Critics and reviewers aren’t supposed to center themselves in their reviews, but we have to start off by saying how painful it was for us to watch this series unfold at a time of the year when too many other projects and topics were taking up our time. So much of this series, detailing the rocky but highly creative marriage/working relationship of legendary choreographer and dancers Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, seemed tailor-made to make musical-theater loving gay men tingle with delight. The cameos of famous theatrical and film figures alone made it a treat to watch. Liza Minnelli, Neil Simon, Chita Rivera, Ann Reinking, Paddy Chayefsky, Jerry Orbach and Roy Scheider (executive producer Lin-Manuel Miranda, in an inspired bit of stunt casting) all either populate the backgrounds of scenes or play major figures in the storyline. Yes, it helps to have more than a passing knowledge of the work and lives of these people to truly appreciate their portrayals, but to its credit, Fosse/Verdon doesn’t spend too much time holding the audience’s hand or over-explaining. It’s a series seemingly devised for the Wikipedia generation. This is Ryan Murphy’s Feud: Bette and Joan with the legendary silver screen divas switched out for legendary theatrical figures. It’s also of much higher quality than that somewhat inconsistent series, although Fosse/Verdon suffered from some of the same issues.
First, it’s a somewhat thin story, made even more so by the fact that it’s been explored before, the most obvious and famous example of which would be Fosse’s own autobiographical film All That Jazz, the filming of which takes over part of the finale of the series. Fosse/Verdon was essentially a retelling of All That Jazz with all the same motifs and elements (and in the case of Bob’s apartment, sets and art direction), except it used the actual work of Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon to make its points and it centered the latter in a way Fosse’s film rather cruelly refused to. With their own daughter Nicole (whose painful journey to adulthood serves as the series’ other major storyline) serving as an executive producer and consultant on the series, it’s good to see the record being altered for accuracy by someone who had firsthand knowledge of it. Gwen is unquestionably placed and portrayed as a full partner in a lot of Fosse’s most famous creative works, from Sweet Charity to Chicago, but she’s also shown to be a person who willingly submitted herself to the man’s demons and punishments, long after she had reason to walk away from them forever.
The show is at its best when it’s delving into its two main themes: the act of creation and the psychology of a marriage. Given how much and how often those two themes overlap in the story, it’s perhaps not surprising that the very best scenes in the series tend to be those where the brutality of creation comes crashing up against the reality of two people who know each other far too well, with far too many scars to prove it. But there’s an innate imbalance in the relationship which unfortunately tends to play out in the retelling of it. As much as the series works to make Verdon a co-artist in all of Bob’s work she doesn’t get the same treatment he does. The story explains Bob demons and where they came from, exploring the parts of his life that directly influenced his art. By comparison, Gwen’s actions and motivations are always portrayed as reactions to Bob’s.This may have been an accurate representation of their relationship, but at times, it fails to make Gwen a standalone character. The only aspects of Gwen’s personality and biography aside from her relationship with her husband have to do with guilt over abandoning her first child (which is really only referred to in one episode) and fear of aging (which explains most of her actions for the second half of the series). These aren’t terrible motivations for her to have, but Bob is portrayed as someone traumatized by childhood sexual assault, raised by harsh and unloving parents, insecure over a more famous wife and a low sperm count, an addict, a sexual harasser, an attempted rapist, a Machiavellian figure who fucks with the emotions of his loved ones because he’s so tortured over his need to be perfect … to borrow a line from a different corner of musical theater: “Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.” It’s not new or interesting ground to cover and probably didn’t need over eight hours of screen time to explore it.
In the end, the reason to watch Fosse/Verdon is the performances. Sam Rockwell does a wonderful job with a thankless part, turning Fosse’s self-centeredness and penchant for cruelty into a shifty passive-aggressiveness; the actions of a man who always centers his own deniability in everything he does. The shifty mumbling and inability to meet someone’s eyes followed by the wide-eyed innocent stare as he decides to go all-in on his cruelty; it’s good, subtle stuff. It’s easy to overlook Rockwell’s work here because, to be perfectly blunt (and in an epic case of us burying the lede), Michelle Williams is, quite simply, fucking astonishing in her performance as Gwen Verdon. Give this woman every award available to her. From the tremulous vocal affect, to the labored breathing of a lifetime smoker, to the almost campy theatricality and broadly peculiar way of speaking, Williams’ performance is the very definition of an actress losing herself inside a role. It’s not just an effective form of mimicry, it’s an entire, full-body, down-to-the-fingertips portrayal of a woman born in the early 20th Century aging into the latter part of it after having lived a good portion of her life in front of audiences, in search of applause. There is nothing of Williams herself to be found in her performance, giving you the impression she’s been possessed by a spirit rather than the truth of the matter, which is that she did hard, meticulous work to create this woman fully and believably.
If you haven’t watched it yet, we absolutely recommend you do so. While it may be uneven and repetitive at parts, Fosse/Verdon more than than pays off in entertainment value and some gorgeously emotional moments by actors diving deep into the material.