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‘Fosse/Verdon’: The Writers Sang Their Way Through Writing Episode 4’s In-Depth ‘Pippin’ Tribute

Showrunner Steven Levenson and executive producer Joel Fields reveal just how deep their personal histories with musical theater go.

"Fosse/Verdon."

“Fosse/Verdon.”

FX

[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for “Fosse/Verdon” Episode 4, “Glory.”]

Lest you doubt the musical theater credentials of the producers behind “Fosse/Verdon,” the FX limited series devoted to one of Broadway’s most infamous collaborations, know that in the writers’ room, there was a lot of singing — especially during the writing of Episode 4.

“I mean, a lot of singing, to the point where the assistants would look up from their desks, and then they’d look down and just shake their heads,” executive producer Joel Fields told IndieWire. “That entire final act wasn’t really written as much as it was sung into the draft.”

“Fosse/Verdon” Episode 4, “Glory,” tracks director Bob Fosse’s awards success after the release of “Cabaret” and his subsequent work on the Broadway musical “Pippin,” and leans heavily on that musical for its storytelling, especially in the final scenes, as Fosse’s suicidal fantasies intermingle with some of its key numbers.

The melding of reality and fiction was a choice facilitated by the fact that Fields and showrunner Steven Levenson and their other collaborators had a deep history not just with musical theater, but “Pippin” in particular.

In fact, Levenson’s first-ever exposure to the works of Bob Fosse came when he performed in a high school production of “Pippin” — he played the title character, “I say with some shame” — which gave him an advantage among the writers whenever they would get into a “‘Pippin’-off.”

"Fosse/Verdon."

“Fosse/Verdon”

FX

“We often had contests over who knew it better,” Levenson said. “I would pull out the ‘I played Pippin in high school’ card sometimes to end the debate.”

While “Pippin” made a clear impact on Levenson, he credits “Fosse: The Musical” with being what helped him fall in love with Fosse as a creator. “I had done theater as a kid and I had always been, as I think a lot of people who do musical theater are, a little bit embarrassed to do musical theater and a little bit embarrassed about the kind of stereotypical tone of musical theater — the earnestness, the corniness,” he said.

“So, I’d never really seen anything like what Bob Fosse did with musical numbers and with dance — the darkness and the sensuality and the kind of sinister qualities to a lot of the movement. I was really blown away by that,” he said. “Then I saw ‘All that Jazz’ when I was, I think, 16 and that was when I really felt like, ‘Oh, okay, I know who Bob Fosse is now.’ I loved that movie and it really freaked me out. When I was 16, I was really freaked out and really troubled by it, but in a way that really stuck with me and, as a 16-year-old, made me think quite a bit.”

“All That Jazz” is a clear influence on “Fosse/Verdon,” but the work of Gwen Verdon herself is something that also makes an impact on the series, something which Fields connected with after he co-wrote a new book for the 2007 revival of “Can-Can.” “That was the musical that really launched Gwen Verdon from fame to superstardom,” Fields said. “That was the musical for which she received the eight-minute standing ovation that you see at the end of Episode 3.”

"Fosse/Verdon."

“Fosse/Verdon”

FX

While Levenson often won the “‘Pippin’-off”s while writing “Glory,” Fields said that being surrounded with fans on his level was part of the fun of the experience. “We have that shared passion and shared knowledge, so as we were working on these episodes and figuring out how to tell the story, we could dip into this common vocabulary that encompassed everything Fosse had done, every lyric that [Stephen] Schwartz had written, all of the dialogue of that episode.”

For the record, Fields’ first exposure to Bob Fosse’s work was “as a camper at Stagedoor Manor Summer Camp, being cast to play Ernst Ludwig in the musical ‘Cabaret'” — perfect training, years later, for a writers’ room obsessed with musical theater. “In fact, that final moment where Nicole [Fosse, played by Blake Baumgartner] joined the chorus in that scene really was found as we were singing our way through writing that sequence and wondering what would be the right moment, and Nicole’s character started singing to us,” Fields said. “I’m embarrassed to say, when I say Nicole’s character started singing to us, I’m pretty sure it was me or Steven that was doing the singing.”

It was, Fields admitted, a pretty different experience from collaborating with Joe Weisberg on his previous hit series, “The Americans.” “Joe and I are dear friends and great writing collaborators,” he said. “But if I would start to sing with Joe, I would get, on a bad day, a dismissive eye roll, and on a good day, a grudging eye roll. He generally wouldn’t jump in and finish the lyric for me.”

“Fosse/Verdon” airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX. 

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