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Thomas Kail’s Incredible Journey From Directing Sitcoms to Winning Awards to ‘Fosse/Verdon’

The executive producer behind the FX limited series has done a wider variety of TV than most.

Fosse Verdon Episode 1

“Fosse/Verdon”

FX

Nearly every director of note has some surprising stuff on their resume — after all, the path to success often includes some unusual detours. But Thomas Kail’s path to winning a Tony, an Emmy, and yet again becoming an Emmy contender for his work on FX’s “Fosse/Verdon”? It included a period of time hanging out on the set of CBS’s six-season multi-camera sitcom “2 Broke Girls.” Not an obvious point of entry into the awards scene, but a place where Kail told IndieWire “you take a lot of the skills that you’ve cultivated in the theater.”

Kail is currently an executive producer and director on the FX limited series, another project on which he’s collaborating with “Hamilton” mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda. “Hamilton” is, of course, the Broadway blockbuster show Kail directed, which won 11 Tony awards (including one for Kail for direction), and in 2016, the Fox production of “Grease Live” he directed won five Emmys.

So the guy has awards cred, and his upcoming episode of “Fosse/Verdon,” “Where Am I Going?,” is an intensely intimate portrait of the show’s central characters in the pressure cooker of a “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”-esque weekend away in the Hamptons, featuring key figures from the Broadway world.

But it all came from unexpected origins. Kail’s television career began when he and his fellow “Freestyle Love Supreme” collaborators began working with PBS for its relaunch of “The Electric Company” — then, while he was directing the theatrical premiere of the Miranda-written “In the Heights,” director Andrew Fried made a documentary about the process that led to the pair working together on “The Oprah Winfrey Oscar Special” in 2010. “They were these kinds of verité hangouts, asking what would it be like to hang out with these talented people?” Kail said.

Thomas Kail and Sam RockwellFX 'Fosse/Verdon' TV Show Panel, TCA Winter Press Tour, Los Angeles, USA - 04 Feb 2019

Thomas Kail and Sam Rockwell

David Buchan/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

It was the stage production of “In the Heights,” though, which led to Kail meeting “Sex and the City” executive producer and “Two Broke Girls” co-creator Michael Patrick King, who Kail described as “an ardent theater lover” who had seen early versions of Miranda’s first major hit. “He called me in 2011 and asked me if I would come out and meet, because he had just gotten ‘2 Broke Girls’ on the air and he was looking for a director in case the show got picked up.”

Kail ended up directing three Season 1 episodes of “2 Broke Girls,” the CBS sitcom about the titular women (Beth Behrs and Kat Dennings) making the best of their reduced circumstances. “Michael was and has been an incredibly important friend to me because he really believed in me and it’s very hard for theater directors to have the opportunity to direct television of any kind. There’s very few that get to do it and you really have to have somebody bring you in.”

Beyond the fact that Kail got to spend time in the writers’ room for the show, he got to do something most directors don’t often have a chance to do: spend time with other directors. “I was around these really terrific directors — James Burrows, who became a good friend of mine, Scott Ellis, Fred Savage, Ted Wass, Julie Anne Robinson. Just really talented people, and directors never get to hang out with other directors.”

Kail did note that his theater background proved compatible to a degree with the world of sitcoms. “We were in front of a live audience — I just loved going back and forth. It feels like working slightly different muscles but they’re all connected to the same core and I also really enjoy how accessible television is,” he said.

Plus, he added, when it came to sitcom legend Burrows, “You get to watch [him] direct and you’re going to learn something. It’s watching Yoda practice the force. He’s actually the master. I remember he turned to me one day and said, ‘You know, Tommy, my father was in the theater.’ I said, “Yes. I’m aware. Good old Abe Burrows. He wrote a couple things I know.”

Since working on “2 Broke Girls,” Kail has found massive success thanks to the game-changing “Hamilton,” but he remains conscious of the fact that directing one of the most popular Broadway hits of the modern era has a limited scope.

“One of the things that I’ve been challenged by with all my shows is when you make something that you’re proud of and you want a lot of people to see and a lot of people want to come and see it — in the case of ‘Hamilton,’ you have a very limited ability to serve everybody,” he said.

Right now, he noted, there are six different productions of “Hamilton” playing around the world, which he said meant the show is playing to 10,000 people a night, perhaps the maximum possible audience for a play in the theater world… and a fraction of the audience that a TV show might get each week.

Which occupies Kail, thanks to a scene from the film “Being There”: “I’m paraphrasing it but what I remember is he said, ‘A million people will watch this show in one night. That’s the equivalent of two years selling every seat on Broadway’ in a Broadway house.”

Meanwhile, when he directed the Fox adaptation of “Grease Live,” “12 million people watched it in one night. That’s 25 years of a show running on Broadway. I really love being able to make something that everybody can consume immediately if they wanted to and that was something that also made me very keen to make television.”

FOSSE VERDON "Where Am I Going?" Episode 5 (Airs Tuesday, May 7, 10:00 pm/ep) -- Pictured: (l-r) Sam Rockwell as Bob Fosse, Norbert Leo Butz as Paddy Chayefsky. CR: Michael Parmelee/FX

“Fosse/Verdon” Episode 5

Michael Parmelee Photography

It’s a split which has made Kail interested in how “Fosse/Verdon,” as focused as it is on the world of Broadway, can make that experience work for a wider audience. “There’s something very sacred about that, to make a show about this place that’s been so nurturing to me,” he said. “And yet when you make a piece of theater, it’s gone as soon as the curtain comes down. It only exists in our memory and there’s no record of it.”

But the fact that “Fosse/Verdon” will be far more permanent means that he can praise the work of the production team, including “production designer Alex DiGerlando and our costume designers Melissa Toth and Joseph La Corte and our wigs and hair and these incredible actors and this terrific writing. Now it exists and it’s always there.”

For him, “That makes me feel like we’re able to try to carve something into wood at least, and not just write in the sand, which is often what it feels like with the theater. I’ll always work in the theater and I love the theater and it’s my home and I’ll always live there. But it’s nice to take a trip somewhere else and then come back.”

That means that yes, he hopes to come back to TV at some point in his career, especially after “Fosse/Verdon.” “The size of the canvas and the richness of the palette that we’re allowed to paint with was really extraordinary — and I think my partners in this all felt the same way,” he said.

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

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