Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Fosse/Verdon: Giving ‘em the Old Razzle-Dazzle

It’s no secret that I love musical theatre, whether on stage or on the screen. Thanks to the pandemic, I haven’t attended a stage musical since early in the year, and some of the award-winning productions to which I was enthusiastically looking forward are now, I guess you could say, gone with the wind. This past summer, the skillfully-made video version of Hamilton helped remind me how much I love literate stories that are fueled by song and dance. Basically, though, I’m reduced to watching old movies from my childhood in order to feed my theatregoing habit.

 But of course there’ve been some dividends from my recent hours of TV-watching. For one thing, I got to catch up with a mini-series that had always intrigued me. Fosse/Verdon first aired in eight parts on FX, beginning in the spring of 2019, back when the world was considerably saner than it is now. It’s a close-up look at two giants of stage and screen: director/choreographer Bob Fosse and his everloving wife, Gwen Verdon. I had read about the personal lives of these two—their turbulent marriage, Fosse’s chronic philandering along with  his dependence on drink and drugs, Verdon’s struggles to assert her independence of her spouse—in Sam Wasson’s excellent Fosse biography, published in 2013. But a book can’t convey the impact of Fosse’s landmark choreography, nor Verdon’s incandescent stage presence.

 Thanks to the well-staged mini-series I got to relive some of the pair’s theatrical highlights. These include Fosse creating Verdon’s sexy solos as the temptress Lola in Damn Yankees; Verdon communicating to the Sweet Charity taxi-dancers Fosse’s radical vision of the “Big Spender” number; Verdon flying to Berlin on short notice to help Fosse launch his screen directing career with Cabaret (and discovering upon arrival that he’s sleeping with someone else). One of my favorite moments shows how Verdon’s softer approach succeeds in conveying to performers the staging ideas that Fosse’s truculent manner can’t communicate. As she modestly explains it, “I just know how to speak Bob. It's my native tongue.”

 The acting is strong. I admired the highly malleable Sam Rockwell (credible here as the slim, graceful, and hugely troubled Fosse) and particularly Michelle Williams, who had me almost convinced she was the incarnation of the distinctive-looking and -sounding Verdon. The restaging of famous numbers was done with care and love. Only problem: the series tries too hard to emulate the funky surrealism of Fosse’s own semi-autobiographical film, All That Jazz. And, frankly, it’s easy to be weary of the usual showbiz tropes: the guy who craves fame but carelessly squanders his talent,  the co-dependent wife, even the adored  daughter – growing up too fast --who barely survives her parents’ legacy. (Nicole Fosse, now clean and sober, was a series producer.)  My favorite episode is one that focuses, for a change, on Verdon’s own life challenges. It  cleverly uses “Razzle Dazzle,” a song from her musical hit Chicago, to show her knowingly charming the head of an adoption agency when a natural-born baby doesn’t seem like a possibility.

 The timeline in the mini-series is creatively scrambled, so that we aren’t trapped by the occasional tedium of strict chronology. The cast is chock-full of near-lookalikes playing Fosse friends and protégées, including Neil Simon, Paddy Chayefsky, and Liza Minnelli in full Cabaret mode. Special kudos to Margaret Qualley (daughter of Andie MacDowell) whose career has taken a big leap forward recently, between her sympathetic performance as Fosse’s main squeeze, Ann Reinking and her role as a Manson groupie in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. About her there’s more to come.


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