Pop Culturing: Michelle Williams Shines in 'Fosse/Verdon' but this Miniseries is Missing Some Jazz

by Jason St. Amand

National News Editor

Monday April 8, 2019

Michelle Williams as Gwen Verdon, Sam Rockwell as Bob Fosse in "Fosse/Verdon."
Michelle Williams as Gwen Verdon, Sam Rockwell as Bob Fosse in "Fosse/Verdon."  (Source:Pari Dukovic/FX)

"Fosse/Verdon" is FX's latest miniseries that takes on larger-than-life culture figures and tells their story over a handful of episodes with A-lister talent. Though it feels like a Ryan Murphy series a la "Feud: Bette vs. Joan," the new program, debuting Tuesday, is closer to the network's uneven 2018 show "Trust," a saga about the kidnapping of John Paul Getty III brought to TV in part by Danny Boyle.

Like all of Murphy's shows and the series not produced by the writer/director who left Fox for Netflix after the Disney-Fox merger, "Fosse/Verdon" boasts an impressive pedigree both in front and behind the camera. Oscar winner Sam Rockwell plays choreographer-director extraordinaire Bob Fosse, tracking his personal and work relationship with Broadway icon and actor Gwen Verdon, played by a fabulous Michelle Williams, who is a four-time Oscar nominee. On paper, the show is in good hands: It is executively produced by "Hamilton" star Lin-Manuel Maranda, that musical's director Thomas Kail as well as playwright Steven Levenson ("Dear Evan Hansen"). Kail helms the first two episodes, getting writing credit for the first episode, with Levenson writing the first and second episode.

Sam Rockwell as Bob Fosse, Michelle Williams as Gwen Verdon in "Fosse/Verdon." Photo credit: Michael Parmelee/FX

That's a lot of talent! Unfortunately, "Fosse/Verdon," which also bills the duo's real-life daughter Nicole Fosse as an executive producer, doesn't always translate to the small screen. The miniseries has the same kind of pristine and sleek Murphy veneer, but it's a bumpy ride mostly thanks to its awkward editing structure. Following the turbulent and unconventional relationship between the two Broadway legends is muddled; told out of order (sort of) jumping around between the pair's career highs (the success of "Cabaret," the film for which Fosse won the Best Director Oscar and a film for which Verdon received no credit despite her heavy involvement) and lows (the show starts off with the 1969 Box Office disaster "Sweet Charity"). It can get so confusing at times that its strange editing almost completely sinks the show. Episodes are punctuated with title cards that are supposed to give context to what's going on but feel completely arbitrary. The second episode "Who's Got the Pain," starts off with a title card that reads: "Majorca: 3,913 miles from home" and later another that reads "New York: 268 days since Gwen Verdon's 1st Tony Award." These continue off-and-on throughout the five episodes provided for review and completely pulls you out of the story.

But when "Fosse/Verdon" works, it's an exciting watch. Rockwell is a sleepy Fosse — another anti-hero, tortured male genius who neglects his family while fooling around, the kind of character we've seen on TV since "The Sopranos" changed the game two decades ago. He manages to add nuance to the choreographer with his performance but the tropes of too many pills, women, booze, fame, and all the other vices render Rockwell's Fosse pretty dull. Thankfully, Rockwell doesn't go all out and make Fosse into a complete monster or a caricature.

Sam Rockwell as Bob Fosse, Michelle Williams as Gwen Verdon in "Fosse/Verdon." Photo credit: Craig Blankenhorn/FX

To say the miniseries may feel familiar to viewers is an understatement. Nevertheless, Williams's Verdon may be billed second in the show's title but she comes out on top as the best part of "Fosse/Verdon" — not just because of her committed and stellar performance but because of Verdon's story — and her backstory — which is inherently more interesting as a talented dancer and actress who never really got her due. Though she's a three-time Tony winner and a Grammy winner, Verdon isn't as well remembered as Fosse, whose life story was sort of already told in his excellent 1979 film "All That Jazz." We see Verdon being the backbone to Fosse's creative output, responsible for getting "Cabaret" into shape, flying from Germany to New York just to pick out the perfect monkey suit for a musical number. Later on, Fosse pleads with her to come to the editing room to give the film her special touch. This kind of relationship is one audiences have seen before, most recently as in the 2018 Glenn Close film "The Wife." And Williams plays Verdon magnificently, not only remarkably looking like the late talent but infusing her performance with a 2019 understanding. Williams herself has been outspoken about the #MeToo movement and equal pay, so it's exciting to see her bring her passions into her craft but those values sometimes clash with the existence of "Fosse/Verdon."

"Fosse/Verdon" begs the question: Who is this for and why is this story being told right now? It's not the kind of broad show networks usually aim to air. It's a niche miniseries for theater geeks and film buffs but it's oddly told like a rearranged Wikipedia entry that may have gotten more attention in 2011. The miniseries is caught in the middle of trying to appeal to everyone while telling a specific story to a select few who are probably already familiar with Fosse and Verdon. Episodes are named after numbers Fosse and Verdon are responsible for and in some episodes they're recreated like "Life is a Cabaret"(there's even a Liza moment, played by the stellar Kelli Barrett) and the "Damn Yankees" favorite "Who's Got the Pain?" We get to see the duo's creative process behind those numbers and they highlight the episode's themes. They are impressive moments — similar to the dazzling finale in "Bohemian Rhapsody" where Queen's 1985 Live Aid performance is recreated — and the point of the show's existence but it's not enough to capture viewers and may not be enough for fans to return to "Fosse/Verdon."

Pop Culturing

This story is part of our special report titled Pop Culturing. Want to read more? Here's the full list.

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