Street noise. Lights up. Close-up of the man himself. Gray whiskers. That signature cigarette dangling from his left upper lip.
Bob Fosse. Or, Sam Rockwell looking remarkably like the famed director-choreographer. And in the premiere episode of FX’s new limited series, Rockwell convinces us why he was the right man for the job.
The episode, written by Steven Levenson of Dear Evan Hansen fame and directed by Thomas Kail of In The Heights and Hamilton cred, is structured like the Sam Wasson biography that inspired the series—a countdown to the premature death of the legend with the “present day” taking place in Washington, D.C.
Tapping rings inside Fosse’s head, and the knocking becomes real on the door of Fosse’s D.C. hotel room. As he reaches for the doorknob, it swings open—like a portal. Flashback to HOLLYWOOD “19 years left,” and Fosse and his wife-muse-creative partner Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams) are on the set of the Sweet Charity film working on choreography together. From the get-go we know why the show isn’t just called Fosse; this is a story about the explosive genius that comes when you mix the two forces of nature.
Theatre fans will know that Verdon originated the role of Charity Hope Valentine in Fosse’s production of Sweet Charity on Broadway. But for the film, the studio hired Shirley MacLaine (a ginger-wigged Laura Osnes).
Sweet Charity marked Fosse’s directorial debut in Hollywood and here we see his infamous attention to detail, aided by Verdon, as they set the motivation of a background dancer in “Big Spender.”
Bob: Why are you standing like that?
Dancer: I thought this was my position.
Bob: Why is the character you’re playing putting all the weight on the banister?
Dancer: The choreography.
Gwen: How long have you been dancing in those heels tonight? Five hours baby.
Bob: Six—at least.
Gwen: All you want to do is SIT. DOWN. It is ALL you can think about. You close your eyes you see loveseats, armchairs, church pews, subway benches—
Bob: But you got a problem, the manager’s watching you, you can’t sit down in the middle of a shift—
Gwen: Got that little boy at home doesn’t she.
Gwen: Depending on that paycheck. Maybe if you can shift your weight off your heels onto the banister just maybe you can make it through one more dance.
Then, with choreography set by three-time Tony-winning choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler (himself a former Fosse performer) and Susan Misner (who plays Fosse’s wife Joan McCracken later in the series) and music set by Tony winner Alex Lacamoire, we get to see the full number in all its glory.
Cut to NEW YORK “18 years left”: Our first glimpse of the Fosse/Verdon household. The celebration of the 1969 premiere of the movie.
All our show biz favorites are in attendance. Fosse can be seen sandwiched between a bushy Paddy Chayefsky (Norbert Leo Butz) and a hamish Neil Simon (Nate Corddry). Meanwhile, Joan Simon (Aya Cash) is off reminding Gwen that that lead role was hers and that the movie wasn’t any good without her. Ever the supportive partner, Gwen insists that Shirley had been attached to the film long before Bob was even hired to direct. And it’ in the delivery that makes it clear: She makes room for his success. She doesn’t hold a grudge for this. She believes in him and she loves him.
Hal Prince (Evan Handler) is there, the spitting image of the real Broadway director, thinning beard and specs on his bald head. He is the one who mentions to Bob that producer Cy Feuer is looking for a director for the Cabaret film. (Prince directed the original Broadway production in 1966.) Thus a seed has been planted in Fosse’s mind.
When the crowds disperse, Bob is left in a post-party mess with nothing to do but torture himself by reading the New York Times review, which bemoaned the loss of Gwen as Charity. We see Bob haunted by his demons: not being good enough, fear of failure, the need to prove himself. We see Gwen comforting him.
Still, he’s onto the next and—taking Prince’s word for it—meets Cy for dinner to ask for the directing job. Cy wants to know if Gwen would be involved, knowing the pair would be cash in the bank. But Bob wants this one for himself. When Cy brushes him off (“I’m just producing. Manny Wolf at the studio, he’s the one choosing the director”), Bob shows up at Manny Wolf’s office himself. As he introduces himself to the receptionist, we remember a time when Bob wasn’t yet “Fosse.”
At home, Gwen is on the phone trying to pitch herself and Bob to their agent, for a musical version of Maurine Dallas Watkins' play Chicago as Nicole practices ballet and Gwen coaches her. But turns out, Bob got the job.
The next thing we know we’re off to MUNICH “16 years left.”
In Germany, where the film was indeed shot, the cast celebrates the eve of the first day of filming Cabaret. We meet the translator Hannah (Christiane Seidel) on the movie. It’s a meet-cute in the pub: She’s cold and nervous, and Fosse follows the pedestrian details of her movement, preoccupied by her asymmetry. We meet Liza Minnelli (Kelli Barrett)—young and fizzing and ready to take on the leading role of Sally Bowles for the camera. And, as it turns out, Cy is ialso there, to make sure Bob stays on schedule. As he says, “This is not going to be another $20 million fiasco like your last picture.”
That’s when we get our first glimpse at a young Fosse in a memory and a taste of the root of his insecurities as his tap teacher barks at him: “Remember there’s always somebody better than you out there. Always someone working harder. Don’t think for a second I couldn’t replace you a hundred times over.”
Back home Joan and Gwen are choosing dresses for the Tony Awards. Joan is concerned that Gwen and Nicole aren’t headed to Germany, but Gwen says she doesn’t have time. After all, she’s looking for a straight play to do to prove that she’s just as much as star without her other half as with him. Meanwhile, in the background we see little Nicole playing near the bar….
In Munich, Bob still hasn’t started shooting. He’s not happy with the set for the Kit Kat Club. The extras look too much like actors. Herein comes Bob’s attention to detail, his precision, his chase for authenticity. He, along with translator Hannah and a production assistant go to a German brothel. True to life, he casts actual sex workers to appear in the film. But outside the brothel is where the heat is on, as Bob begins to seduce Hannah and with spin and a tap of his umbrella, their affair officially begins.
Back in New York, Gwen is running lines with Nicole when she gets a call from Nicole’s school.
We’ll find out what that’s about later, right now, Bob is rehearsing the musical number “Mein Herr” and again we see his obsession with precision and attention to detail. (“I want to see every muscle, every tendon.”)
The oomp-pa rhythm driving the musical number revs up as we watch rehearsals interspliced and perfectly timed to show Gwen frustrated with raising Nicole on her own, leaving message after message. Turns out, that call from school was to tell her that Nicole brought Seconal ("S-e-c-o-n-a-l") to school.
But Bob is still rehearsing. Trying to get it right. Nothing seems to please him—not the costumes, not the extras, not his dancers. He doesn’t want the same thing that happened with Charity to happen with Cabaret. He’s after the grit. But Cy dismisses the set anyway.
Back in his bedroom, the memory of him outside of dance class returns. The idea of being replaceable haunts him. So who does he call? The only person who understands him.
As Gwen agrees to come to the set she asks, “Am I going to be unhappy when I get there?” and after Bob promises “Of course not,” she agrees to hop on a plane and Hannah rolls over in bed. This isn’t going to end well…
Immediately after Gwen arrives things on set start clicking. She’s not just the Bob whisperer; she also believes in his vision and convinces others to. She stands up for his vision to Cy, “People aren’t going to the movies to escape anymore, they’re going to find something true.”
The production hits a wall with the gorilla suit for the number “If You Could See Her.” Bob is insistent it’s not right and Gwen agrees, but it’s the only one in all Germany. That’s when Gwen agrees to go back to New York and find them the gorilla they need. What’s a trans-Atlantic flight when you’re making art?
“When I come back,” Gwen starts, but Bob can finish this sentence in the story of his own life. Gwen knows. And he knows he needs to break it off with Hannah. He promises.
As Liza rehearses the title song, Gwen flies across the ocean and finds their dream animal. Gorilla head in hand, Gwen arrives back in Munich. As she fusses with her signature red ringlets, we can’t help but cringe at what she’s about to find.
She knocks on the door. But, as we knew would happen, Bob wasn’t expecting her back so soon. And so comes the broken promise. He goes downstairs. Opens the door. Fast forward.
We’re back to the beginning. Turns out we’re in Washington, D.C., for the opening night of the Sweet Charity revival at the National Theatre and there are only “8 minutes left.”
Fosse/Verdon airs Tuesdays at 10PM ET on FX.