Generally I don’t talk about television programs here where our subject is writing musicals for the stage. But, when famous musical theatre creators make a miniseries about creating musicals, well, it’s fodder for contemplation. And, as I’ve said before, television is a great equalizer. We all have one in our home, whereas relatively few of you have seen, say, The Prom, at this point. There’s a greater chance, with TV, that reader and writer have experienced the same entertainment.
But haven’t we been here before? Yes, there was that time a bunch of theatre people were cast in a show about creating musicals and the result was … a colossal bore called Smash. I had to say a few words. And it wasn’t just joining a chorus of disapproval. I particularly disliked the synthetic songs by the experienced Broadway team of Shaiman and Wittman, but it’s easier to recall the total lack of realism. Everything seemed false, filled with incidents that never really happen.
So now the Hamilton quartet has teamed up with Dear Evan Hansen’s librettist to bring us Fosse/Verdon and in many ways it is Smash’s polar opposite. It’s a dual biography of Broadway’s greatest married pair of talents, and there’s admirable verisimilitude in every frame. All the incidents seem like they could have happened, and many of them did. The songs, of course, are the terrific show tunes from actual musicals by Adler & Ross, Coleman & Fields, Stephen Schwartz, and Kander & Ebb. Beloved Broadway actor Norbert Leo Butz has a major role, one in which, amusingly, he refuses to sing. But the other leads are Terpsichores, so Michelle Williams and Sam Rockwell have to pass themselves off as brilliant dancers, and it’s pretty amazing how well they do.
Smash made me apoplectic and dyspeptic just thinking about how the network-viewing world was getting such a patently false impression of the things we do. Fosse/Verdon doesn’t bother me, partly because it’s set in the past, and present-day audiences know some things have changed. Bob Fosse’s attention to detail – which made him such an extraordinary choreographer, stage director and then movie director – is echoed in Thomas Kail’s endeavor to get the tiny things right. There’s something inherently fascinating about a top Tony-winning musical theatre director shedding light on the musical-making process.
But haven’t we been here before? Why, yes: 1979, to be precise. Bob Fosse released All That Jazz, a film revealing his process creating Chicago at the same time he was editing his movie, Lenny, a pressure cooker that landed him in a hospital. So, you have dynamic cinematography of a choreographer hard at work, irresponsibly self-medicating, flirting with death both literally and figuratively, fantasy numbers, one-night-stands with chorus dancers, sex on a hospital bed and the idea that razzle-dazzle can mask the depressing realities of life. Am I talking about All That Jazz or Fosse/Verdon here? Well, both, and that’s a problem.
On F/X, F/V is showing us nearly exactly what we’ve seen before. Fosse’s teetering-on-the-edge life intercut with black and white footage of a stand-up act getting too few chuckles? We know this isn’t an accidental steal because the show depicts the filming of Lenny and All That Jazz. I could complain that too little is revealed of Fosse’s art but, truthfully, All That Jazz revealed enough for me.
Despite the “mini” in its title, a miniseries is a comparatively long form. That self-lacerating auto-bio flick runs two hours and is set in the 70s, when a songwriter worries Sinatra won’t record his laughably corny number. Fosse/Verdon has all this extra time and we get one delightful flashback to Damn Yankees and then the next fourteen years go unexamined. So, let’s shift to that period.
In 1956, that best-year-for-musicals-ever, Fosse teamed once last time with his mentor, the first hyphenate director-choreographer Jerome Robbins on a hit, Bells Are Ringing. The next year he choreographed New Girl In Town, a show based on a play by Eugene O’Neill, and the Tony for Best Actress went to both its stars, Thelma Ritter and Gwen Verdon (her third Tony). Then Verdon used her clout to insist her future husband be hired as both director and choreographer on Redhead. The show and the pair all won Tonys
Now’s when I get to talk about my favorite musical, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. It contains a musical number that’s intentionally awful, part of a televised game show. Producer Cy Feuer (played by Paul Reiser in the series) hired an inept choreographer and then had to bring in Fosse to fix the dances. Fosse insisted they leave the risibly bad game show number exactly as it was, let the original choreographer keep his credit, and came up with hysterically funny steps for all the other songs, including the famous slumping chorus line.
Physical humor was, back then, the hallmark of Fosse’s style – movements making mirth. Naturally, he teamed up with Neil Simon on the Sid Caesar vehicle, Little Me. On that, a textual disagreement with lyricist Carolyn Leigh prompted her to run outside, grab a policeman, and yell at him to arrest Fosse. But the cop was far too amused.
For the next Verdon vehicle – one in which she only left the stage for one scene – Fosse used Little Me’s composer, Cy Coleman and Redhead’s lyricist, Dorothy Fields to adapt a rather melodramatic Fellini film. They decided an extra helping of laughter was needed and Fosse and Verdon flew off to Italy where Doc Simon was doing a movie. They traveled with a huge reel-to-reel tape recorder so they could play Simon the songs and explain/dance what would happen in the numbers. He said yes, and Sweet Charity became a smash hit, one that catapulted Fosse into moviemaking.
That, folks, is my favorite episode in the lives of Fosse and Verdon. You’d think a moment of sheer delight might be part of a show about them, but, alas, there’s an emphasis on the dour rather than the razzle-dazzle.