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'Fosse/Verdon' Explores The Relationship Of Bob Fosse And Gwen Verdon


"Fosse/Verdon" premieres next week on FX, a miniseries based on what is all at once an enduring love, a toxic relationship and a persisting partnership in work, love and life between Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon.


MICHELLE WILLIAMS: (As Gwen Verdon) You know, I didn't realize that you'd started as a dancer.

SAM ROCKWELL: (As Bob Fosse) Sure, sure.

WILLIAMS: (As Gwen Verdon) That must have been difficult.

ROCKWELL: (As Bob Fosse) What's that?

WILLIAMS: (As Gwen Verdon) Giving up dancing.

ROCKWELL: (As Bob Fosse) I still dance a little, you know?

WILLIAMS: (As Gwen Verdon) Well, you're not going to cast yourself in this show, are you?

ROCKWELL: (As Bob Fosse) If they'd let me, I'd play your part.

SIMON: Sam Rockwell is Bob Fosse, the genius director and choreographer. Michelle Williams is Gwen Verdon, the legendary dancer and actor who gave life to works that include "Damn Yankees," "Sweet Charity" and "Chicago."

Thomas Kail is one of the executive producers and one of the directors of "Fosse/Verdon." He's also directed many Broadway productions, including "In The Heights," "Lombardi" and a little show called "Hamilton" with Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also is a co-producer of "Fosse/Verdon." Thomas Kail joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

THOMAS KAIL: I'm delighted to be here.

SIMON: Taken from Sam Wasson's biography "Fosse," but why is this miniseries pointedly "Fosse/Verdon"?

KAIL: Because this felt like an opportunity to have a conversation about how things are actually made. And this was a partnership, and Gwen's contribution has been overlooked. And when we started talking about this 2 1/2 years ago, one of the questions we kept on asking was, why do we know his name but we don't know hers? And we wanted to explore and examine the relationship and ask that question.

SIMON: It opens with the story of "Cabaret," the film that made so much of the Bob Fosse legend and was that rare thing in the business, a risk in all ways - a musical set inside the rise of Nazism and an unfulfilled love story. And there were doubts about him as a director. How did all of the elements combine, and the two of them, to make this a success?

KAIL: Well, "Cabaret" was, you know, a relatively groundbreaking show, to say the least, in 1967 when Harold Prince directed it.

And around that time, Bob, who had already established himself as a very in-demand choreographer, decided that he wanted to go out West and make a movie. So he made a movie of "Sweet Charity." But he didn't cast the woman who originated the role of "Sweet Charity," his wife Gwen Verdon. It was Shirley MacLaine who actually could get the movie made, so Gwen taught Shirley the part. They went out, and they made this thing together. And the movie, which many people were incredibly excited about, was a total bomb. And it was a disaster. So Bob was back to zero.

And this "Cabaret" movie was one that felt like it would allow him to access some of the parts of himself that were not accessed in "Sweet Charity." He got in there. He started making this movie, and he realized that he needed his, you know, his partner. And so Gwen came over and spent a lot of time on set with him, as well as in the edit room.

SIMON: And she's not even in the credits, is she?

KAIL: No, she's not.


ROCKWELL: (As Bob Fosse) It'd be great to get you here for a few days, maybe get your eyes on some of the numbers.

WILLIAMS: (As Gwen Verdon) Am I going to be unhappy when I get there?

ROCKWELL: (As Bob Fosse) No, of course not. Why would you be unhappy? I need you.

SIMON: You know, Bob Fosse was one of my artistic heroes until I saw this miniseries (laughter).

KAIL: You're welcome.

SIMON: But I think it's important to understand not just how much Gwen Verdon was a part of his success and what is still hailed as his genius, but - forgive me - what an utter ass he was.

KAIL: Well, you know, this kind of behavior that was accepted and has now been brought to light over these last few years felt like a conversation we wanted to be a part of, and this felt like an opportunity to take this kind of behavior out of the darkness and keep it in the light.

And having Nicole Fosse, the one child of Bob and Gwen, was an enormous resource and asset. She's a producer on the show. She was involved in the smallest things and the largest things, from what somebody might be wearing to how we were going to reconstruct these dances with real specificity and authenticity. And it felt like she was providing us so much insight into Gwen's life. And I think it gave us a lot of confidence to examine the darkest places because she felt it was necessary and essential, just like we did.

SIMON: Did Gwen Verdon just tolerate too much from Bob Fosse?

KAIL: What I know is the two of them found something in each other they couldn't find anywhere else. You know, Gwen was someone who is a survivor, and she was a fighter, and she was just as ambitious and as profoundly talented as Bob was.

This was someone - when she did a show called "New Girl In Town" in the late '50s, she took to bed one time - this is in the Wasson book - because Bob was being mistreated. And so she, in protest, stepped out of the show. And they had to bring in four people to play her part - four people - two people to dance it, one to act it and one to sing it.


GWEN VERDON: (Singing) You put me on the farm far away from harm. All kids need to grow up nice as milk.

SIMON: I mean, look; I love every minute of it, but you take us through breakdowns, heartbreak, deceptions, drunkenness, pill-gobbling. I thought at one point, wait; show business is supposed to be fun (laughter).

KAIL: I don't know who told you that. As we say, it ain't called show fun.

But, you know, show business both elevated and got Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon out of their respective childhoods and took them to places they probably couldn't have dreamed of. But it also is an addiction. And you can become addicted to the applause. You can become addicted to that feeling of the great unknown of the audience. And the question is, what do you do when that goes away?

One of the other questions we thought about a lot was, what does the dancer do when the dancer stops dancing? The dancer dies twice. The dancer dies when they stop dancing, and then they die when it's all over. And Bob was someone who wanted desperately to be Fred Astaire. But at age 25, with his hair balding and his shoulders slouched and his look not what the studio wanted, he was fired. So to have the thing that you want to do taken away from you, how do you reconcile that?

SIMON: Generation from now, will how the talents who got there and what they went through and made other people go through count as much as the work of art?

KAIL: What I know is great work does not justify foul behavior. And there's a way that people that make things must be viewed when we have a greater context for how they made them or for what they did. But I feel like that's an incredibly subjective thing. And I just know that the who matters more than the what. And that's something that I learned years ago and I keep very present when I'm trying to make something. What we did is important. How we did it and who I did it with matters the most.

SIMON: Thomas Kail - he's one of the executive producers of "Fosse/Verdon," set to premiere on FX. Thanks so much for being with us.

KAIL: It's my pleasure. Thank you for having me.


VERDON: (Singing) If they could see me now, that little gang of mine. I'm eating fancy chow and drinking fancy wine. I'd like those stumble bums to see for a fact the kind of top-drawer, first-rate chums I attract. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.