The true story behind Fosse/Verdon is practically made for TV.

By Naveen Kumar
Updated: Apr 09, 2019 @ 12:00 pm
FX Networks

The promise of Michelle Williams in chic ‘60s wear may be enough to guarantee you’ll tune into Fosse/Verdon, the FX limited series premiering April 9. But if you come for the throwback clothing (and that hair!), you'll stay for the almost unbelievable Broadway love story. Here's what you need to know about Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, the legendary creative duo at the show's center.

Verdon was a virtuosic dancer and comedic actress who originated roles made famous on screen by Shirley MacLaine (the title ingénue in Sweet Charity) and more recently Renée Zellweger (Chicago’s Roxie Hart). Bob Fosse, played by Sam Rockwell in the series, is considered among the greatest choreographers of all time. He’s the man responsible for what we now call “jazz hands” — and he won an Oscar for his direction of Cabaret (1972), making Francis Ford Coppola into an also-ran for The Godfather.

The FX series jumps around in the three decades between when the pair first met in 1955 and Fosse’s death in 1987. Here’s some essential background to keep in mind, so you can focus on the stellar performances from Williams and Rockwell, and yes, all that jazz.

When they met, Gwen Verdon was a star — Fosse, not so much.

After working as an assistant choreographer, teaching dance to Hollywood stars including Lana Turner and Marilyn Monroe, Verdon began performing on Broadway. Her first big break, in Cole Porter’s 1953 musical Can-Can, earned her acclaim in a supporting role that stole the show (a scene in the series shows Verdon being led back on stage in a bath towel after her dance number stopped the opening night performance with an extended ovation). She would meet Fosse two years later, a budding choreographer on Damn Yankees, in which her character performs “Whatever Lola Wants,” a musical seduction that has more than stood the test of time.

They quickly fell in love and began a decades-long creative partnership.

Though Fosse was married (to his ailing second wife), he and Verdon became lovers during Damn Yankees and went on to collaborate on a string of new musicals, including Redhead (1960, the year they married), and Sweet Charity (1966). The series begins with movie production on the latter, with MacLaine taking over Verdon’s role on screen. Though Fosse and Verdon’s relationship may have long been considered one of artist and muse, the series finds him leaning on her for creative input, making the case for a more symbiotic connection.

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Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon in 1966.

MARKA/Alamy Stock Photo

Fosse was kind of a jerk.

The series does not shy away from Fosse’s many addictions, including alcohol, pills, and compulsive womanizing. This being 2019, Fosse/Verdon aims to hold him accountable while showcasing the height of his artistic accomplishments. Such wrestling with his legacy is most evident in the series’ dual focus on Verdon, and how Fosse's behavior shaped both their personal relationship and their careers. Though the couple separated in 1971, their artistic partnership continued — with Chicago in 1975 and the musical revue Dancin' a few years later. Fosse’s loosely autobiographical 1979 film All That Jazz features a role based on Verdon and stars his then romantic partner Ann Reinking, another dance phenom (played by Margaret Qualley in the series). Verdon was with him when he died of a heart attack in 1987.  

They had a daughter, and she’s a producer on the series.

Nicole Fosse, 56, serves as a producer and creative consultant on Fosse/Verdon. Born in 1963, Nicole appears from the first episode as a young girl (played by Blake Baumgartner) and later as a young woman (played by Juliet Brett) bearing witness to her parents’ interpersonal drama. Nicole’s point of view often anchors the story, as in an episode set during a boozy dinner party in the Hamptons just months after her father spent a week in a psychiatric hospital. A 10-year-old Nicole spends the evening refilling drinks for her parents’ famous friends, including playwright Neil Simon (Nate Corddry) and Network screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky (Norbert Leo Butz). In one scene, she sneaks off to try her first cigarette — her father, at that point, was down to two packs a day.

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Verdon helped carry on Fosse’s legacy.  

After Fosse’s death, Verdon and Reinking taught his signature moves to a new generation of performers. Verdon served as artistic consultant and Reinking as choreographer on a revue of his work called simply Fosse, which won the Tony for Best Musical in 1999. Reinking also choreographed the current Broadway revival of Chicago in the style of Fosse and played the role of Roxie Hart when it first opened in 1996. The production has since seen a wide range of stars in the role, including Melanie Griffith, Lisa Rinna, and the other Michelle Williams, of Destiny’s Child.

Fosse/Verdon premieres on FX on April 9 at 10 p.m.