For eight weeks, FX is airing Fosse/Verdon, a limited series about iconic choreographer/director Bob Fosse and legendary dancer Gwen Verdon, his wife and creative partner. Besides being catnip for theater fans, their story raises thoughts and questions about love, art, sacrifice, exploitation, abuse, and other topics that are both timely and timeless. This series explores both the aesthetic aspects of the show and its handling of those topics.
At the beginning of this week’s episode, Bob Fosse is once again holed up in an editing room. This time he’s obsessing over footage of Lenny, his Lenny Bruce biopic, piecing together bits of Dustin Hoffman performing a standup routine. (We see Brandon Uranowitz playing Hoffman playing Bruce—yet one more stellar example of the multitalented actors on this show who manage to pull off multiple personas at once.)
As Gwen Verdon and other members of the Chicago team erupt into the room and start talking program design, the scene fractures into a montage of demands—Bob’s own demands and those of others—coming at him from all sides. Bob deals with the escalating pressure by mentally transporting himself into the film in front of him. Suddenly there’s no more Bruce (or Hoffman or Uranowitz); it’s Fosse at the mic, ever-present cigarette in hand, venting to the crowd.
This tactic works on more than one level. It reminds us that Bob craved control so much that if he could have, he himself would have have written and starred in every project he directed. (Dustin Hoffman told Fosse biographer Sam Wasson that it was clear every time Bob gave him direction that he wanted to be playing the role himself.) It also opens a window in Bob’s mind for us. His sardonic commentary accompanies us through the events that follow, throwing light—or maybe I should say darkness—from the past onto the increasingly pressure-packed present.The tragedy of Bob Fosse was that however good he was at what he did—and he was very, very, very good—he never felt good enough.
Of course, Bob isn’t the only one who seeks to control things. Gwen has been given approval over everything pertaining to Chicago, from casting to artwork, and she’s raring to go. Her first words to Bob as he walks into the rehearsal room where she’s already warming up are “I beat you.” “You win,” he concedes.
This is very much her project, and this is a very different rehearsal room from the ones in which they teamed up to create “Whatever Lola Wants” and “Who’s Got the Pain?” Their partnership now is more a precarious balance of forces pushing against each other, a tension that could snap at any moment. The soundtrack of this episode makes great use of sharp, percussive sounds—the crinkle of a candy bar wrapper, the clunk of a briefcase, Bob’s persistent hacking cough—that both reflect bits of the Chicago score and underline the brittle nature of that partnership. Gwen revives like a person having a religious experience when she’s back in a roomful of dancers, while Bob at the same time looks like he’s having the life sucked out of him.
Yet despite everything, the partnership still somehow works, and not just on a professional level. When Bob suffers a heart attack—it turns out you can’t work on two projects at once, smoke, dose yourself with both prescription and non-prescription drugs, and stay healthy—Gwen takes charge.
She gives the doctors the information that Bob tries to hold back. (Doctor: “Are you a smoker, Mr. Fosse?” Bob the Human Chimney: “Occasionally.”) She looks after him in the hospital; she controls the flow of information to the Chicago team and tries to hold them all together; she even turns a doctor’s embarrassing fanboy moment into an opportunity to get Bob a private room. She dresses up Nicole to look older, in order to meet hospital regulations, and brings her in to see her father.
And if Gwen’s motives in all this are mixed, they still include a deep and genuine concern for this troubled partner of hers. “I know Bob,” she tells her boyfriend, Ron, as he watches her forge Bob’s autograph on a pile of Playbills. “He’s about to have his chest opened up, and if we tell him that he’s being replaced [on Chicago], he will die on that operating table.”
She’s not wrong. Lying in a hospital bed, Bob is still obsessing over work, when he’s not coaxing Ann Reinking into a quickie just to make sure the doctors didn’t mess anything up “down there.” But he’s trapped in that room in more ways than one. Unable to distract himself, he’s besieged with visions of the past that we got glimpses of last week—the past where he was a young dancer forced to perform in seedy nightclubs to earn money for his manager and his family. The environment where he was left on his own and was sexually assaulted by female strippers.
In that ongoing standup monologue in his mind, Bob is self-aware enough and honest enough to know what those assaults did to him. “You know the best part of being scared, turned on, confused, guilty, self-loathing, and in lust all at the same time?” asks that wry voice in his mind, at the very moment he’s making Ann feel the same way. “It screws up your relationships for the rest of your life.”
While Gwen has been busy recreating the past, Bob has been doing much the same thing: incessantly reenacting the shattering dynamic of abuse and exploitation that was visited on him when he was too young to understand. He was brought up going to church, he reflects, but the only Holy Trinity he’s familiar with is “pleasure, confusion, and humiliation all at the same time.”
When the rug was pulled out from under that boy when he was only 13 years old, when he was preyed upon and no one cared enough to protect him, Bob was left floundering, with one insatiable need: “Tell me I’m good enough.” Good enough to be loved, to be taken care of, to rest, to just be. The tragedy of Bob Fosse was that however good he was at what he did—and he was very, very, very good—he never felt good enough. We’re left with that bleak knowledge as Bob walks away from the microphone in his mind, and the lights fade out on the percussive beep of a heart monitor.