Pulling back the curtain: ‘Fosse/Verdon’ shows how the team worked
LOS ANGELES -- Nicole Fosse remembers seeing her father on the set of “All That Jazz,” surrounded by scaffolding, technicians and dancers. “It was very, very busy and he was very quiet and still ... he seemed so small in the middle of all it,” she says.
Director/choreographer Bob Fosse, however, was a giant on the stage, in films and on television. The only person to win an Oscar, an Emmy and a Tony in the same year, he pushed himself constantly, always trying to prove he was more than just a dancer or choreographer.
In “Fosse/Verdon,” a new miniseries about Fosse and his wife Gwen Verdon, producers pull back the curtain to show the process that went into making Broadway shows like “Damn Yankees,” movies like “Cabaret” and TV shows like “Liza with a Z.” It reveals more than a few bumps as well and details what role Verdon played in making those projects successful.
Both, according to their daughter, would have loved the limited series.
“They were both storytellers,” she says. “My mother adored biographies and my father adored telling stories from the inside out. It wasn’t about the car chase. It was about the people in the car.”
While Bob Fosse had a problem being faithful (a point he made in “All That Jazz”), he clung to Verdon for creative inspiration. When he couldn’t figure out how to make “Cabaret” work, she jumped in, helping coach actors, direct dancers and edit scenes.
“They’re kind of Siamese twins, in a way, emotionally,” says Sam Rockwell, who plays Bob Fosse. “There was an addictive thing with him and Gwen was obviously his muse.”
Photographs taken on the set of “Sweet Charity” show Fosse directing one set of dancers. “If you crop it in such a way, it looks like it’s just Bob,” says writer Steven Levenson. “But if you zoom out, you see that Gwen Verdon was standing right next to him, directing this other group of dancers.”
Even though she had a great eye for what worked on stage, Verdon never pursued directing or choreography. “I’m a dancer,” Nicole Fosse remembers her saying. “I can teach it, but I don’t want to choreograph it.”
At home, both were quite different. Nicole Fosse remembers them as normal parents who encouraged their kids, “but also wanted to leave them alone. When I said I wanted to be a dancer, my father said, ‘I’d rather you swallow flaming swords in the circus than be a dancer, but if you’re going to do it, go to class now.’”
Nicole Fosse did become a dancer and can do those signature Fosse moves. “I can do everything,” she says with a laugh. She also serves as founder and director of The Verdon Fosse Legacy, an organization designed to preserve, promote and protect her parents’ work. “Fosse/Verdon” is an example of that, uniting a number of contemporary talents (including several of the people behind “Hamilton”) to tell the couple’s story.
From the experience, director Thomas Kail says, he has learned how far-reaching a project can be. “There’s a relentlessness to this pace,” he says. “It just does not stop and you’ve got a responsibility to a whole group of people.”
On film, he says, “you’re asking actors to do something once, not eight times a week, which is a very different process.”
Both stage and film require collaboration – something Fosse and Verdon viewed as essential.
To help actress Michelle Williams understand her mother, Nicole Fosse showed her gestures and movements that were very Gwen. “I hung out with Michelle and when she would run lines, I would do my mother’s physicality. She would move with me and we would walk across the room together. I was conjuring my mother and Michelle was falling into step.”
Kail says she gave Williams “the vocabulary.”
“And then,” Nicole Fosse adds, “she would take it and make it her own.”
At times, Rockwell and Williams were so spot on, Nicole Fosse couldn’t help but be moved.
“I think we all have a responsibility to make sure it’s right,” she says. “The big question is, ‘What is right?’ It’s about finding the emotional authenticity in every moment – the words, the direction, the dress she wears, the length of the cigarette that hangs out of his mouth. And so, the responsibility is on all of us.”
The series’ producers particularly wanted to show the role Verdon played in most everything that bore the name Fosse.
“From the people that I’ve spoken to, she was like the sunshine in the room,” says Williams. “The way I’ve come to think of her is someone who is always trying their hardest and will, occasionally, be backed up against a wall where she’s cornered and things aren’t in her control anymore. She was constantly trying to rise above and be her best self at all times.”
When Levenson finished his scripts (he wrote four of the eight episodes), he found it bittersweet. “It’s very hard to say goodbye, but it’s also nice to give them up and share them with others.”
“Fosse/Verdon” premieres Tuesday on FX.