Monday, August 12, 2019

Song and Dance, Part II: Fosse/Verdon

Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams in Fosse/Verdon.

Sam Rockwell’s portrait of Bob Fosse – the legendary director-choreographer whose body finally succumbed to drugs, alcohol, nicotine and workaholism at the age of sixty, in 1987 – in the eight-part F/X miniseries Fosse/Verdon is one of those rare dramatic reincarnations of a celebrity that you feel, as you watch, you will retain forever in your mind alongside the work of the real one. (Some other examples: Judy Davis as Judy Garland and Geoffrey Rush as Peter Sellers, both also in TV dramatizations, and Annette Bening as Gloria Grahame in the 2017 movie Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.) I saw Rockwell was at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2000 in the supporting role of the desk clerk in a production of Lanford Wilson’s The Hot L Baltimore, which is set in the lobby of a low-rent residential New York hotel. The director, Joe Mantello, staged a pre-show during which some of the members of the ensemble wandered on and improvised behavior that sketched in their characters before we heard any of the dialogue Wilson had scripted for them. I can’t remember what any of the other actors did because Rockwell made his simple tasks so interesting – so detailed and so quirky – that my companion and I kept our eyes on him the whole time. And nearly twenty years later, his performance, in the margins of the show, is the only one I still recall. I had already started spotting him in movies like Galaxy Quest and Michael Hoffman’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where he exhibited the same distinctive combination of focus, precision and humor, all guided by an unpredictable perspective, as if his character occupied some space in the world that no one else had ever noticed before. Both those movies came out in 1999; Rockwell has played dozens of roles since, many of them in bad or forgettable movies, and I haven’t always liked him. (I hated his Oscar-winning performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but it would be unfair to pin the blame on Rockwell, since nothing in that repellent movie made an iota of sense.) But I think his gifts are both outsize and off-kilter, and when he’s good he can be sensational. He was the best thing about Vice, for instance, drawing on impressive resources for satirical impersonation to play George Bush Jr. But what he does as Bob Fosse goes way beyond impersonation, though he gets down the man’s slouching grace and his sexy slightness and the way the cigarette tucked insouciantly in the corner of his mouth completed him as definitively as it completed Bette Davis or Humphrey Bogart. Rockwell gets inside Fosse – his compulsions about work and sex, his ambition and unsatisfiable perfectionism, his cynicism about show business and about his own talents, the erotic charm that was generated as much by his world-weariness as by his persistence and the appeal of being around his genius.

It's easy in our current culture to reduce Fosse to a masculine cliché, a seducer who uses his talent and position to get the women he wants even though they know he’s incapable of remaining faithful to them or that they’re helping him cheat on someone else; perhaps the most haunting scene in Michelle Williams’s portrayal of Gwen Verdon, the indelible musical-theatre star who became first his muse and then his wife, is the one, early in the series, where she meets the fading Joan McCracken (Susan Misner), his second wife, whom she replaces in his bed just as Joan replaced his first wife, Mary Ann Niles – all dancers – and the thought that she’s stealing the husband of a dying woman makes her sick to her stomach. And some critics, I know, have done exactly that, questioning whether we should bother to watch a drama about yet another bad-news bad boy. There’s no way to answer this kind of complaint, if you really think that the story of one of the signal talents of the musical theatre isn’t worth telling because you don’t like the way he related to women, or if you prefer to wag a finger at his behavior rather than exploring the complex psychology that explains it. But for those of us who believe that the construction of great art or entertainment is a worthy subject in its own right and who don’t think that sexual conduct should be subjected to a grading system, the story of this relationship is fascinating.

Thomas Kail (the celebrated director of Hamilton) and Steven Levenson (the book writer of Dear Evan Hansen), who developed the series, adapted Sam Wasson’s 2014 biography Fosse, which is a remarkable piece of work. Wasson’s analysis of his subject is simultaneously deeply sympathetic and surgically exact. He peels away one layer after another, and no matter how many times Fosse marches through the same behavioral patterns – not only with the women he clings to even as he serially betrays them, but also in the lies he tells routinely about his drinking and drug-taking, his refusal to accept the triumphs in his career (after winning the show-biz Triple Crown, the Oscar for Cabaret, the Emmy for Liza with a ‘Z’ and the Tony for Pippin, he winds up in a psychiatric institution for suicidal depression) – the book never repeats itself. Moreover, Wasson is a first-rank theatrical historian, drawing on a staggering breadth and depth of information to situate Fosse’s work, beginning with his choreography for the 1954 Damn Yankees (starring Verdon as Lola) and the musical-theatre era in which he came up. I couldn’t absorb the book fast enough. I grew up with Fosse and Verdon. My parents were big Verdon fans; the original cast album of Damn Yankees was one of the first LPs I can remember listening to, and I saw the movie version, starring Verdon, when I was eight or nine, around the same time my dad took me to see Redhead, the first show Fosse directed as well as choreographed, on Broadway. When I was a teenager my mother and I saw Verdon in Fosse’s Sweet Charity, and after Cabaret made film history in 1972 I made sure not to miss a single Fosse movie or stage production, including his calamitous swan song, Big Deal (which contained one amazing number, “Beat Me Daddy Eight to the Bar”). Wasson’s bio is a treasure trove for a long-time fan like me; reading it, I felt as if I was looking at the work I know so intimately with new eyes. That’s especially true of Chicago, Verdon’s last starring vehicle, which went through an acrimonious rehearsal period, received mixed reviews, lost the Tony Award to Michael Bennett’s A Chorus Line and then turned around to become a big hit. I remember vividly seeing it on Broadway in 1975, but until I read Wasson’s book I knew very little about its trials and tribulations, which included extraordinary tension between Verdon and Fosse.

Michelle Williams in Fosse/Verdon. (Photo: Eric Liebowitz/FX )

Fosse/Verdon begins with the film version of Sweet Charity, Fosse’s debut as a movie director, which he got because the star, Shirley MacLaine, insisted on it. But it includes flashbacks to Damn Yankees and to Fosse’s teenage dancing career, when his teacher and mentor, with the tacit, uninformed approval of his mother, allowed him and his partner to perform in seedy burlesque houses. (Wasson underscores the effect of his early sexual experiences at the hands of strippers on his sexual attitudes as well as his push-pull attraction-repulsion with regard to show business. His analysis is extremely convincing.) And because Kail and Levenson have expanded the subject matter to include Vernon as a co-protagonist, we also get a few flashbacks to her early life, too – her abusive father, her child performances, her disastrous first marriage to an older man who got her pregnant, and her expert training by the tyrannical choreographer Jack Cole. There are two problems with this shared-protagonist structure. The first is that there’s so much material that it becomes unwieldy, and you can’t work out exactly what the central dramatic idea is. The second is that, aside from the sections of Wasson’s book that deal with Verdon, Kail and Levenson don’t have a source as rich for the sections that focus on her, so some of them are underwritten (especially in the middle episodes) and they start to repeat themselves. This isn’t helpful to Williams, who gives a sporadically terrific performance but can’t prevent some parts of it from going flat and other parts from descending into melodrama. In Wasson’s account, Verdon doesn’t object when Fosse’s career eclipses her own: though she gets to recreate Lola in the movie of Damn Yankees, she never becomes a movie star and isn’t even considered for the Sweet Charity film, though everyone seems to know (and it’s true) that she was a far better Charity than Shirley MacLaine. And she displays remarkable patience with Fosse’s peccadilloes, even though his philandering eventually drives her out the door; she spends her life as his caregiver, even after they’ve separated and she’s moved in with the actor Scott Brady (played by Nicholas Baroudi, in a colorless performance). In the miniseries, she is permitted explosions of anger, and they should make her character more interesting. But they’re not exactly high points in the writing; they have a stock quality. (A blow-out climactic speech about all the ways in which Verdon has held Fosse him up through decades of marriage and artistic collaboration is a bit of an embarrassment.)

Dozens and dozens of actors pass through the series and many of them are canny visual matches for the real-life show-biz characters, but most of them don’t get much to do. Misner makes the most of her few scenes as Joan McCracken and Keane-eyed Margaret Qualley is excellent as Ann Reinking, the dancer who was, after Verdon, the most important woman in Fosse’s life. (Later she was instrumental in the still-running Broadway revival of Chicago, which she starred in, though that’s outside the purview of Fosse/Verdon.) Young Blake Baumgartner makes a lovely impression in a few episodes as Nicole Fosse, Bob and Gwen’s daughter, but Juliet Brett, who takes over the role when Nicole becomes a troubled teenager, falls victim to sparse screenwriting. Norbert Leo Butz and Nate Corddry are strong casting choices for the parts of Fosse’s closest friends, Paddy Chayefsky and Neil Simon, but no one has written characters for them to play. (His other screenwriting pal and lunchtime companion, Herb Gardner, has been left out of the adaptation.) Aya Cash has a few scenes as Joan Simon, Neil’s first wife and Gwen’s best friend, who dies young of cancer, and though he doesn’t have much to do, Lin-Manuel Miranda is an ideal choice for Roy Scheider, who played Fosse’s alter ego in his 1979 movie All That Jazz. Paul Reiser shows up as Cy Feuer, the producer who keeps trying to derail Fosse while he’s shooting Cabaret, but he’s miscast. We get brief glimpses of George Abbott (who directed Damn Yankees), John Kander and Fred Ebb (Chicago’s songwriters), Liza Minnelli, Ben Vereen, Chita Rivera, Hal Prince, choreographer Michael Kidd, Joel Grey, Jerry Orbach, Debbie Allen and others, and an ambitious attempt is made to recreate the choreography of numbers like Sweet Charity’s “Big Spender” and Cabaret’s “Mein Herr.” But who wants to see a Liza Minnelli look-alike leading some highly competent dancers in “Mein Herr” when you can watch the original?

Still I got engrossed in Fosse/Verdon, for all its faults. Williams may not have the triumph with Gwen Verdon that she had with Marilyn Monroe – partly because she’s not quite right physically, though she does a good job with her trademark vocal quiver. But her best scenes are very fine indeed, and there are a lot of those. And you can’t afford to miss Sam Rockwell. His best scene is at Chayefsky’s memorial, where – making good on a smart-ass promise he made to his friend while he was alive – he executes a sandman dance, introducing it by saying to the assembled crowd of mourners that he hopes he won’t offend anybody. It’s such an obvious gift of love that you can’t imagine anyone – in this group especially – seeing it as anything else. And I can’t imagine that anyone who sees it will ever forget it.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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