“When you’re walking backwards, and you roll your shoulder backwards, it’s not a seduction—it’s a con.”
It’s one of the first impressions we get of Michelle Williams’ Gwen Verdon as she dispenses advice to a group of tired dancers performing “Big Spender” during her husband Bob Fosse’s 1969 film Sweet Charity. It’s a moment in the first episode of FX’s Fosse/Verdon, up for 17 Primetime Emmys, which shows how, not God, but Verdon, was always in the details of the choreographer-turned-filmmaker’s theatrical and cinema canon. To this day, Fosse remains the only entertainer to win the triple crown of an Oscar, Emmy and Tony in the same year—1973—all before he checked into a mental hospital feeling suicidal.
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“There wasn’t a dance that she couldn’t dance, everything was in her repertoire,” Williams says of Verdon’s range. Unlike Fosse, she was a trained choreographer, mentored by ‘Father of Theatrical Jazz Dance’, Jack Cole.
“Gwen was best at describing the dances to other dancers,” Williams says. “So, when she would demonstrate a move, like, say, moving her index finger in a small circle, she should say, ‘There’s a right way, and there’s a wrong way to do it. It’s not just moving your finger in a small circle. It’s the feeling with which you do it, like you’re tickling an angel’s bottom.’ She was very adept at using language to get a very specific interpretation out of a dancer.”
It’s often said that behind every great man, there’s a great woman, but in the tumultuous relationship of Fosse and Verdon, that’s an understatement. Making matters worse behind the scenes, Fosse was a notorious lothario, bedding dancers from his productions. When it came to creating the quintessential series for the #MeToo and Time’s Up era, FX couldn’t hope for a better choice in Fosse/Verdon.
“Gwen used to say she knew how to ‘speak Bob’,” says Fosse/Verdon EP Joel Fields. “But I think that was her way of navigating all of her contributions, because one of the things she had to do, given who he was and given what the times were, was not to take too much credit, and to make it seem as if she was just there as a spokesperson for his genius. Because the myth of the sole genius is so powerful and so important in society, and at that time, the myth of the sole male genius was even more dominant.”
Co-creator Steven Levenson adds, “When Tommy [Kail] and I first started talking about the project, we were very nervous because we felt Bob clearly was somebody who abused his power in many ways, and we just didn’t know: How do you tell that story? Is that a story that people want to hear? And it was right when #MeToo really exploded, and it actually felt like, rather than how do we get around this awkward, awful part of the story, it was like, no, that’s actually the story!”
Not only was Verdon relied upon by Fosse, but she arguably made him a brand. From a young age, Fosse wanted to be Fred Astaire, but he himself didn’t have that X-factor. He choreographed Pajama Game and won a Tony in 1954, followed by George Abbott’s Damn Yankees on stage in 1955. It was around this time that he met Gwen, and in 1960, the pair were married. Fosse would go on to choreograph the film version of Damn Yankees, and even appeared in the film, partnering with Verdon for the elaborate mambo “Who’s Got the Pain?” —a number that Williams describes as one of “the most challenging” in the series.
The Fosse dance style was known for such highlights as ‘jazz-hands’, turned-in knees, and the use of hats (he was himself balding). And while it’s largely unknown exactly what moves she laid claim to, given the collaborative nature of choreography, Levenson says, “There’s a very stark line between before Gwen and after Gwen in terms of Bob’s own choreography.”
In addition to being portrayed in the series as a fresh pair of eyes for Fosse, on sets, in dance studios and editing rooms, Verdon is shown to be a liaison between Fosse and the Hollywood studios. In the first episode “Life is a Cabaret”, producer Cy Feuer (Paul Reiser) gives Fosse a difficult time on the Cabaret set, berating him for burning through $20 million on Sweet Charity to little box office results, and dragging his feet with the current shoot. Earlier, when Fosse pitches himself for Cabaret, Feuer wants to know if Verdon will be around to tame the genius. She finally arrives to the Munich set, prepped, with a ruffled satin shirt in hand for star Liza Minnelli and together with Fosse, she argues with Feuer that the gorilla suit for the song “If You Could See Her” isn’t perfect. If there’s a sign of her dedication to perfection, this is it: she literally goes the distance within a 72-hour period to travel round-trip to New York to pick up the right costume. Returning at the end of episode, mission accomplished, she finds Fosse in bed with one of the production’s dancers.
Nicole Fosse, the couple’s only daughter, served as a co-EP on the series and is portrayed on the show at three different ages. “Every time she would talk about her dad, her mom was always part of the story,” Levenson says. “If you begin to look back at anything about Bob, you just read between the lines: Gwen was always there.” And the importance of Verdon’s presence cannot be understated. “Gwen’s involvement was not just in the work, but in keeping Bob alive, frankly, and keeping him sane, and knowing how to keep him grounded. She did a lot of what we would now call emotional labor, for which she was never compensated.”
Fosse/Verdon began with Sam Wasson’s doorstopper of a biography, Fosse, which George Stelzner brought to FX in 2013. Lin-Manuel Miranda soon boarded as producer and would eventually play Roy Scheider in an episode centering on All That Jazz. (Scheider actually played a womanizing, drug-addicted version of Fosse in the movie). Miranda then asked Kail, his Hamilton director, to board the project, as he’d already directed plenty of television, including 2 Broke Girls and the Grease Live! musical. Kail and Levenson knew of each other from the New York theater scene and had bonded soon after meeting at a La La Land screening. “The common thread through this project has been people saying ‘Yes’ before you even finish the sentence,” Levenson says.
Fourteen months later, Levenson had a script, and a bible. Just prior to his involvement, Kail got Sam Rockwell interested, who was keen to do a project set in 1970s New York. Then Williams had a connection to the Fosse-verse, having played Sally Bowles in a 2014-15 Broadway production of Cabaret. It was clear Williams had an affinity for the role, but there was an even sweeter part to this FX series: equal gender pay—a situation unlike the salary disparity she experienced on Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World, in which her co-star Mark Wahlberg was paid $1.5 million for reshoots, versus her $80 per diem totaling less than $1,000.
“I found out I got the job, and the next call I received was that they were going to pay me what they paid Sam,” Williams says. “There was no negotiating, no fighting about it, it was just given.”
Williams promptly began working on all aspects of the dance for the series; however, there were times the cast wouldn’t know until one episode before that they’d have to learn certain numbers.
In talking with Nicole Fosse, Williams says one of the takeaways was, “She said, ‘You know, my mother had an unusual way of emphasizing things.’ Like instead of saying ‘Broadway’, she’d say ‘Broooadwaaay’. Gwen would pick a non-operative word to really splash out.” It was a cadence that further plunged Williams into character. Playing Verdon from the ages of 29 to 64 also meant Williams needed to encompass a lifetime of verbal styling. “I started working on the dialect and the speech patterns and where she held her breath and also how to age her voice,” she says.
The hair and makeup team, Nicole Bridgeford and Jackie Risotto, were a vital force in getting Verdon exactly right. There were “hours of conversations and trials and adjustments”, Williams recalls. “To do that kind of aging work with such a light touch requires such talent and precision and care.” They were also Williams’ eyes on the monitor, in case anything ever needed to be fixed. “I don’t like to look at monitors, or watch myself perform in any way, because it takes me out of my internal experience, and it puts me in an external experience.”
There’s not a window that Williams doesn’t open onto Verdon’s life in the show, from leaving her young son from her first marriage in the care of her parents so she could pursue a showbiz career, to dealing with Fosse’s feeble condition while he was in a mental hospital. Not only did Verdon deal with Fosse warts and all, well after the divorce, but she was open-armed to his girlfriends, in particular the then young Pippin dancer Ann Reinking. In Fosse/Verdon, Reinking is played by Margaret Qualley, getting herself a supporting nom.
Episode 5—“Where Am I Going?”—shows how, over a long weekend, Verdon reaches across the table to make Reinking an ally, for reasons practical and personal. Verdon hopes Reinking will assist her in persuading Fosse to abandon plans to make Lenny, hoping he’ll instead direct Chicago on Broadway—a production that would ultimately be a cash cow for the Fosses. Verdon predicted Lenny would fail, which would in turn take a toll on Fosse’s mental state.
“Gwen had a very sophisticated relationship to the other women in Bob’s life,” Levenson says, “mostly because she knew who she was: She knew the value that she brought to him, and she knew that she was indispensable.” In fact, there was a period during Fosse’s stay in a hospital when incredibly, Verdon organized a schedule for the women who would visit him, so they wouldn’t run into each other and erupt into fights.
Verdon’s unconditional love for Fosse lasted to the very end, when, while walking with her to a revival of Sweet Charity in Washington D.C., he collapsed from a heart attack. “I think of them as being soulmates,” Williams says. “I think of them as being twins. They understood each other in a deep way because they both had these fractured, troubled, abbreviated childhoods, and they also shared a love of the same art. She wanted to stay tied to Bob because they shared a child and because they shared this art, but she didn’t want to stay tied to the behavior. She didn’t want to stay tied to being cheated on, lied to, and the addictions that Bob cycled through. So, in some ways, Gwen’s story is a triumphant one, because she broke free of a certain kind of prison of his behavior and yet, at the same time, he died in her arms.”
Ultimately, Williams says, “There was something indestructible between the two of them.”