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'Fosse/Verdon' doesn't dance around the truth

Though the FX series about Broadway couple Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon takes place in the '70s, their stormy relationship is sure to resonate in the #MeToo era.

Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams star as director-choroegrapher

Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams star as director-choroegrapher Bob Fosse and his wife, dancer-actress Gwen Verdon, in "Fosse/Verdon," premiering Tuesday on FX. Credit: FX/Craig Blankenhorn

“It isn’t time yet,” says the man, fussing with his tux as he responds to the knock on his hotel room door.

Oh, but it is. “Fosse/Verdon,” the eight-episode FX series that launches Tuesday, starts at the end, eight minutes away from the moment in 1987 when legendary director-choreographer Bob Fosse, played by Sam Rockwell, would collapse and die in a Washington, D.C., hotel. Just 60 years old and on his way to a revival of his musical “Sweet Charity,” he was with Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams), still legally his wife at the time, though they had long lived apart.    

How they got to that point makes for a story often hard to watch, a chronicle of a brilliant man, winner of eight Tonys, one Oscar and three Emmys, whose undeniable misuse of power and position makes the series ripe for discussion in the #MeToo era. “It’s an opportunity to continue a conversation about how men are abusing their power and have been for a long while,” says Thomas Kail, the “Hamilton” director who is one of the executive producers on the series. “There are a lot of things,” he says, “that happened in the darkness that need to be illuminated.”

A GENIUS AND HIS DEMONS

No attempt was made to sugarcoat Fosse’s destructive behavior — not the egregious womanizing, not the blasts of temper, not the abuse of pills and alcohol. “That was not something we ever talked about,” says Kail, who directed five of the episodes. “Even though we weren’t making a documentary, we wanted to tell something that had as much truth in it as possible. Even if it’s a scene that might not have existed exactly, there was a kind of authenticity and honesty to it.”

Thinking about gender issues, the ‘70s present “a tough lens to look through,” says Broadway star Norbert Leo Butz, who plays Fosse’s friend, writer Paddy Chayefsky, who often had to talk him off the ledge in his worst moments. “It is tough to think about in this day and age, when real reparations are having to be made for the kind of built-in misogyny of this business,” adds Butz.

But "Fosse/Verdon" is as much about the process of creating art as it is about dissecting one man’s genius and demons. Starting with the first episode, shot at Grumman Studios in Bethpage, the series offers an insider look at how a musical is made and the building of a number — in this case the filming of “Big Spender” for the movie version of “Charity” (a huge flop, by the way.)  More to the point, it reveals Verdon’s total involvement with almost everything Fosse did, an examination, says Kail, of “the complexity and nuance of the long-standing relationship between two people that brought out the best and the worst in each other.”  

MORE THAN ONE SIDE TO THE STORY

Early on, says Kail, the creative team (including writer Steven Levenson, who did the book for “Dear Evan Hansen,” and Lin-Manuel Miranda, another executive producer) realized this was Verdon’s story as much as Fosse’s. The series is based on the 2013 biography “Fosse” by Sam Wasson, but the book contained little of Verdon, says Kail. They turned instead to the couple’s daughter, Nicole Fosse, a consultant and co-executive producer, whose tough childhood comes off as so much collateral damage in the series. Her insight helped the writers realize there was another side to the story. “It felt like this was a partnership,” says Kail, so it became “about us trying to understand why we knew his name and not hers.”

Despite many tempestuous moments, this is in large part a love story, but on a broader level, there’s another fascinating one — the relationship between Fosse and Chayefsky. “They were as in love as any romantic couple,” says Butz, though complete opposites. “Fosse was a physical machine, all kinetic energy, with not a lot of book smarts." The brilliant Chayefsky, he says, “could barely cross the street without falling. They completed each other.” 

Chayefsky was just one of what Butz calls many “incredible minds” in Fosse’s orbit, and the series introduces many of them, including Neil Simon (played by Nate Corddry). In one episode, the three men gather at Fosse’s rental “cottage” in Quogue (he later owned a home there), where they drank themselves silly and engaged in ridiculous lobster races. The phalanx of famous names in the series includes everyone from performers (Liza Minnelli, Shirley MacLaine) to show-biz luminaries (Hal Prince and George Abbott).

“We had a vast group of people,” says Kail, who came to work every day “totally committed … talented artists who could come and do their best work.” And he presents an interesting dichotomy. “I am of the belief," he says, “that you can make things with harmony.” It is not lost on Kail that a collaborative, collegial atmosphere is far from the way Fosse worked. “Exactly right,” he emphatically agrees. Enough said.

Movie stars get top billing in "Fosse/Verdon," but you’ll find a few Broadway names in the cast, though in some cases you’ll have to look quickly to notice them.

NORBERT LEO BUTZ (Paddy Chayefsky)

Butz (“My Fair Lady”) gets a lot of screen time playing the famed screenwriter who was Fosse’s confidant and confessor. Fosse did a tap dance at Chayefsky’s memorial service, part of a deal brokered when Fosse had open-heart surgery. If Fosse had died first, Chayefsky would have been required to deliver a “tedious eulogy.”

ETHAN SLATER (Joel Grey)

The star of the “SpongeBob SquarePants” musical plays Grey, but in the first five episodes made available for preview is seen only briefly in a quick clip performing “Two Ladies” from “Cabaret.”

LAURA OSNES (Shirley MacLaine)

Broadway’s “Cinderella” gets a quick moment as the actress who starred in the Fosse film flop "Sweet Charity.” A big reasons the movie didn’t succeed was that audiences wanted Verdon, who’d played the role on Broadway.

AHMAD SIMMONS (Ben Vereen)

“Do it like Ben does it,” Fosse tells the dancers during a rehearsal for “Pippin,” with Simmons (“Carousel”) taking on Vereen’s Leading Player role.

BRANDON URANOWITZ (Dustin Hoffman)

The star of Fosse’s “Lenny” is a major topic of discussion in episode five, though we never see him. But Broadway regular Uranowitz (“An American in Paris,” “Falsettos”) is on the cast list, so he obviously shows up in one of the last three episodes.

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