In the upcoming FX limited series “Fosse/Verdon,” the second name is just as important as the first. The drama depicts the decades-long partnership between Oscar-winning director and choreographer Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) and dancer/collaborator Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams). At the Television Critics Association press tour Monday, the producers said it’s a chance to interrogate the myth that surrounds the idea of the solo auteur.
“We felt like this was an opportunity for us examine the complexity of this particular love story, and examine how things are made, and examine the narrative of the lone genius and look at what’s happening where your eye’s not supposed to go,” said director and executive producer Thomas Kail (“Hamilton”).
As teased to critics, the eight-part series will track Fosse and Verdon’s legacy both on the stage and the big screen, including the making of the Academy Award-winning “Cabaret” and Fosse’s iconic semi-autobiographical film “All That Jazz.”
When watching Fosse’s film,producer Steven Levenson said he “felt a big burden,” because the 1979 musical drama in many ways meant that one of the central characters “had already told the story of his life the way he wanted it to be told.”
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However, Fosse’s take on his life story wasn’t entirely factual. “We know enough to know what he left out, the things he might have embellished or glossed over,” Levenson said, especially the amount that Verdon contributed to his work.
Also, according to Fosse and Verdon’s daughter and co-executive producer Nicole Fosse, while “Fosse/Verdon” might include some “All That Jazz” influences, the 1979 film “was a nod to Fellini. This is not a nod to Fellini.”
Fosse spoke fondly of both her parents, saying of Verdon that “everybody adored her — she was absolutely lovable, and everyone’s memory of her is only fond memories.”
But “there was an edge,” she added, when Verdon would be faced with difficult situations. “We try to show the whole human being, not just the fun and the laughter.”
Said Williams, “She was like the sunshine in the room the way I’ve come to think of her is someone who’s always trying her hardest… What Nicole and others have shared with me is she was always trying to rise up and be her best self.”
Verdon, beyond her contributions to Fosse’s work, was one of the greatest dancers of her generation, and the series required both Rockwell and Williams to make a big leap forward in their dance training.
“Michelle and I can hoof, you know, we’re movers — but this is a whole other realm,” Rockwell said. “They look like normal people, but then they get up and dance and they’re superheroes.”
Over the last 10 years, Williams said, “[dancing] just keeps coming up for me,” but getting those opportunities has been a source of joy. In 2014, Williams portrayed Sally Bowles in “Cabaret” on Broadway to rave reviews. When she saw actor Kelli Barrett recreate musical numbers from the film for “Fosse/Verdon,” she was “so jealous — I wanted to be on that stage!”
Kail said that as someone whose entire career has been based in musical theater, one thing he hoped the series would bring to audiences was the experience of bringing a production to life. “How do you capture this ephemeral thing?” he said. “Theater is illusion — how can you do something eight times a week and make it feel like the first time? How do you capture the dust in a spotlight?”
That’s the challenge which “Fosse/Verdon” has taken on, while also being frank about the issues which come up along the line. “This is definitely a moment where it felt like this is a story that needs to be told,” Levenson said, noting that its development coincided with “this explosion of the truth.”
Thus, in a post-#MeToo world, the producers felt that “we have to tell this story and not glamorize this,” as Levensen said. “We have to broaden the definition of it’s not just one man’s work — we’re not allowing that mythology of the solo male artist to survive.”
“Fosse/Verdon” premieres Tuesday, April 9 on FX.