“To me, it's a superhero origin story,” Lin-Manuel Miranda told Playbill live on the red carpet at the premiere of Fosse/Verdon, which he produced. “We're telling the story of two superheroes: Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse. And it's thrilling that we get to do it.”
The new limited series on FX premieres April 9 (10PM ET) and stars Tony nominee Michelle Williams (Blackbird) as four-time Tony-winning actor Gwen Verdon and Oscar winner Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) as nine-time Tony-winning director-choreographer Bob Fosse.
The drama chronicles decades of the couple’s romance, creative collaboration, personal struggles, and artistic triumphs across eight episodes, penned by Tony winner Steven Levenson (Dear Evan Hansen) and Emmy winner Joel Fields (The Americans).
Here, series director Thomas Kail (Hamilton, In The Heights), stars Sam Rockwell, Michelle Williams, Norbert Leo Butz, Aya Cash, Paul Reiser, Kelli Barrett, Bianca Marroquin, choreographers Andy Blankenbuehler and Susan Misner, as well as Bob and Gwen’s daughter Nicole Fosse, reveal secrets behind the making of Fosse/Verdon, the real-life story, and the impact the work of these two superheroes has had on their own. Watch the full livestream in the video, or read the highlights below:
Steven Levenson, writer/executive producer
1. “In a show that's largely about collaboration and the magic and the messiness of that this was a real collaborative effort,” he said. “I did that with the help of Joel Fields and Tommy Kail and our incredible team of writers and we really unpacked it together. I think one of the big challenges especially as a theatre person figuring out what not to include.”
2. But Levenson wanted to be sure he included a good chunk about Pippin, the show that earned Fosse his only directing Tony and a choreography Tony. The creative team focused the series on the 1970s. “That's the spine of the series and from there we can branch forwards and backwards,” he said.
3. The premiere episode starts just before the '70s, with the making of the film Sweet Charity and the staging of “Big Spender.” “We actually stole a page from Bob Fosse's book,” said Levenson. “The beginning of All That Jazz you see Bob creating this audition and in those first 10 minutes you see all of his brilliance—or it’s ‘Joe Gideon’—but we wanted to create something compact that showed in one long sequence what these people could do better than anybody else and how they worked together, so that by the time you got to the end of that teaser you would know who we were talking about and why they mattered, and the strange complicated relationship between them.”
Lin-Manuel Miranda, executive producer
4. “If you are following this livestream you're going to poop your pants every few minutes watching this show,” Miranda warned. “It's incredible to be able to cast a new generation of Broadway talent as these legends.” Indeed, the series includes cameos from Tony nominee Ethan Slater as Joel Grey, Tony nominee Laura Osnes as Shirley MacLaine, two-time Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz as Paddy Chayefsky—and that’s the tip of the casting iceberg.
5. Miranda is the person who read the Sam Wesson biography Fosse and handed it to director Thomas Kail—who then believed there was a bigger story to tell. “Tommy really steered the ship on this and I was along for the ride,” said Miranda. They chose Fields and Levenson as their head writers because “Joel Fields has just spent all this time at The Americans in very complicated marriages and then here comes Steven Levenson, who has told very complicated stories onstage and brings such truth and humor to it.”
6. Most importantly, Miranda wants everyone to realize the vast influence of Fosse on arts and pop culture, as his first exposure to Fosse’s style “was probably Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It’ video because that's all Fosse. When I made that connection when I actually started to see Bob Fosse I was like, ‘Oh! You're seeing the roots of the thing you love.’”
Nicole Fosse, executive producer, and Thomas Kail, director
7. Fosse and Verdon’s daughter Nicole, portrayed in the series, is the reason the series is about the duo rather than just her father. “Nicole was so generous with the stories she told and offering up and downloading us and we had to understand that there was a bigger maybe more important story right in front of us,” said Kail. “I’m thrilled that it's being portrayed that way,” Fosse said. “There was no book on Gwen Verdon. The material is spread out about her and not all collected and it's not nearly as exhaustive.”
8. And the final product is Fosse-approved. “As a child I viewed things one way and as an adult watching it come to life again with such accuracy within an absolutely accurate and plausible spectrum of authenticity, I saw things very differently than I had as a child,” she said. “It was very enlightening. It’s nice to see the truth.”
Michelle Williams, Gwen Verdon
9. Williams, who made her Broadway debut in the 2014 revival of Cabaret, says that helped prepare her for the dance in the role. “It all laid the groundwork for this job, which was one of the toughest of my life,” she said. “The Broadway experience... I wouldn’t have been able to do this without it. Nothing makes you tougher than Broadway. Nothing.”
10. Still, Gwen Verdon is a far cry from Sally Bowles. What helped Williams get into character? “There was a certain way that she held her face that I would go into that would make me feel a lot like her, there are certain clothes I would put on and I would say, ‘Oh this is so Gwenny. This is the Gwenniest of all Gwens.’”
Sam Rockwell, Bob Fosse
11. Rockwell is known for dedicating himself to research for a character. To prepare to play Fosse, Rockwell wanted to understand the man before the director-choreographer. “There were interviews where he would say certain things that were things I’d repeat in terms of getting the voice, getting his general demeanor,” he said. “I don’t think I ever really got the voice, but I got the demeanor. The voice was tough."
12. Though he did not grow up a trained dancer, Rockwell trained hard. Some movement came naturally (“There were things with the feet and the hips I was good at and the shoulders,” he says); other were a struggle: “There were other things that were impossible for me to do.”
13. But the work he’s most proud of is a scene with Williams at his most desperate in their relationship. “There's a few scenes with Michelle where we're kind of contained and it's very dramatic and romantic,” he said. “There’s a dramatic scene where she doesn’t want to be with me in the second episode and I like that quite a bit.”
Andy Blankenbuehler, choreographer, and Susan Misner, Joan McCracken and choreographer
14. The choreography seen in Fosse/Verdon always had to look Fosse, but the routines are not exact replicas. “We didn’t have to re-stage exactly because the writing team and Tommy took us sideways,” said Blankenbuehler. “Being able to examine Bob and Gwen's process was a really exciting thing. That actually takes the pressure off a little bit. A lot of the scenes were fantasies or rehearsal scenes and until the show opens it's not frozen, so there's a little bit of flexibility there.”
15. What does that flexibility look like? “When we were in the rehearsal room we were able to think, 'What was his first draft maybe before he changed it?'” Misner said. Blankenbuehler added, “Or if he was really in love with Gwen how might the lift go higher? Just being able to be the theatre nerd to look into that stuff was really exciting.”
16. Fosse (and Verdon, we now know) laid the foundation for groundbreaking innovation in dance. But what makes something Fosse? “His style changed dramatically over decades, but it always went to the core of an emotional idea,” said Blankenbuehler. “Later in his life he got to more dysfunctional complex ideas. But there is a cleanliness, that's almost like a graphic novel outlined, that is in the geometry of Fosse vocabulary." As Misner put it, “He also went to acting school studied with Sanford Meisner, I feel like that was a huge part of his inspiration, which was also helpful to tap into as an actor and as a choreographer.”