Stylish and cynical, the premiere episode of Fosse/Verdon is a gift for fans of the late director and his muse as it navigates the complicated relationship behind their legacy.
This Fosse/Verdon Episode 1 recap for the premiere episode, titled “Life is a Cabaret”, contains spoilers.
When FX announced it would present a limited series on director/choreographer Bob Fosse and his muse/wife Gwen Verdon, the theater people I know (which is a pretty high number considering I have a BFA in Acting) proceeded to lose their minds with anticipation. Many of them counted down the same way others have been ticking off the days to Game of Thrones or Avengers: Endgame. As an ardent Fosse fan who has read more biographies on the man than I can recall, I was right there with them. Deeply talented, experimental, and troubled, his life reflected his art and vice versa. So for those who count themselves as fans, this presents a tall order for a series.
The good news is that the series premiere, “Life is a Cabaret”, for the most part, does the artist justice. The challenge is that Fosse was not a particularly nice man, even by his own standards. A compulsive womanizer and by some accounts merciless taskmaster, his ego and talent were as much a part of his brand as bowler hats and turned in feet. His films are often uneven, but feature moments of brilliance and this says nothing of his signature work as a choreographer. (I would argue that as uncomfortable as it is, Star 80 is criminally underrated, particularly Eric Roberts’ performance.)
“Life is a Cabaret” picks up with “19 years left,” a morbid way of recounting the past that is the sort of framing Fosse would have appreciated. In the cold open, he (Sam Rockwell) and then-wife Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams) are shown rehearsing the film version of Sweet Charity’s iconic “Big Spender.” With just a few frames we see everything that is quintessentially Fosse–burnt out sexpot women performing precise, cheeky choreography while Fosse broods behind the camera. What is more prevalent is Verdon’s role in his directing as she slips little bits of information to the girls.
With “16 years left,” Fosse ventures to Munich to begin shooting Cabaret after pitching himself in a few scattered scenes that also show snippets of his complicated relationship with Verdon as spouses and collaborators. For Cabaret, Verdon is left behind, desperately calling her husband who is upsetting producers with his artistic temperament. Frustrated, he sends for her, implying that whatever trouble their marriage might have (they would divorce by the time Cabaret was released), their working relationship was a crucial part of his success.
We also have several random flashbacks of younger Bobby as older Fosse looks on. This approach is reminiscent of Fosse’s semi-autobiographical All That Jazz, an interesting film that is fundamentally self-indulgent in Fosse’s consideration of his own talent and mortality (Roy Scheider plays “Joe” as a stand-in for Fosse). Several scenes, including the opening shot of Fosse watching himself in the mirror, reference All That Jazz.
“Life is a Cabaret” is essentially a series of anecdotes leading up to and during the filming of Cabaret, such as Fosse recruiting dancers from a brothel or Verdon melting crayons for the film’s signature makeup. Williams is particularly good at capturing Verdon’s soft-spokenness while maintaining her biting wit. Her performance is the most intriguing part of this undertaking, in part because Verdon’s role in Fosse’s success is sometimes underplayed. Rockwell is solid as Fosse, though he seems to be resting a bit on the stylish background. It will be interesting to see how the recreation of stage performances from the pair manifest in coming episodes.
What is outstanding about the series is also its greatest limitation. This is clearly a piece for fans who don’t need much backstory or exposition. It examines the nature of the pair’s relationship, something that I have pondered over the years. For example, the episode ends with Verdon arriving in Munich after flying to New York and back just to get the perfect gorilla costume for Cabaret even as Fosse is in bed with another woman. Cut to “8 minutes left” as she arrives to take him to an opening, years after their divorce. How they got to the moments in this episode, both before and after, looks to be the task for the series. If they maintain this tone and style, all those fans who couldn’t wait should have plenty to be jazzed about.