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.
There’s no denying it: They made magic together.
The second episode of Fosse/Verdon captures the joy of creation, as flashbacks take us to the first time Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon worked together. Meeting in a rehearsal room for Damn Yankees, the two circle each other during their first conversation, wary but intrigued. She’s resentful (this cocky upstart wants to “audition” her for a role she’s already been offered!) but still nervous. He’s self-assured, but—as betrayed by his fidgetiness before she walked into the room—also nervous.
She let herself become part of Bob’s own personal creation myth, his belief that his creativity required sacrifice and devotion from everyone else but him.They try a little one-upmanship: She’s won a Tony Award; so has he. She danced in burlesque houses at 14, he at 13. They try to see who can be more flippant about the experience. (Remember this. It’s going to be important later.) In a sense, they’re dancing from the first moment they see each other.
But when they’re dancing for real, it’s electrifying. As he begins to teach her the steps for her big solo number, “Whatever Lola Wants,” suddenly the opponents are a team. And kudos to Michelle Williams and Sam Rockwell for the grace and skill with which they recreate the moves of these two legendary artists throughout this episode. They make what must have been staggeringly difficult look like second nature. Every step, every gesture that Fosse can throw at her, Verdon can do—and add a little something to make it even better. His vision and her ability are already fusing into one.
As Joan McCracken, Bob’s wife, will put it after witnessing Gwen’s triumph onstage in Damn Yankees, “I’d say it’s like watching him up there, but it’s more like watching what he wishes he was.” And Joan understands that the influence goes both ways: “He takes what’s special in a girl and he makes it his own.”
Joan’s words aren’t just a compliment; they’re a warning. She’s fully aware that for Bob and Gwen, the joy of creation is charged with something more—the excitement of starting an affair.
Herself a celebrated dancer and actress, Joan is now too ill with diabetes and heart problems to work much. When he’s with Joan, Bob is gentle and solicitous, but when she’s out of sight, he has no qualms about cheating on her with Gwen. Just as, in episode 1, we saw him cheating on Gwen with Hannah. And just as, Joan informs Gwen, he cheated with Joan herself on his first wife, fellow dancer Mary Ann Niles.
A normal man might have figured out somewhere along the way that he has a problem. Bob Fosse is not a normal man. In the portions of the episode set in 1971—after that fateful night when Gwen turned up at the room where he was sleeping with Hannah—as they hash things out on a beach in Spain, Bob can’t understand why he can’t just have everything he wants. He wants to come back home, and to keep seeing Hannah. He believes, or seems to believe, that he can love both women at the same time. His own pain led him to threaten suicide, but seeing the pain he’s causing Gwen seems to have little or no effect on him.
The juxtaposition of these two storylines—the way Gwen and Bob circle each other again, but with creative and romantic tension giving place to anguish—is no accident. This was destined to happen the moment their partnership became more than just professional. “I can’t take away a dying woman’s husband,” Gwen sobbed back in 1955 when she first found out about Joan’s illness. But in the end, she could and did. She let herself become part of Bob’s own personal creation myth, his belief that his creativity required sacrifice and devotion from everyone else but him. Believing that they needed each other not just in work, but in life, Gwen has become just one in the long line of women whose vision and life both became fused with his—and then consumed.
When romance and creativity go together, it can be intoxicating. (I’ve written before about how storylines like this have fueled some of the best movie musicals ever made.) That exciting force can pull out of us the best we have to give . . . but it can’t suspend the laws of morality. Not without bitter consequences. Just in case we didn’t get the point, the melody of “Whatever Lola Wants” echoes in the air, slower and more melancholy now, as Gwen stands alone on that beach in Spain thinking back on what seemed like the hopeful beginnings of their life together.
The Damn Yankees song we see Gwen dancing to onstage, in the 1955 storyline, is “Who’s Got the Pain?”, a novelty number with crowd-pleasing tricks and nonsensical lyrics (“Who’s got the pain when they do the mambo? Who’s got the pain when they go ERP!” The closed-captioning says “UGH,” but it comes out more like “ERP.”)* Bob and Gwen have thrown the number together at the last minute when another number was cut from the show, sending Bob into a tailspin and Gwen into full-on fix-it mode. Already, and in full view of Gwen’s dismayed boyfriend and Bob’s resigned wife, the pattern of their relationship is being set.
The first time the song is played for them in the rehearsal room, Gwen is dubious, but Bob fixates oddly on those silly words. He sees something that appeals to him in the discrepancy between the cheerful melody and the lyrics’ focus on pain. “We take what hurts and turn it into a big gag, and we’re singing and we’re dancing, and the audience, they’re yukkin’ it up, they’re laughing so hard that they don’t realize all they’re laughing at is a person in agony, a person who’s peeled off his own skin,” he explains.
His attitude should have warned Gwen that there was something underneath the “real joy” that Damn Yankees producer Hal Prince saw in Bob Fosse’s work, something deeper and darker than even the most loving partner could deal with. But, perhaps propelled by some hurt from her own past that finds something in him to relate to, she moves past it as she’s moved past all other warnings and boundaries, and lets herself in for a world of pain.
*Interesting side note here: “Who’s Got the Pain?” is the only number that Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse ever danced together in a movie. When Damn Yankees was adapted for the screen, Fosse took the part originally danced on Broadway by Eddie Phillips. Bob and Gwen’s version should not be missed.