Fosse/Verdon Recap: “Life Is a Cabaret” (Episode 1)
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.
Shows and movies with strictly linear timelines have fallen somewhat out of fashion these days, but the first episode of Fosse/Verdon suggests that maybe it’s time they made a comeback. The story line bounced around so much, and crammed in so much, I have to imagine that anyone who wasn’t already familiar with the events would be pretty confused about what was happening, and when, and to whom.
It may be that the creative team, given the freedom of a limited run on a cable network, intended the show only for its target audience of theater geeks. It may have been intoxicating to simply throw out the musical theater references, both past and present (Laura Osnes as Shirley MacLaine! Bianca Marroquin as Chita Rivera! Kelli Barrett as Liza Minnelli!), knowing they would be caught by an eager fandom without aid or explanation. But the story is so widely relevant that it’s a pity the show couldn’t have been designed to reach out to a bigger audience. Surely it wouldn’t have been hard to do, especially when you have Lin-Manuel Miranda, the man who made a Founding Father a household name, as a producer.
Anyway, flashbacks, flashforwards, and all other deviations aside, this first episode focuses on a three-year stretch (1968-71) in the lives and careers of Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon. It moves from the making of Fosse’s film Sweet Charity, which flopped, to the making of his film Cabaret. (Spoiler alert: That one will not flop.)Both of them firmly believe that great art offers things like truth and consolation to people who need them.
When we meet them, Fosse and Verdon are already established and award-winning stars, with a long string of hits behind them. But neither is taking stardom for granted. Haunted by memories of a demanding manager who handled his dance act as a teenager (“Don’t show me the effort, Bobby, don’t show me the sweat, all I wanna see is that smile!”), an unsmiling Fosse pushes himself and everyone around him, sometimes to breaking point. Sam Rockwell plays him with a kind of low-key intensity, if such a thing can exist, simultaneously dead-eyed and driven. He’s at the point where addictions—to drugs, to cigarettes, to women, to work—are already taking their toll, but he uses the damage as fuel rather than letting it take him down. And while he’s ditched that creed from adolescence—he revels in making his dancers show their effort and their sweat—its accompanying work ethic is forever ingrained in him. So is the fear instilled in him back then that, if he doesn’t keep pushing himself, he could be replaced at any minute by somebody better.
Fosse’s bleakness—he can turn on the charm when he wants to, but at this point he rarely wants to—is more than balanced by the sunny personality of Gwen Verdon, his wife of eight years. As they work together on the Sweet Charity set, Bob demands a fuller characterization from one of the dancers, but it’s Gwen who, in soothing tones, spins a little tale that helps the dancer create the characterization. Behind his back, she smirks with the chorus girls over how to do a shoulder roll that Bob choreographed: “It’s not a seduction, it’s a con job!” Yet when the composition of a shot is too crowded, Gwen is the first to declare that a dancer will have to be cut and goes unhesitatingly to deliver the bad news herself. Michelle Williams gives us a flawless recreation not just of Verdon’s confident strut and honeyed tones, but also of the steel underlying the sweetness.
She needs every inch of that steel to survive, not just in the tough theater world, but also in a very tough marriage. Gwen, who had created the iconic role of Charity Hope Valentine onstage, was passed over for the film version directed by her husband. It wasn’t Fosse’s fault—the role was given to Shirley MacLaine even before he was signed to direct—but it was a bitter blow. I’m a little awed by the selflessness it took for Verdon, while dealing with that disappointment, to become her husband’s devoted assistant on Sweet Charity, teaching another star how to replace her in the version of the show that would be immortalized onscreen.
My family and I were recently rereading the book of James, one of my favorite books of the Bible, and the verse that stuck with me this time around is the one warning us not to “harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in [our] hearts” (James 3:14 NKJV). I’ve been thinking about just how easy it is for a writer to fall prey to that particular temptation. It must be even easier for a performer, who has to compete so hard with other performers to get to the top and then to stay there.
Gwen’s ability to put aside bitterness and selfishness, for the good of the show and the sake of her husband, is a gleam of light in what in other ways is a very dark show. She even manages to comfort Bob when he’s distraught over a review of the movie that says she should have been in it. Unfortunately, this sort of insensitivity is second nature to Bob Fosse. Before this first episode is over, we see him calling his wife to come help him with Cabaret in Germany—while he’s in bed with the German translator from the film set.
To the show’s credit, it’s not all “selfish Bob/martyred Gwen”—the situation, as I suspect we’ll see in upcoming episodes, is more complex than that. Both of them are in thrall to their own, and to each other’s, prodigious gifts and what they’ve been able to create with them. And not just for self-centered reasons; both of them firmly believe, based on their own experiences, that great art offers things like truth and consolation to people who need them.
And if Bob can callously disregard Gwen’s needs, he can also give her affirmation by eagerly soliciting, trusting, and implementing her advice. That call from Germany is a lifeline, giving Gwen a place on Bob’s creative team when she’s been floundering trying to carve out a path on her own. She may not have a role in front of the cameras in Cabaret, but being behind them seems to give her just as much fulfillment.
The two of them are in a symbiotic relationship, desperately dependent on each other even in the moments when they can’t stand each other. And they have a young daughter, Nicole, flitting around them like an all-too-observant shadow. When she’s not practicing ballet under mom’s watchful eye or giving imitations of daddy for delighted partygoers, she’s getting caught bringing daddy’s Secanol to school with her. (Nicole Fosse is also a producer on the show, bringing an invaluable point of view to the portrait of this famously troubled family.)
Life Is a Cabaret” ends with Gwen—having flown back and forth from New York just to bring Bob a gorilla costume he needs for a Cabaret number—excitedly approaching her husband’s hotel room, blissfully unaware of who’s in it with him. Backed by Kelli Barrett’s exuberant rendition of the title song, the suspense builds to the last second—when we’re yanked back to another flashforward, this one of Bob and Gwen in another hotel, in another city, preparing for another production. The screen ominously informs us that there are “Eight Minutes Left.” This is a device borrowed from the Fosse biography by Sam Wasson on which Fosse/Verdon is based, and given how Fosse’s looking in these moments, it’s not too hard to figure out what’s going to happen in eight minutes.
But putting that aside for now and going back to the main story line, we’ll have to wait at least another week, maybe more, to witness the fallout from Fosse’s latest betrayal. There’s a lot more we haven’t yet had a chance to see: the exciting beginnings of this now-frayed relationship; the electricity of Gwen Verdon performing onstage; the full extent of the forces that are both pushing them together and pulling them apart. (As we’ll see, there were far worse memories than just the demands of a strict manager haunting Bob Fosse.) And a question that we have yet to learn Fosse/Verdon’s answer to: For all that great art has to offer us, is the price sometimes too high to pay?