Fosse/Verdon is one dance drama that isn't content to watch from an orchestra seat.
"We very rarely present it from the front. We present it from the inside," choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler told TV Guide.
It's a comment that speaks to both the camera's perspective on the FX drama and the mission of the show as a whole: Fosse/Verdon tackles dance from inside the process. Rather than simply show off a handful of polished routines, the series exposes the way a number is conceived, choreographed, torn open, and turned inside out countless times before — and after — the curtain rises.
"It's good for the laymen, the audience, to understand that we didn't just make it up on the spot. These things are carved out of flesh for days and days," said Blankenbuehler, the three-time Tony Award-winning Hamilton choreographer whose résumé as a performer includes the 1999 Broadway revue Fosse. "You don't just go up and say 'action' and the dance happens by itself. This is a lot of smart people thinking for a lot of hours and working for a lot of hours, and then great art came out of it."
Premiering Tuesday on FX, Fosse/Verdon shines a spotlight on the partnership between legendary choreographer Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) and famed Broadway dancer Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams). The pair's decades-long collaboration weathered a marriage and separation; together, they defined shows like Damn Yankees, Sweet Charity, and Chicago, along with films like Cabaret.
The scope of Fosse's and Verdon's careers was an embarrassment of riches for the team creating the show, but the series keeps a tight focus on the relationship at its core. "[Executive producers Thomas Kail and Steven Levenson] decided to really make this a story about Bob and Gwen and how they influenced each other, how they altered each other's lives," Blankenbuehler said. "And then the dance — the theater numbers, the film numbers — becomes a lens to tell that story."
Blankenbuehler embraced the challenge of choreographing through Fosse's eyes. "You can recognize the impact that people have made on you and have your own voice," he said, "but it's also a great gift to say, 'I'm going to try to dig into Bob Fosse's brain as much as possible, so that when I recreate this moment, it rings true and it rings urgent. It rings brand new.'" Even when he took his cues from original footage, Blankenbuehler did more than just copy the icon's steps. "The choreography's always fluid," he said. "[Fosse] did [Sweet Charity] on Broadway, then he did the film; it changed again. Then years went by; he did a revival. So your mood changes."
"We had to find a way to make the integrity of the steps be as true as possible, but also the rationale behind them," Blankenbuehler continued. "So that when this performer today is adding their own thing to it, when they're bringing it to life, they have an education of character, of impulses, that flavors it in a really honest way. Because it was going to be alive again."
That honesty was especially key for Rockwell and Williams, who were charged with breathing real people's experiences into their performances. "They're such good actors," the choreographer raved, "and knowing that the show is really about the humanity in these two people, and the dysfunction in these two people, they were so great at digging into layer after layer of complexity. And it's funny, they're not naturally born dancers. They both move really well."
Though neither actor had extensive dance training, Rockwell and Williams did all of their own dancing, without the aid of doubles. "They jumped in with both feet," said Blankenbuehler. Before Rockwell even began learning the steps, he accompanied the choreographer to auditions, classes, and rehearsals in order to absorb the action. "The next thing you know, you look over and he's standing there with his cigarette leaning against the mirror. Like, he was Bob Fosse," Blankenbuehler marveled. "He would just let himself wear those shoes. And all of a sudden you see his brow furrow or you see him lean forward, and you can see that he's looking at the things that he knows Bob would look at."
The production of Fosse/Verdon was an immersive experience for everyone involved. The show opens on a stunning sequence in which Fosse and Verdon make last-minute tweaks to the cinematic version of Sweet Charity's "Big Spender," which Blankenbuehler described as surreal. "That day on set was just crazy because none of us could believe we were there," he said. "Like, we were on the set of the movie from the '60s."
"When we gave the auditions, the day of final callbacks was the most inspiring room of dance that I have ever been in," Blankenbuehler added. "It was so exciting. Every major dancer wanted in, and they were all giving themselves and having a great time. So with something like 'Big Spender' and [Cabaret's] 'Mein Herr,' I would just sit back and remind myself that I actually had to work, because it was just so great to be a part of."
Though Fosse is remembered for the distinctive, contained spectacle of his choreography, Blankenbuehler was equally inspired by how dynamic his storytelling was. "It was really great to use dance as strong words. That's what his shows did," he said. "He was telling stories about broken people, sometimes as cautionary tales, like All That Jazz, or sometimes to show that there's a better way."
He added, "Bob Fosse talked about really intense character ideas through physicality. It makes me feel like I'm in a very worthwhile career."
Blankenbuehler also hopes Fosse/Verdon kicks off discussions about Verdon's legacy, particularly as an artistic collaborator whose influence on her husband is sometimes overlooked. "I was going to say it's a great example of female empowerment, but at the same time, it's the opposite," he admitted. "So it's a great conversation to have, because she's a dynamically strong woman who at times could be tremendously generous, in the way she could teach you a dance step or give you affirmation that what you're doing was exceptional. But other times, it's like she was an instrument that was taken advantage of."
"The sculptor is nothing without the stone," Blankenbuehler said. "The choreographer is nothing without the dancer."
Fosse/Verdon premieres Tuesday, April 9 at 10/9c on FX.