“If I didn’t have trouble with some of the moments, either there’s something wrong with me or something wrong with the piece,” Fosse, 56, says of the series, which premieres April 9.
Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon turned putting on a show into an art, a neurosis and a way of life. Nothing got in their way as they created a new theatrical style out of smoke, shadows and sexy, fine-tuned dancing, in such Broadway musicals as “Sweet Charity,” “Pippin” and “Chicago,” and the films “Cabaret” and the semi-autobiographical “All That Jazz.”
Nothing stopped them, not Fosse’s pill habit, depression or heart attacks. Not his revolving bedroom door or the collapse of their marriage. (They separated but never divorced, and continued working together.) Artistic partners from the 1950s through the 1980s (Fosse died in 1987, Verdon in 2000), they threw boozy parties, had fascinating friends and cherished their bright, spunky daughter. But candor wasn’t their strength.
“There was so much intellect and humor and love and joy that sometimes it made it more difficult to identify the struggle,” Fosse said by phone from New York. But she has realized this about her childhood: “There was a complete lack of clarity.”
A creative team from the “Hamilton” family came together to address that, to shine a spotlight, over eight episodes, on the couple’s messy, unshakable drive and their frailties. The group includes director Thomas Kail, Lin-Manuel Miranda as one of the executive producers and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, whom Nicole Fosse met when he was dancing in “Fosse,” a 1999 Broadway tribute show. That team, Fosse says, is what clinched her participation in the series; when she first saw “Hamilton,” she felt a kinship.
“I realized the work that happened on that stage was changing Broadway forever and what is possible on a stage, and not just stylistically,” she says. “It created almost a new genre in how we approach storytelling. I feel like my parents did that in their generation.”
Fosse, who danced and acted in her father’s films and helped her mother on “Fosse,” directs an organization called the Verdon Fosse Legacy, which protects and oversees her parents’ creations. There’s not a lot she doesn’t know about them, but one scene in “Fosse/Verdon,” set before she was born, gave her insight into her mother’s psyche, and what fueled some of her efforts to dodge the truth.
It occurs in the 1953 Cole Porter musical “Can-Can,” on Broadway, a role that took the young, ambitious Verdon away from the baby son she’d had with her first husband, a reporter. On opening night, her bawdy, sensual heat and supreme dance finesse stopped the show. The audience erupted, and Verdon, who was changing for her next number, was dragged from her dressing room in a towel to acknowledge the ovation.
With her stunned expression turning to gradual comprehension, Williams plays it perfectly, Fosse says.
“Watching Michelle cycle through and break through and then back off of and lean into all the different emotions that she did, I really understood much more clearly a dividing line in my mother’s life that happened,” Fosse says.
“Prior to that she was a really hard-working, sweaty hoofer, just trying to get food on the table to feed herself and her kid and pay her rent. And her life changed for good and bad after that moment.”
Verdon was suddenly a star, recognized on the streets of New York, and with that came the pressure to perform offstage, too. In public, even for a trip to the deli for bagels, she wore makeup and heels, always “Gwen Verdon,” Fosse recalls, her voice putting the name quotes. To escape that continuous pressure, sometimes her mother would rely on a little deception, with a different kind of performance.
“There were times when we’d be walking down the street and we’d just be talking, just mother-daughter stuff, and people would come up and say to her, ‘Oh, my God, are you Gwen Verdon?’ She’d say, ‘No, I’m not, but people tell me I look just like her. Have a nice day!’ and she’d walk on. She didn’t want to engage.
“It was confusing for me,” Fosse continues. “I’d say, ‘Mom, you just lied.’ She was protecting us, and protecting herself. But in order to do that, she had to lie and there’s something ethically and morally askew with telling a lie, even if it’s for a good reason. Now, as a child, you have to negotiate that.”
Fosse says she quickly learned there was a public life and a private life, and a great divide between them. “That translates even further into what should be talked about and not, what should be recognized and not, and then it becomes not the healthiest internal environment in your mind as a child.”
That leads Fosse to a second, more difficult scene in a later episode of “Fosse/Verdon” — when Bob Fosse ends up at a psychiatric hospital in 1973. He’d just won an Oscar for directing “Cabaret.” He also had three Emmys and two Tonys that year. Depression dogged him throughout his career; now it overwhelmed him.
In the hospital scene, Rockwell’s Fosse is hunched and catatonic in his bathrobe. Williams’s Verdon, ever the performer, compensates with bubbly chatter. And the actress who plays 10-year-old Nicole, Blake Baumgartner, watches these strange creatures warily.
Her discomfort rings true to the grown-up Nicole, who recalls being unnerved on those hospital visits that her father wouldn’t look her in the eye.
“As a child, I was told — and I believed, to some degree — he’s overworked and overtired and he needs a rest,” Fosse says. “But there was also a part of my mind that said, when he’s overtired and overworked and needs a rest, we usually go to Acapulco.”
She lets out an ironic laugh, perfectly timed; it sounds like the wry amusement her father turned into a style.
“You don’t end up in a place like that if everything’s going well. Later in life, I realized there was a lot of coverup there and a lot of shame surrounding that, and so something was really, really wrong, you know?”
It was only years afterward, when Fosse thought back on the timeline — the publicity and stress, her father’s drug use and suicidal thoughts, the hospital — that she saw how facts were hidden from her, prettied up or manipulated. In true show-business style, invention replaced reality.
“That realization for me as an adult changed everything,” she says. “Like when you find out there’s no Santa Claus and that also means there’s no tooth fairy and no Easter Bunny.”
A thoughtful re-creation
If Nicole Fosse’s voice is the soul of the Fosse-Verdon partnership, Andy Blankenbuehler, the choreographer, spotlights the body. His job was to get Williams and Rockwell to move like credible dance artists, at least in small glimpses, and to teach them how Bob Fosse broke the body up into pieces, with a leg going this way and the hips that way, and maybe an arm up but the head down. (The actors, he says, “were both pretty fearless.”)
Having fought to master Fosse’s angular, contained corporeal geometry when he was on Broadway in “Fosse,” Blankenbuehler knew the course for the cast of “Fosse/Verdon” was going to be intense. He reached back to his memories of working with Verdon, who had taught him the Fosse alphabet when she began working on “Fosse.” She was in her 70s, wearing capri pants, white socks and white Keds.
“She took my hand like a dance teacher does,” Blankenbuehler says, “except no dance teacher had taken my hand since I was 9 years old. And she took me through the steps, doing them side by side with me.
“You knew she had more information in her head than 10 college professors put together,” he continues. “But she also had an air of your grandmother talking to you — so sweet, and so wanting to pass it on, but also wanting it to be correct. A love for the work but a need for the work to be as good as it can.”
For the TV series, Blankenbuehler devised what he calls “a hodgepodge” of Fosse’s choreography. He didn’t re-create numbers step for step.
“Our most important story was what was going into the work, what was going on in their lives that was leading up to using art to heal the soul,” he says, “and using art to solve the confusions of life.”
Some of those confusions were never solved. Bob Fosse was known for luring young women, often drawn from his casts, into his bed. The series shows him as wielding ruthless power over them; in one episode he takes a role away from the dancer who turned down his advances the night before.
“I hope that it spurs conversations,” Nicole Fosse says, reflecting on how her father’s actions may be judged in the #MeToo era. “About people’s behavior, what is right, what is wrong, how to uphold boundaries and what to do to help people when you see that a really good person is in distress.”
Meaning her father? “Yeah, and my mother, and sometimes me, too. My father was a loving family man, and then there’s this other stuff. He was completely contradictory. It must have been torturous for him.
“He believed in the sanctity of marriage, but he couldn’t do it himself. And that creates self-loathing. I’ve come to see it as a spiritual split.”
It goes without saying that Fosse and Verdon are far from the only people ever to struggle with internal conflict and resort to self-deception. It’s by virtue of their inner landscape, rather than their glamour and artistic labors, that audiences can find common ground with them. And they left their daughter with some hard-earned truths, what she calls a set of ideals to live by. First among them: Always look for the joy.
Then comes their work ethic, which Fosse says they distilled to “Never give up.”
“There’s no such thing as working too hard,” Fosse says. “Don’t throw in the towel. Keep trying. But always make time for playfulness and silliness and joy in every day.”
Like the unstoppable creative synergy that sustained the couple, the Fosse-Verdon way was a hard-hitting combination of work and play. They stayed true to those ideals to the end of their lives, which for Bob Fosse came in September 1987, on opening night of the revival of “Sweet Charity” that he and Verdon had staged at Washington’s National Theatre. On his way to the show in his tux, the 60-year-old Fosse collapsed on Pennsylvania Avenue in Verdon’s arms.
Fosse and Verdon had known their time together was running out. Certainly, Fosse’s ill health, made worse by unslakable appetites, was lit up in neon. That must have fueled what their daughter says is the third principle they drilled into her:
“Don’t ever postpone things — that was very clear in our family,” she says. “If you want to be with somebody, do it, ’cause they could be dead tomorrow.”