There’s a widespread familiarity with Chicago and Cabaret, even if you don’t consider yourself a fan of Broadway musicals. We’ve all, at some point, gesticulated a joke by incorporating “jazz hands” or attempted a moonwalk (a move that many associate with being “invented” by Michael Jackson). But what you may not know is that those cultural references are signatures of Bob Fosse, the famed choreographer-dancer-director who reinvigorated theatrical jazz with a unique style and aesthetic, including the then somewhat suggestive rolling of the shoulders and hips, and the use of bowler hats and chairs as props. When you think of Broadway, you’re probably thinking of a precedent set by Bob Fosse, even if you don’t realize it.
Fosse/Verdon, which premieres tonight on FX, chronicles the complexities of Fosse’s life and career, from his early Broadway success in the 1950s up until his death at age 60 in 1987. But it also puts Gwen Verdon, his third wife and indispensable creative collaborator, closer to the center of the narrative. Many people think of Verdon as Fosse’s muse, but their romantic and professional partnership was born from collaboration, with the insertion of Verdon’s creative insight in early conceptual stages being paramount to Fosse’s execution and physical manifestation of the ideas.
When Fosse met Verdon in 1955, on the Broadway stage of Damn Yankees, the charismatic Verdon was already revered on Broadway for her mastery of the high-kick style of dancing (and had experience as a junior choreographer, as well), but Fosse was only just getting started. After his early Broadway success (which included Best Choreographer Tony awards for The Pajama Game in 1955 and Damn Yankees in 1956), Fosse was propelled to superstardom—and became a Hollywood icon, beating Francis Ford Coppola for the Academy Award for Best Director in 1973 with Cabaret and winning the Palme d’Or in 1979 for his semiautobiographical film All That Jazz—while history relegated Verdon, a dancer who also successfully transitioned from stage to screen, to the background.
Fosse and Verdon’s creative collaboration spanned decades, with Fosse choreographing stage musicals and films, and Verdon dancing in the starring roles. Verdon originated the role of Lola in Damn Yankees (her sultry performance of “Whatever Lola Wants” was groundbreaking for its depiction of a scheming woman who gets what she wants) and Charity in Sweet Charity. In 1960, when Fosse directed and choreographed Redhead, Verdon took the lead role, and the production won six Tonys. It was Fosse’s first time directing and choreographing a Broadway musical, and he married Verdon while they toured the production. Three years later, their daughter Nicole was born, and Fosse and Verdon became known as a power couple of the stage.
The true story of the tumultuous relationship between the dynamic duo is juicy enough to razzle dazzle your attention, as well. Fosse had a predilection for cheating on all of his romantic partners and an addiction to many drugs, while Verdon had a propensity for the spotlight and the attention that comes with being entangled with Broadway’s bad boy choreographer. One might be tempted to compare the story of their relationship to the narrative established by A Star Is Born (one star rises while the other falls, until the romance comes to a tragic end), but what is compelling about Fosse and Verdon is that they continued to collaborate, even after ending their relationship.
Fosse needed Verdon’s technical expertise, and in the early days of his career as a film director, it was Verdon who was more of the celebrity. Sweet Charity, the first film he directed, benefited immensely from Verdon’s choreography for “Big Spender.” The making of this number is where FX’s Fosse/Verdon begins. Verdon could have starred in the 1969 film (just as she did in the Broadway musical which earned her a Tony nomination) had studio executives not wanted a younger actress (Shirley MacClaine) to play the lead. Still, she used her playful approach to conducting jazzy striptease-like choreography for a group of dance hostesses in the film. Elements of this number would eventually trickle down into the choreography of some numbers featured in Chicago, which Fosse would not go on to direct and choreograph until 1975.
Sweet Charity wasn’t commercially successful, although it did receive three Academy Award nominations. Three years later, Fosse took Cabaret, the 1966 musical based on both the 1951 play I Am a Camera and Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 novel Goodbye to Berlin, and cast Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles. At the time, Minnelli had appeared on screen in a few eccentric roles here and there, thanks, in part, to her scion status, but once she starred in Cabaret, her career skyrocketed. She won an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a BAFTA award for the performance, and nabbed Fosse to choreograph Liza with a ‘Z’: A Concert for Television in 1972. Cabaret swept the Academy Awards and won eight Oscars, but Verdon’s contributions to the film (from adjusting the choreography to suggesting costumes for Sally Bowles to wear during the iconic “Mein Herr” number, a sensual performance injected with a tinge of humor, and a clear descendent from Verdon’s “Big Spender” performance in Sweet Charity) went unnoticed and Fosse got all the credit. Sally’s bowler hat, the utilization of chairs and canes, and “amoeba”-like movements are all considered Fosse hallmarks.
Fosse and Verdon separated in 1971, due to his infidelities and addiction issues, but the story goes that Verdon was responsible for encouraging Fosse to continue with Cabaret, because he feared another box office failure. Fosse was reportedly addicted to Seconal, Dexedrine, alcohol, and sex, and was hospitalized for a short stint, while Verdon stayed by his side. There’s even a rumored Verdon quote in which she insists that “Bob grew up around strip clubs. Women were his hobby.” When Fosse met and married the dancer and actress Ann Reinking (played by Margaret Qualley in Fosse/Verdon) in 1971, he and Verdon continued to work together.
Verdon’s star power began to dwindle, but she and Fosse turned back to the stage in 1975 when they teamed up for Chicago, a musical in which she originated the role of the murderous Roxie Hart, a fictionalized version of the real-life Beulah Annan, alongside Chita Rivera as Velma Kelly. Her early performances from musicals like Damn Yankees and Sweet Charity can clearly be traced as influences for the choreography in Chicago. Take one look at “Cell Block Tango” or “Nowadays” and her impact is visible. The legacy of this Fosse and Verdon collaboration has proven to be timeless: After its 1996 revival, Chicago became the second-longest running Broadway musical of all time, behind The Phantom of the Opera, and the 2002 film adaptation starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger, won the Oscar for Best Picture.
Even after the award-winning choreographer had a rumored affair with Jessica Lange, who starred in his critically acclaimed film All That Jazz as a flirtatious angel of death named Angelique, the Fosse and Verdon creative partnership persisted. Reinking played the girlfriend of the lead character based on Fosse (played by Roy Schneider), a choreographer named Joe Gideon who hallucinates about his own death and struggles with addiction throughout the film, until he meets a tragic end. Verdon consulted on the film, which also included characters based on her and her daughter, as it was Fosse’s meditation on his own life and legacy, and Verdon was an integral piece. (Fosse eventually admitted in a 1986 interview with The New York Times that he “really messed marriage up, and there is a lot I regret.”) The film ends with the fictionalized Fosse being zipped up in a body bag. In real life, Fosse died in Verdon’s arms after suffering a heart attack in 1987 at the Willard Hotel.
Fosse/Verdon is coproduced by Nicole Fosse, and based on Sam Wasson’s Fosse, a biography that doesn’t quite elaborate upon the codependent relationship between Fosse and Verdon as much as it just focuses on Fosse as an icon. Their story is extraordinary, but it’s also typical: At the height of his fame, Fosse was a philandering choreographer-director who behaved erratically, but he is revered as a genius because of the work he produced; when Verdon expressed her own particular tastes and offered up critiques, she was considered to be a “difficult” nag, all because she “couldn’t stand bad dancing.” Fosse’s ideas were stylish and sleek, but it was Verdon’s humor, wit, and prowess that has upheld his concepts. We’ll see how it all plays out onscreen once the show premieres on FX tonight.