There’s an artistic analog to the age-old quandary of what to get a man who has everything: How do you mythologize someone who’s already thoroughly mythologized themselves, warts and all? The dancer, director, and choreographer Bob Fosse was a workaholic, philanderer, substance abuser, and general wreck. We know all this in part because Fosse laid it out for us in All That Jazz, his heavily autobiographical 1979 masterpiece. All That Jazz fictionalizes Fosse’s period of intense professional and personal distress that culminated in a massive heart attack in 1975. In true Fosse fashion, rather than take his medical emergency as a sign to slow down, the auteur simply channeled it into yet more work—and some of the best of his career, too.
All That Jazz is equal parts self-lacerating and self-indulgent, as well as a reminder that those two attributes can be one and the same. Through his direction and script, co-written with Robert Alan Aurthur, Fosse depicts his avatar Joe Gideon (and therefore himself) as a user of women, shaped though not excused by his childhood trauma. The film’s main plot mirrored Fosse’s real-life experience juggling a biopic of Lenny Bruce with a Chicago revival starring his separated wife Gwen Verdon; its flashbacks drew on Fosse’s premature brushes with sexuality, now understood as abuse, as a child performer in Chicago-area burlesque clubs. The result is a definitive account not just of genius, but its limits and costs.
The existence of All That Jazz inevitably looms over Fosse/Verdon, the eight-episode FX miniseries starring Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams in the title roles. Executive produced by Lin-Manuel Miranda, largely directed by Hamilton’s Thomas Kail, and showrun by Dear Evan Hansen’s Steven Levenson, Fosse/Verdon was overseen by theater luminaries whose passion for their field suffuses every scene. What The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, another lavish tale of mid-century show business, is to 1950s comedy, Fosse/Verdon is to 1970s Broadway. If you’re the kind of person who will knowingly smirk at a reference to “Steve’s” next musical (as in Sondheim’s) or chuckle at Paddy Chayefsky shit-talking Lenny Bruce as “not good for the Jews” or even just appreciate a good paisley, this is the show for you.
Still, there’s a hurdle that separates Fosse/Verdon’s pleasures as reenactment from its greater ambitions as an exploration of artistry. The show is, in short, reluctant to complicate Fosse’s legacy any more than Fosse already complicated it himself—to highlight what Fosse has not already confessed. It’s a constraint that traps Fosse/Verdon within Fosse’s self-image, an inherently biased, if unflattering, template. Such restriction caps its potential for either additional insight into or reevaluation of its central figure. Fosse/Verdon’s solution is to present itself as a dual portrait, a depiction of a decadeslong partnership rather than a single participant. “It’s really a story of interdependence and codependence,” Levenson told The New York Times, identifying the project’s central theme as “how these complicated partnerships and collaborations become about one person, almost always the man.” If Fosse/Verdon won’t reinvent the proverbial great man, it can shed light on the woman behind him.
Fosse and Verdon’s relationship, and the compromises of marriage in general it represents, is a shrewd choice of focus. But Fosse/Verdon saddles itself with a poor framework with which to pursue it. The show is based on a 2013 biography of Fosse by Sam Wasson. Its structure is a countdown to Fosse’s 1987 death, in Verdon’s arms during the opening of a Sweet Charity revival in Washington, D.C.—a gimmick that directly invokes All That Jazz, which ends with a shot of Gideon in a body bag. It takes place in a period when Verdon’s career as a professional dancer was largely over, while Fosse’s as a director was just beginning. (Forget the EGOT; Fosse is the only person in history to win an Oscar, a Tony, and an Emmy—three, to be precise—in a single year, 1973.) Verdon is a presence, but there’s no denying who the true focus of the series is.
Despite this self-imposed handicap, Fosse/Verdon’s best scenes are indeed the ones where its leads come together as creative equals. Verdon is one of history’s great dancers, an ideal showcase and inspiration for Fosse’s slinky, sexy style of movement. Later, in a telling reflection of their gender roles, Verdon would serve as an uncredited factotum to Fosse’s difficult, uncompromising artiste, coaching dancers and sweet-talking moneymen in service of their shared vision. The most effective version of Fosse/Verdon is a highlight reel of this give and take: the duo’s electric meet-cute at Verdon’s audition for Damn Yankees, in which they originate Verdon’s iconic performance of “Whatever Lola Wants”; their staging, in Fosse/Verdon’s opening number, of Sweet Charity’s “Big Spender,” with Shirley MacLaine taking over the role Verdon originated on the stage; Verdon persuading a studio executive that Cabaret really does require a gorilla suit that’s somehow seductively feminine, which she’d fly to New York to procure.
Yet Fosse/Verdon frustrates this character study by cordoning off Verdon’s story from Fosse’s own. The third episode is definitively Verdon’s, chronicling her journey from debilitating childhood illness to her breakthrough turn in Can-Can. In between, Verdon married as a teenager and gave birth to a son, an event Fosse/Verdon depicts as the result of a coercive sexual encounter. Verdon’s history is its own affecting tale of personal sacrifice in pursuit of one’s muse, and a potential counterweight to Fosse’s. The difference is that hers gets condensed to just 41 minutes. Having one episode dedicated to Verdon ultimately underscores that the rest of the show is not—though FX only provided five chapters in advance, so it’s possible Verdon will get another spotlight in the remaining three.
As for Fosse, Fosse/Verdon renders him as a person we’ve seen before, both literally and figuratively. He’s a charming rogue, the kind who openly propositions three dancers in a row in full view of one another, two of whom happily accept. (The third, Margaret Qualley’s Ann Reinking, would eventually acquiesce, becoming one of Fosse’s more serious romantic partners.) He struggles with suicidal ideation, including a recurring image of stepping out a window Fosse/Verdon utilizes to gut-churning effect. And out of this angst, he produces iconic, form-changing work, much of it at the expense of his personal relationships. The show is transparent about the influences that give rise to this characterization. A montage depicting the cycle of sex, drugs, and work that eventually land Fosse in a mental hospital is an apparent homage to All That Jazz. A scene where Fosse and Verdon’s daughter Nicole (who in real life now serves as an executive producer on the show) tries a cigarette to imitate a neglectful parent is cribbed from Mad Men.
Even if the show never achieves it, the stated goal of dividing narrative real estate between its two namesakes suggests Fosse/Verdon wants to set itself apart from other portraits of destructive, if sensitive, masculinity. Still, the show seems unwilling to be any more honest about Fosse’s flaws than the man himself. Fosse readily admitted to infidelity and a dependence on intimacy, but there were depths even a navel-gazer who turned his most urgent crises into material wouldn’t plumb. In an essay on Fosse for Hazlitt, Alexandra Molotkow itemizes some of his uglier transgressions: pressing his erection into Debbie Reynolds’s back on a movie set; chasing Mariel Hemingway around a couch before telling her, “I have never not fucked my leading lady”; barely visiting his ailing ex-wife Joan McCracken in the hospital, asking her to reunite the day before he married Verdon, and then refusing to attend her funeral. Fosse wasn’t just callous toward the women in his life or unmindful of their emotions; he could be actively hostile to them, even abusive. I mention this behavior not out of any desire to see Fosse retroactively cancelled, but because it provides a rare opportunity to explicate a part of his personality he left uncharacteristically repressed. In this case, the more ethical choice also happens to be the stronger creative one.
The toxic, charismatic man is obviously an archetype enshrined in the pantheon of contemporary television. But Bob Fosse, unlike Walter White or Al Swearengen, is not a fictional character. He’s a real person, with real people affected by his self-absorption and a real, enduring widely revered self-portrait to reckon with. By stepping into the ring with such an outsized cultural footprint, Fosse/Verdon displays a practically Fosse-like level of gumption. In spirit, at least, Fosse/Verdon lives up to its subject.