That director-choreographer Bob Fosse and dancer-actress Gwen Verdon, partnered in life and in legend, are not the first people you would think of as grist for a miniseries in the year 2019 gives an immediate advantage to “Fosse/Verdon,” an alluring and thoughtful eight-episode biographical drama premiering Tuesday on FX. The whole project comes with an element of surprise, and its subjects, though famous, are personally short of iconic. It gives the writers room to play and the movie-star stars — Sam Rockwell as Fosse and Michelle Williams as Verdon, with an emphasis on the latter — room to build.
How famous are they? Though a multiple Tony winner, Verdon’s big-screen career consists most prominently of the 1958 film adaptation of “Damn Yankees,” her first Broadway collaboration with Fosse, the musical’s choreographer, whom she would marry and divorce yet continue to work with and stay close to literally to the end of his life. (There’s a spoiler in that last phrase.)
I seem to have known her all my life, having watched from childhood any musical that came on television. “Damn Yankees” was a show I knew chapter and verse even before I knew what all the verses meant.
More than 30 years after his passing, Fosse is everywhere. With his signature silhouette — the arched back and lifted leg, the rolled shoulder, the splayed-finger jazz hands — and interested small, isolated gestures, his choreography is easily recognized, if not by name, as the essence of Broadway. It feels American and aspirational, fun and a little dirty — dark, crooked and turned in, tailor-made for a plucky broken heroine like “Sweet Charity’s” Charity Hope Valentine or “Cabaret’s” Sally Bowles. There are hats too; always there are hats.
Every person is a mystery, even to himself or herself, and even the most thoroughly researched biography (or, for that matter, autobiography, all narrators being fundamentally unreliable) is no more than a hypothesis, a theory of a case that can never be settled. The best reaction a biographical film can elicit is “Maybe this is how it was,” and to remind the mortal viewer that the gods of history and culture were only people too. Failing that, it might still offer some decent drama, a memorable performance.
“Fosse/Verdon” is not without limitations common to the genre — with their bullet-point narrative and reliance on recreation and impersonation, biopics are the among the lowest form of drama, for my money — yet it scores well on all these counts.
That it’s the story of a relationship and not merely of a single person’s date with destiny, gives it a firm footing and a human warmth; indeed, whenever Verdon and Fosse are out of one another’s orbit, the series becomes less interesting. Rockwell and Williams have their own chemistry, which has much — maybe everything — to do with it, whether their characters are in accord or discord.
There is a competition in their courtship too: “I have to admit I didn’t see your show,” she tells him at their first meeting, alone together in a rehearsal room, “but I heard it was charming.”
“I didn’t see yours either,” he replies. “I guess that makes us even.” And then they put “Whatever Lola Wants” on its feet. (Fosse: “You’re already adding steps.” Verdon: “I’m already making it better.”)
As far as dancing, the production is arranged so that neither Rockwell nor Williams will have to do anything spectacular — a brilliantly rendered scene in which Verdon, appearing on Broadway in “Can Can,” stops the show and has to be fetched back out of her dressing room as she becomes a star, begins after the dancing is done. Yet they do enough, persuasively embodying the people they’re playing, their body language and lines. More important, they create full characters; Williams, especially, offers a performance full of intelligence and nuance and life — Rockwell has the less likable, which is not to say unlikable, person to play — in a part clearly meant to give Verdon her (somewhat) overlooked due. (“Chicago,” Verdon’s last work with Fosse, was her baby, did you know?)
Unlike, say, a limited series based on the O.J. Simpson case, there is nothing sensational here. Even given the couple’s breakups and makeups and Fosse’s bad habits (womanizing, drugs) and early death, which hangs over the series like a bad weather report, the story doesn’t feel tragic. Apart from occasional, corny bursts of images, as the past flashes like a deck of riffled cards into the present, the pace is leisurely and mostly low-key; things get heated from time to time, but never hysterical. Scenes have room to unfold naturally, to muffle the unavoidable dropped names and historical exposition with incidental human behavior.
There are some evocative recreations of dances from “Damn Yankees” and “Sweet Charity” and “Cabaret,” but that is just staging. The show comes alive in scenes where a dance is being built, and you see complementary minds and bodies at work.
Where “Fosse/Verdon” flags is where it too obviously channels Fosse the Filmmaker, as when the wall of a hotel room rises like a curtain for Fosse’s family and the cast of “Pippin” to accuse him in song, or the Southampton summer house where one episode takes place is revealed to be a set on a soundstage. Moves like this don’t do much other than threaten to turn “Fosse/Verdon” into a kind of double-act version of “All That Jazz,” the all but autobiographical, sometimes surrealistic film through which Fosse declared himself to the world to be a difficult person. There is also some heavy-handed psychologizing in regard to the early life of both main characters; it might have a basis in fact, but I didn’t buy it on film.
The series doesn’t seem to have a “creator” as such, so much as a board of producers. some with Broadway or off-Broadway bona fides, including Steven Levenson, who wrote the series’ first episode and won a Tony for the book of “Dear Evan Hansen,” playwright Tracey Scott Wilson and Lin-Manuel Miranda, that “Hamilton” man. “Hamilton” choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and Susan Misner, who plays Fosse’s first wife, Joan McCracken, handled the dances; Nicole Fosse, the couple’s daughter, consulted.
What they’ve done right is to neither play up to the legend or to cut it down. You get a hint of the pair’s talent and charisma, but what “Fosse/Verdon” is most interested in is the work, the “90% perspiration” that, added to a little inspiration, make what we like to call genius.
When: 10 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-MA-LS (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17 with advisories for coarse language and sexual content)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd