The complex, fiery relationship Bob Fosse had with Gwen Verdon is the subject of "Fosse/Verdon ," a new eight-part series on FX this month starring Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams. Fosse was the exacting mind behind the angular movements and bowler hats of "Chicago," the brutally autobiographical "All That Jazz" and the dark punch of the film "Cabaret." Verdon won four Tony Awards within six years in the 1950s. They were married in 1960 and separated in 1971 when Fosse's womanizing finally took its toll.
Despite their personal turmoil, both remained in each other's lives, inspiring and elevating the others' work until Fosse died of a heart attack in 1987. As ever, she was by his side. Thomas Kail, the Tony Award-winning director of the musical "Hamilton" who directed and is an executive producer for "Fosse/Verdon," said the series explores the couple who make up the show's title but also the nature of artistic creation itself.
"This felt like a chance to use this relationship — the connection, the messiness, the clarity and the love between these two — as a portal to investigate how things are made," he said. Fitting for a portrayal pair of Broadway superstars, the series has grease paint running through its DNA. In addition to Kail, "Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda is an executive producer and the key writer, Steven Levenson, won a Tony for "Dear Evan Hansen."
Broadway veterans, including Santino Fontana, Byron Jennings and Ethan Slater have roles. As do Laura Osnes, who plays Shirley MacLaine, Kelli Barrett who plays Liza Minnelli, and Brandon Uranowitz who portrays Dustin Hoffman.
Norbert Leo Butz, a two-time Tony winner, plays the acerbic screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, a close friend of Fosse, but one who also fought with him. "They didn't have any filters. There were no boundaries. They would just say the truth to each other but they were also very sensitive, very neurotic," he said.
The series has plenty of dancing — naturally — as it shifts across decades. Kail's camera uses tricks from the world of theater during thrilling transitions, as Fosse and Verdon flash back or forward in the same shot.
Kail said he tried to mimic Fosse's own visual style and technique. "Because of the way Bob's brain worked, there is this fluidity of time," he said. To get the facts correct, the series leaned on Sam Wasson's 2013 biography "Fosse" and Nicole Fosse, daughter of Fosse and Verdon, who served as co-executive producer and was onset throughout. "She was incredible supportive of us trying to tell the best truth and the most honest truth that we could," said Kail.
Rockwell's Fosse is a complex mix of steely menace and irredeemable cad, a cigarette seemingly dangling from his lips in every scene as he barks demands. "I want to see every muscle, every tendon!" Williams is the definition of a long-suffering partner, always putting on a brave face and explaining to people why she and Fosse work so well together: "I just know how to speak Bob. It's my native tongue."
The creators of the series said one of the issues they wanted to debunk was the concept of the solo artistic genius. The series shows Fosse depending on a circle of friends — including Verdon, Chayefsky and playwright Neil Simon — for inspiration and guidance.
"Bob Fosse was a genius and he also hung out with a lot of geniuses," said Butz. "They were not lone geniuses." Kail, who on all his projects relies on collaboration and communication, said the dynamics on the set of "Fosse/Verdon" proved that being bull-headed is not the only way to create art.
"I'm a big believer that you can make high-quality and excellent things by working in unison," he said. "I tried to make the show with harmony about someone who created a kind of chaos."
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits