Arts and Culture Editor
FX’s newest miniseries, “Fosse/Verdon” tells the show-stopping true story of the iconic Broadway couple, Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) and Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams). Together they created some of Broadway’s greatest hits which included “Chicago”, “Cabaret”, “Sweet Charity”, “Damn Yankees”, and many others. The first episode of this electric new series focuses on the incredible partnership of this powerhouse couple and some of the hurdles both had to overcome in their personal and professional lives as they pursued careers in the theatre.
The first episode is entitled, “Life is a Cabaret”, and although much of the series premiere focuses on the making of Bob Fosse’s film adaption, of “Cabaret,” the audience also gets a peak into some of the pair’s earlier hits and their grand collaborations. For instance, in a riveting opening scene, the series begins with a behind the scenes look into the iconic “Sweet Charity” number, “Big Spender”. Although it is a thrill to see this song recreated, it is even more of a marvel to watch Rockwell and William’s incredible chemistry as Fosse and Verdon. Even from the first moments, the couple’s effortless teamwork is on display as Williams’s Verdon is able to communicate Fosse’s ambitious ideas in a miraculous manner that is comprehensible to the rest of the cast and crew. This first scene is essential to the rest of the episode’s success as it is the partnership of these Broadway legends that is at the center of this series.
Rockwell who is mostly known for indie films like “Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri” and “Vice”, puts in a respectable turn as Bob Fosse. Although, Rockwell has not danced much this season, he captures Fosse’s gritty aurora well. With an iconic black hat and a shaved head, Rockwell completely transforms into this role. For the character, Rockwell has a distinctive gruffness that is a worthy balance to Williams’s more animated Verdon. He also shows pathos in the choreographer’s trances of depression and constant smoking. Yet, he also gives great depth into the drive of Fosse as he literally works his way from one major project like “Sweet Charity” to the more elite film world with “Cabaret.”
Although Rockwell gives a commanding star turn as Fosse, Williams simply becomes Gwen Verdon. With the signature red hair and smoky voice, Williams is virtually unrecognizable as one of Broadway’s greatest performers. Through the Verdon character, the audience gets to see the more ordinary moments of this Broadway couple . During the filming of “Cabaret”, Fosse is off having affairs, yet it is Verdon who is stuck at home in between jobs waiting for her next project, and being the parental figure for their daughter, Nicole. It is a reality for actors, to have to wait months and even years for projects, and that certainly was the case for Verdon. She also proves herself to be the strategist in their projects. When the filming of “Cabaret” is struggling after composer Cy Coleman seeks guidance over the film, it is Verdon who has to communicate with Coleman her husband’s gritty vision for the film, which called for real prostitutes in the seedy Kit Kat Club scenes and harsh lighting. She was the voice to his vision. Williams’s remarkably human portrayal of the larger than life talent, Gwen Verdon is at the center of this series.
Other standout performances include Kelli Barrett who does a spot on Liza Minelli. Her rendition of the song “Cabaret” is a delight and brings memories that effectively harken back to the original film. Broadway fanatics will also have great fun finding cameos from various stars who include Laura Osnes as Shirley Maclaine and the multi Tony winning, Norbert Leo Butz in a brief appearance as the playwright, Paddy Chayefsky. In the coming weeks, more Broadway appearances will bring great excitement for fans of the great white way.
Thomas Kail who is known for Broadway’s “Hamilton” and Fox’s “Grease Live” brings a polished presentation to this series. His painstakingly accurate recreations of the bustling and exciting sets of the films “Cabaret” and “Sweet Charity” are particularly exciting. The production values are all top notch as viewers are instantly lured back into the evocative world of Fosse and the golden age of Broadway. Kail also helped to write the script with “Dear Evan Hansen” book writer, Steven Levenson.
Together, Kail and Levenson bring the glitz and glamour audiences expect from Fosse and Gwen Verdon, but also are not afraid to humanize these icons by including intimate scenes of the couple at various stages of their relationship. They wisely do not shy away from highlighting Fosse’s flaws as in his affairs and constant smoking. Verdon’s depression that she faces when her husband is away at work is also given a spotlight.
This series is already proving to be an exciting and engrossing new show for FX. It manages to capture the hearts of Broadway lovers with insider behind the scenes footage of Fosse’s projects, while also showing the passionate romance and teamwork that he had with Gwen Verdon and maybe himself. Not since NBC’s “Smash” has a television series so accurately and enjoyably shown the ups and downs of Broadway performers. Wherever this season goes, there is sure to be more magic to do.