“Fosse/Verdon”: watching artists watch themselves

The FX series “Fosse/Verdon,” now streaming on Hulu, is a fascinating look into the lives of two amazing artists: the dancer, choreographer, director, and filmmaker Bob Fosse and his wife and collaborator, the dancer and actress Gwen Verdon. It’s an emotional and voyeuristic thrill-ride, not just because of the excellent acting and direction, but because these artists have already created art about their own lives, and we now get to see them making art about making art: how meta.

Here’s how I would describe “Fosse/Verdon”:

Iconic choreographer/director Bob Fosse is a brilliant artist — and a complex character: a chain-smoking, hard-drinking, pill-popping womanizer who appears driven to bed every female dancer he works with. We see him directing the film “Cabaret” in Germany and the American stage musical “Pippin.” His muse and collaborator is his wife Gwen Verdon, the Tony-award-winning dancer who parachutes in to save “Cabaret” — and to become completely disillusioned with Fosse’s infidelity. Their daughter Nicole is collateral damage, as is Fosse’s health — he endures both a stay in a mental hospital and a heart attack from amphetamines and overwork. We follow Fosse and Verdon’s codependent relationship through Fosse’s direction of the musical “Chicago,” starring Verdon; his film “Lenny,” about the self-destructive life of the comic Lenny Bruce; and his clearly autobiographical film “All That Jazz.”

In fact, Fosse’s “All That Jazz” covers a lot of the same ground, from Fosse’s point of view. Here’s my description of “All That Jazz,” one of the best movies ever made:

Joe Gideon, a chain-smoking, hard-drinking, pill-popping filmmaker, has challenges balancing his creative drive with his relationships with his ex-wife, daughter, and new girlfriend. He suffers a heart attack and then, while in the hospital, we see his own life and eventual death dramatized through song-and-dance numbers.

Actors acting actors acting

One of the little joys of “Fosse/Verdon” is watching the actors not just portraying real people, but in many cases, portraying other actors that are portraying other real-life people. As the author of a book about writing books, I can appreciate the meta qualities of this production. Here it is explained in pictures and captions:

In “Fosse/Verdon,” Sam Rockwell (left) portrays Bob Fosse (right)
Michelle Williams (left) portrays Gwen Verdon (right).
In “Fosse/Verdon,” Kelli Barrett portrays Liza Minnelli playing Sally Bowles, the lead in “Cabaret”
In Fosse’s film “Lenny,” Dustin Hoffman (left) portrays Lenny Bruce (right).
In a scene in Fosse’s film “All That Jazz,” Fosse analogue Joe Gideon edits a film called “The Standup” that is clearly supposed to be “Lenny.” In the film within a film, the comic is played by Cliff Gorman (left), who has previously played Lenny Bruce on stage. In “Fosse/Verdon” we also get to see Fosse editing “Lenny,” and in the film within a film, Brandon Uranowitz (right) portrays Dustin Hoffman portraying Lenny Bruce
In “Fosse/Verdon,” Juliet Brett (left) portrays Nicole Fosse, shown here with Sam Rockwell (right) portraying her father. (Nicole Fosse is also a producer of “Fosse/Verdon.”)
In “All That Jazz,” Erzsebet Foldi (left) plays Michelle Gideon, daughter of Joe Gideon, portrayed by Roy Scheider (right). In “Fosse/Verdon,” Nicole Fosse sees how her father has exploited their relationship to create “All That Jazz” and leaves Bob Fosse to go back and live with Gwen Verdon.
In “Fosse/Verdon,” Margaret Qualley (left) portrays the dancer Ann Reinking, Fosse’s post-Verdon girlfriend. In “All That Jazz,” Reinking (right) plays “Kate,” a role based on herself.
(In “Fosse/Verdon” we see how Fosse humiliates Reinking by making her audition to, basically, play herself.)
In “All That Jazz,” Roy Scheider (left) portrays Joe Gideon, who is a standin for Fosse (right).
In “Fosse/Verdon,” Lin-Manuel Miranda (right) portrays Roy Scheider playing Joe Gideon, the character based on Bob Fosse, opposite Sam Rockwell (left), portraying the actual Bob Fosse.

Fosse writes his own death scene

In “All That Jazz,” Gideon suffers a heart attack and eventually dies a dramatic death with lots of imagined music and dancing. In “Fosse/Verdon,” Fosse suffers a heart attack, survives, then makes a movie about himself suffering a heart attack, and then years later dies of another heart attack. You have to think that Fosse knew where he was going.

I enjoyed seeing all these actors portraying actors portraying actors and trying to keep straight what was real and who was imitating whom. If you like funhouse mirrors, musicals, great dancing, and throwbacks to the seventies, give it a look.

Some video.

“All That Jazz,” with Scheider, Reinking, Foldi, and Audrey Paris playing Gideon’s ex.
“Fosse/Verdon,” with Miranda and Rockwell acting a scene filming “All That Jazz”

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  1. My Casting Idea For Chicago the Musical Live broadcast. Jessie Buckley as Roxie Hart, Ariana DeBose as Velma Kelly, Matt Bomer as Billy Flynn, Jennifer Hudson as Matron Mama Morton, Ben Platt as Amos Hart, Jane Krakowsk as Mary Sunshine,