It takes at least a couple of episodes to realize how FX’s intriguing yet uncomfortably icy “Fosse/Verdon” moves in the style of its principal subjects, the late choreographer and film director Bob Fosse and legendary Broadway performer Gwen Verdon.
The limited series (eight episodes in all; five of which were made available for review) tends to slink, swerve, stop and start with a precision that only seems erratic, with quick-cut editing and lots of portentous pizazz. The narrative slides back and forth along a timeline, with flashbacks that are as far away as Fosse’s childhood insecurities and flash-forwards that are as conclusive as the night Fosse had a heart attack and died at age 60 in 1987, as he and Verdon prepared to attend the opening of a “Sweet Charity” revival at Washington’s National Theatre.
In between, “Fosse/Verdon” (premiering Tuesday) drills deepest on the couple’s most personally tumultuous yet professionally successful years (for Fosse at least) — the early to mid-1970s, when he came back from a box-office flop (the 1969 film version of “Sweet Charity,” starring Shirley MacLaine) to direct and choreograph the 1972 film version of “Cabaret” (starring Liza Minnelli), for which he won the best-director Oscar along with “Cabaret’s” near sweep at the Academy Awards. (Spinning his plates madly, he also choreographed and directed a stylish Broadway hit the same year, “Pippin,” adding to his collection of Tony Awards.)
Theater and dance geeks are down for all this, no question, which is why it’s hard to imagine “Fosse/Verdon” becoming a flashy miniseries 20 years ago, before popular culture went Broadway bananas. The show’s bright marquee of producers includes Tony winners Thomas Kail (“Hamilton”), Steven Levenson (“Dear Evan Hansen”) and some guy named Lin-Manuel Miranda, as well as Joel Fields, the co-creator of “The Americans.” Fosse and Verdon’s daughter, Nicole Fosse, is also a producer and creative consultant.
The commitment to both lore and fact is admirable, creating a satisfying swirl of approximately true drama. In a slightly different light, the story could have served as Ryan Murphy’s next iteration of “Feud,” should he ever get around to following up on his 2017 series about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.
Other viewers may be put off by what seems like the show’s aloof barrier to entry, as “Fosse/Verdon” dives right into the uncomfortably cruel yet mutually beneficial relationship between Fosse (Sam Rockwell) and his wife, Broadway star Verdon (Michelle Williams). With little to no attempt at overture or background, viewers must sort themselves between those who’ve done the homework and those who haven’t: Did you ever see “Sweet Charity”? How many times have you seen “Cabaret”? (Or “Damn Yankees”?)
Broadway enthusiasts will lap up the many references to 20th-century theater canon and a supporting cast playing Fosse and Verdon’s dishy cohort — Neil Simon (Nate Corddry) and his wife, Joan (Aya Cash), Paddy Chayefsky (Norbert Leo Butz), Hal Prince (Evan Handler), Chita Rivera (Bianca Marroquin) and the aforementioned Liza with a Z (Kelli Barrett), among others. There’s no time to teach remedial steps; if you can’t keep the beat, you’ll just have to Wiki while you watch. (After all, no one complains that a movie about a baseball legend never stops to explain baseball.)
Thankfully, “Fosse/Verdon” can be savored entirely through Rockwell and Williams’s compelling pair of performances, which, as you would expect from two of the best actors working today, are achingly layered.
Rockwell thrives when conveying Fosse’s manic bursts of creativity and chauvinism; the character is somewhat harder to nail when he’s listless and low. There is one perfectly haunting scene early on where Fosse, at a nadir, imagines himself stepping out, up and over the balcony of the couple’s terrace apartment. The grace with which Rockwell executes those few steps is, well, pure Fosse in movement. But both the writing and Rockwell’s performance flag a few episodes later when requiring Fosse to endure a psychiatric hospital stay with not much more than a catatonic stare.
Williams, meanwhile, is so consistently good that the show really ought to be retitled “Verdon/Fosse.” From the first 5-6-7-8, the story makes clear that Fosse’s vision for his work relies on Verdon’s input and tacit approval, along with her wellspring of confidence in him — to such a degree that it overshadows her career. As she tires of his mood swings, substance abuse and chronic adultery, their marriage doesn’t survive the experience of making “Cabaret”; he moves out and they separate (although they never divorced).
Verdon’s past is as least as interesting as his; there’s an earlier forced marriage to a man who raped and impregnated her; the baby boy she left behind to move to New York and pursue dancing; her determined rise from chorus to starring role. Yet “Fosse/Verdon’s” message is loud and consistently clear: Fosse got the glory while Verdon got sidelined. Along the way, all kinds of men devalue her as she ages, but none more painfully than her soul mate. Williams thoroughly imparts Verdon’s internalized damage, which feeds a kind of disproportionate delusion about the limelight. She’s addicted to fame as much as Fosse is.
The show’s frantic pace finally slows down as the entire fifth episode encompasses a tense 48 hours at a Hamptons beach house in 1973, where Fosse and his new lover, the dancer Ann Reinking (Margaret Qualley), host friends — including Verdon and her new lover (Jake Lacy) — for a rainy weekend. Fosse and Verdon get drunk and end up fighting. She wants him to direct her in a revival of “Chicago”; he’s intent on making a movie about the comedian Lenny Bruce.
Over breakfast, Verdon gives Reinking some crucial advice about Fosse: “Whatever he does, you have to remember that it isn’t personal.”
“That’s all it is, is personal,” Reinking replies.
“It’s worth it,” Verdon says. “Because he’ll give you what he gave me.”
“You mean Nicole?” Reinking asks.
“Yes . . . but . . . not just Nicole,” Verdon says, then whispers: “Lola. Charity. Roxie.”
It’s both exhilarating and infuriating to watch as “Fosse/Verdon” drags us through these recurring spats, in the style of “A Star Is Born” and a hundred other celebrity rise-and-fall tales. In the saddest way, “Fosse/Verdon” is old hat.
Fosse/Verdon (90 minutes) premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on FX.