Bob Fosse, the celebrated and tormented choreographer and director, sure looks different in the #MeToo era to me.
That’s the thought that has stuck with me since screening the first two hours of eight-part limited series “Fosse/Verdon” that premieres at 10 tonight on FX.
As a college student, after seeing the 1972 film version of “Cabaret,” which Fosse directed, I fell in love with his vision and work. As I started working as a pop culture reporter and heard about his depression, drive, demons and amphetamine abuse, I have to admit I only admired him more as an a creative figure risking it all for those moments of onstage transcendence that almost nothing else in the culture delivers like a Broadway musical.
Fosse fell out of my pantheon of pop culture heroes long ago, but looking at his depiction in this series, I wonder how I missed seeing so much of the bad Bob Fosse as a young man. Blame it on patriarchy, and thank the #MeToo movement for the education.
By the standards of high-end basic-cable entertainment, there is a lot to like in this series. It’s produced by some of the folks who brought “Hamilton” to the stage: executive producer Lin-Manuel Miranda, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and director Thomas Kail. That should be more than enough for most folks to give a look tonight.
But there is also an engaging performance by Michelle Williams as Gwen Verdon, the star dancer who suffered and triumphed with in her doomed marriage with Fosse. (The performance by Sam Rockwell as Fosse is not in the same league as that of Williams in the episodes I saw.)
And you don’t have to love Broadway or the musical theater as I do to like this series. At it’s core, it is about a relationship between two supremely talented but also deeply troubled performers. And that narrative wisely explores the connections between power and sexuality, neuroses and need, work and careers, lust and love.
This relationship had a lot to do with power and the way Fosse wielded it to manipulate and even abuse not just his wife, but women who worked with and for him. The series also shows how much of Verdon’s major contributions to his art and reputation were erased by him and patriarchy.
That’s ugly stuff, and shame on Fosse. Saying he was a product of his times isn’t an excuse. He was smart enough to know better, even if his emotional issues and drug use clouded his mind.
I was especially moved by the story line showing the way Fosse was foundering in the making of “Cabaret” until Verdon arrived on location and pulled him and the production together. Her reward: finding out that he was sleeping with a woman who was working as a German translator on the film. And he was making no effort to keep it from Verdon.
If this series did nothing else but shift some of the credit for great works like “Cabaret” to Verdon, I would sing its praises.
But amid all of its own singing and dancing, it quietly educates and corrects the record a little on one of the great artistic teams of 20th-Century American popular culture.