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'Fosse/Verdon' Stays True to the Glitter and the Gloom Behind the Curtain
April 9, 2019  | By David Hinckley

If you ever doubted that admiring an artist’s work is not the same as admiring the artist, let’s throw out the two words “Bob Fosse.”

If Fosse’s “semi-autobiographical” 1979 film All That Jazz left any doubt he could be a self-absorbed jerk, that’s dispelled again with Fosse/Verdon, a new FX series that premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET.

Fosse/Verdon also reconfirms that he was a brilliant and innovative choreographer whose work lit up Broadway in shows like Damn Yankees, The Pajama Game, How To Succeed in Business, Sweet Charity, Pippin, and Chicago.

On the movie screen, he added Cabaret. That’s a whole lot of first-class entertainment, for which he received well-deserved recognition.

The jerk part kicked in off-stage, and while Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) was doubtless unpleasant to countless people before he died in 1987, age 60, this series focuses on how he treated Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams), his wife and star performer.

Verdon, it suggests, was his perfect professional partner. As a world-class dancer, she understood what Fosse was after, even when he couldn’t put it into words. She could articulate or demonstrate it to other dancers.

Beyond that, she instinctively recognized his vision, what he wanted audiences to see and feel from a dance number. “I speak Bob,” she says at one point, and that’s a rare talent you’d think he would have treasured and done everything possible to hold.

He didn’t, and that becomes the central theme of Fosse/Verdon. The first two episodes, which set up the story through a barrage of flashbacks that often assume the viewer is already versed in the Broadway shows and performers of the 1960s, place the development of their marvelous dancing partnership almost in the shadow of Fosse’s boorish and blatant extramarital cheating.

This focus has two negative consequences for Fosse/Verdon, the TV series.

First, it’s often unpleasant to watch. Rockwell’s Fosse spends as much time lighting cigarettes, drinking and brooding as he does creating chorus lines, and none of it causes us to feel either sympathy or empathy.

Second, it diminishes Verdon, at least in the early episodes. She becomes the loyal, loving wife victimized by a thoughtless man, and while we know she has world-class professional skills, we see those skills less than we see her personally crushed by his betrayals.

That is not to say Verdon comes off as entirely sympathetic herself.

She takes up with Fosse soon after they meet and show each other their dance moves. She knows he’s married, to actress Joan McCracken, and that he took up with McCracken the same way he’s now taking up with Verdon – when he was married to an earlier wife.

So Verdon knew what she was getting. She just felt the price was worth it, both for the personal and professional rewards.

Truth is, though, the personal story in Fosse/Verdon does not by itself rise to the level of high drama. Absent their celebrity, it’s one more routine sad tale about the price we pay and the misery we spread when we only think about ourselves. Every family tree in the world has that story hanging somewhere.

No, the appeal of Fosse/Verdon very likely hinges directly on any given viewer’s interest in their work. As backstory to the marvelous artistic legacies both Fosse and Verdon created, it has its moments.  

So everyone won’t want to fast-forward between the dance numbers. Just saying that’s an option.

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