What’s Real & What’s Not in FX’s Fosse/Verdon Premiere

On Tuesday, April 9, FX debuted its latest limited series taking a look back into the annals of Hollywood history with Fosse/Verdon, which stars Oscar heavies Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams. The series follows the tumultuous and triumphant relationship between famed director and choreographer Bob Fosses (Rockwell) and multi-hyphenate talent Gwen Verdon (Williams). The series begins with their meeting in the late 1960s while Fosse was directing the film adaptation of Sweet Charity, which Verdon had starred in when it was on Broadway (in real life, she was passed over for then-rising star Shirley MacLaine), and tracking the highs and lows of their professional collaboration and doomed marriage.

Given that this series is based on two real people and tracks their lives over the course of events that really took place, we thought it would be fun to take a look at the premiere episode and see what the series gets right and wrong about key point in Fosse and Verdon’s early relationship.

Here’s what we found.

Real: The connection between Fosse and Verdon

Rockwell and Williams’ chemistry in this re-telling of Fosse and Verdon’s lives together is electric, sure. But the real Fosse and Verdon are famously remembered for their near-supernatural connection, with some remarking there was almost a telepathic connection or understanding between them (one dancer told the New York Times in 1973 that “they read each other’s minds”) that allowed them to create beloved art.

Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the series premiere, Fosse and Verdon’s daughter, Nicole Fosse (who also served as executive producer), said this of her parents’ relationship: “My mother and father have one of the greatest love stories ever known. They were extremely complex people with an indestructible bond, loyalty, and trust that endured both fantasy and reality. Finally, we have a creative team with the talent and wisdom to tell the story.”

Fosse Verdon standing the crowd still
Image: FX.

Kinda real: Verdon’s directing style on Sweet Charity works with Fosse’s

There’s a scene in the premiere of Fosse/Verdon that shows Fosse attempting to choreograph the “Big Spender” musical number in Sweet Charity, but with some difficulty; he can’t quite seem to convey to the dancers how he wants them to move or to act. Verdon comes up with the idea to tell the girls to think of the 10-cents-a-dance girls (an old school version of the modern-day lap dancer) and how dead on their feet they would probably be at the end of the night. Fosse and the dancers take to the suggestion like a moth to the flame.

In reality, the note Verdon gave was more than likely about the dancers evoking “the women behind the make-up counter at Bloomingdale’s” than erotic dancers. According to Kevin Winkler, author of Big Deal: Bob Fosse and Dance in the American Musical, those were women ‘whose feet burned from standing all day. To relieve the pressure, they cocked the hip of one leg while sharply flexing the heel of the other, pushing down into the floor.”

Not real: How Fosse got the Cabaret directing gig

During the premiere, we see Fosse really working hard to secure directing the film version of Cabaret. To do this, he has to pitch moneyman Cy Feuer (played by Paul Reiser), who seems hesitant to secure Fosse because of differing visions (Feuer wants Cabaret to be an “intimate” movie but Fosse wants to put all the jazz and life possible into it). In reality, there was probably doubts about handing the reins over to Fosse because his film right before Cabaret, Sweet Charity, was a financial bomb, costing $20 million to make and only getting $8 million in return.

Fosse Verdon Fosse directing cabaret number still
Image: FX.

Real: Fosse’s dangerous, self-destructive habits

The premiere episode makes it pretty damn clear that Fosse is dealing with his demons actively and constantly — and often not in a healthy way. There is always a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and barbituates are close at hands. There’s real truth and accuracy to this, especially because we know Fosse was very open about self-destruction. In 1973, he told the New York Times that he was fascinated “by that thin line between a person’s jumping or not jumping, shooting himself or not shooting himself. I was drawn to the idea of self‐destruction.”

The episode makes loose connections between Fosse’s harmful habits and his teenage years, when he worked as a dancer in strip clubs as a teenager in order to earn money for tap lessons. It’s been speculated that this situation gave root to Fosse’s simultaneous fear and adoration of women, mixing shame and pleasure together when it came to carnal things and later leading to various kinds of self-destructive behavior, something further reinforced by Fosse’s psychiatrist in later years.

Image: FX.

Real: The Cabaret gorilla mask incident

Late in the premiere episode, Verdon is called to Berlin to help Fosse on Cabaret. Shortly after arriving, Verdon realizes that what is needed is a gorilla mask, of all things, to help bring the number “If You Could See Her” to life. This really did happen and you can see the real Liza Minnelli, star of Cabaret, wearing the costume during the number.

Fosse/Verdon airs every Tuesday on FX at 10/9c.

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