’s different than you and Bobby. We’re not competing.” Gwen didn’t see herself as competing with Bob, since they were playing different roles in a successful partnership. But when Gwen’s performance in Chicago gets better reviews than the show itself, their eyes meet across the crowded afterparty, and there’s no doubt that he sees it exactly that way.
In an earlier recap, I wrote about how art can do a lot of valuable things, but it can’t change our hearts. Bob and Gwen’s relationship is a dismal illustration of this truth. Each was a genius in his or her own right, and beyond that, their particular gifts dovetailed beautifully. Not only was Gwen able to make Bob’s vision look good onstage, but she was also able to help open doors for him in the theater world.
If Bob had been able to accept the fact that Gwen had gifts and connections that he didn’t, things might have been very different. But instead of their collaboration shaping him into a more loving and supportive partner, his jealousy, not to mention his plentiful issues with women, shaped and ultimately damaged their collaboration. He gets one more chance to twist the knife when Gwen has vocal cord surgery and Liza Minnelli agrees to step into Chicago for her, and the show gets another, better round of reviews. And twist it he does, calling Gwen up while she’s still on vocal rest to tell her all about it, more blandly and nonchalantly than ever.
This painful and ugly drama is juxtaposed with flashbacks to when Gwen and Bob were trying to have a baby. Their engagement began on about as turbulent a note as you would expect, as he proposed immediately after she’d been throwing knickknacks at his head for cheating on her. But they both still wanted marriage and children. After various treatments (Bob had fertility problems, which, given his habits, was probably a good thing) and adoption attempts, Gwen suddenly, miraculously got pregnant with Nicole. When Gwen reflects back on this time, she remembers happiness, wholeness, a longed-for child and an adoring husband.
And yet, back in the present, she and Bob can’t even pay attention during that beloved child’s ballet recital, because they’re too busy arguing over the ending of Chicago.
To some extent, it seems, both Gwen and Bob forgot how to value what was dearest to them, until even the most precious things in their lives became both sources and victims of perpetual conflict. Perhaps they never knew how to value it. During the montage in which they glowingly describe their plans for family life to a social worker, top-hatted emcee Gwen mockingly sings “Razzle Dazzle” from Chicago (“Give ’em the old flim-flam flummox / Fool and fracture ’em / Howcan they hear the truth behind the roar?”) Perhaps something in her knew all along that she was trying to build something wonderful and lasting on a foundation of sand.
Bob handles the continuing deterioration of their bond with still more drugs, more affairs, and more of the abuses of power required to obtain both. Gwen keeps pasting on a brave smile and a capable manner and grasping desperately for control, even as it retreats ever further out of reach. As their story heads towards its finale, their relationship, both personal and professional, has become a sad reminder that you can have it all and still have nothing.