Seeing a television show stick a pin in the “great man” bubble is gratifying, and FX’s Fosse/Verdon, which debuts Tuesday, is sharp enough to measure the mythology of so many Male Genius stories. Produced by Hamilton’s Thomas Kail and Lin-Manuel Miranda with the Dear Evan Hansen writer Steven Levenson, the eight-part series is simultaneously in thrall to Fosse as a legend of musical theater and critical about his excesses. It’s a tricky high-wire to walk, and Fosse/Verdon tries to manage it by positioning Verdon as Fosse’s counterforce, the backwards-and-in-high-heels feminine yin to his fiery masculine yang. In reality, though, her character is less equal and more reactive: Fosse erupts, Verdon soothes. He creates, she nurtures. He cheats, she endures. Both are plagued by perpetual sounds they hear inside their heads—the staccato of tap shoes for Fosse, and the wailing of an abandoned baby for Verdon. Balance is necessary for great art, the show emphasizes. This approach is a graceful one, storytelling-wise, but what it neglects to underline, at least in the first five episodes, is that Verdon was an artist, too.
There’s a difference, after all, between collaborator and muse. One implies partnership, the other passivity. In Fosse/Verdon, when Fosse is choreographing scenes, he tends to shape dancers like inanimate balls of clay, tilting a leg or splaying a knee, repositioning bodies that are too rote or too pleasing. His aesthetic isn’t one of bright, smiling vigor or neat Busby Berkeley synchronicity. He wants movement to reflect effort, pain, reality. “I wanna see the sweat. I wanna see the spot where they missed their foundation,” Rockwell’s Fosse yells in the first episode, when he’s directing the movie adaptation of Sweet Charity. Such is his commitment to verisimilitude that for Cabaret, he hires Munich sex workers to play patrons at the Kit Kat Club.
Not everyone understands what he’s doing. But Verdon instinctively does. The most striking scene in the series so far is a flashback to 1955, when Fosse and Verdon first meet prior to rehearsals for Damn Yankees. Verdon, irritated at having to endure what she believes is an audition with an upstart choreographer, arrives with a pasted-on smile and an air of nonchalance. (“I didn’t see your show,” she tells Fosse, who replies, “I didn’t see yours, either.”) Lola, the character Verdon is playing, is a seductress, and Verdon is initially disconcerted by Fosse’s interpretation of Lola as a past-her-prime burlesque queen. But as soon as they start dancing, she gets it. She improvises an errant leg itch that deglamorizes the character even more. Fosse is enthralled. The scene has a crackling, meeting-of-the-minds zip that suggests an unleashing of creative energy for them both.
What follows, though, feels much more like standard biopic fare. In part, that’s because of the source material. Fosse/Verdon is adapted from Sam Wasson’s 2013 biography of Fosse, a book that delved into the predilections and demons of one of Broadway’s defining stylists. Verdon is, at best, an ancillary character, and so the series simply has less to draw on when it comes to her life and work. Originally, Fosse/Verdon was conceived as a series about a single subject, but after the reverberations in Hollywood following allegations against Harvey Weinstein and hundreds of other powerful men in 2017, the show was reconceived around Fosse and Verdon’s partnership. The idea, Levenson told The New York Times, was to probe the dynamics of creative alliances, and to question why men tend to be remembered and women sidelined.