For fans of musical theater, Fosse/Verdon may feel like an unexpected check arriving in the mail. The FX series, which premieres April 9, stars Sam Rockwell as visionary choreographer and director Bob Fosse and Michelle Williams as acclaimed dancer and musical comedy performer Gwen Verdon. Fosse and Verdon are iconic figures on Broadway and on-screen; though they're each acclaimed artists in their own right, together they crafted some of the most influential performances of the 20th century in shows like Sweet Charity and Chicago.
People who aren't musical theater nerds may not get the fuss -- but even if you think you don't know Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, you've seen their work, along with plenty of other work they inspired. From Beyoncé videos to at least one hit movie of the modern era, Fosse and Verdon's influence is everywhere, and being able to spot it will help make watching Fosse/Verdon all the more rewarding.
The series also bounces around the timeline of their lives, which means it helps to know their history. Born in Chicago in 1927, Fosse was a tap dancing prodigy who was working the professional vaudeville stage before he was in high school. Performing at burlesque clubs as a kid shaped his outlook and contributed to the sensual nature of much of his choreography. Fosse enlisted in the Navy late in World War II and entertained troops in the Pacific before moving to New York, where he got his big break as an uncredited choreographer on the movie musical Kiss Me Kate in 1953. He went on to choreograph the 1954 musical The Pajama Game, which won him his first Tony (of eight) and made him known for his distinctive choreography -- characterized by rolled shoulders, jazz hands, bowler hats, and gloves (said to be born from his disdain for his own hands).
Verdon, a dancer from California who won her first Tony for Cole Porter's Can-Can, met Fosse when he choreographed her Tony-winning performance in Damn Yankees in 1955. She reprised her role in the film adaptation. Verdon teamed up with Fosse again for Sweet Charity on Broadway in 1966; in the movie, which Fosse directed and choreographed, Shirley MacLaine took over Verdon's part.
Fosse went on to direct and choreograph the 1972 film Cabaret, which won eight Oscars, and the Broadway debut of the smash musical Pippin. He re-teamed with Verdon for Chicago in 1975. Four years later, he co-wrote and directed the semi-autobiographical film All That Jazz. During all of this, Fosse and Verdon, who married in 1960, had a rocky relationship, in part due to his famous philandering. They separated, but they never divorced. The couple struggled to balance Fosse's demanding, Type-A tendencies with real-life concerns -- including their daughter, Nicole Fosse, who became a dancer and is a co-executive producer on Fosse/Verdon.
6 Essential Bob Fosse/Gwen Verdon Works You Need to Know
1. Sweet Charity
Experts will argue over whether or not Sweet Charity is Fosse's best work, but it's probably his most referenced. In the stage version, which won Fosse a Tony for choreography, Verdon plays a dancer in a Times Square joint. Though the film adaptation starring Shirley MacLaine bombed at the box office, it's now a constant source of inspiration. One number in particular, "Rich Man's Frug," is peak Fosse -- the sense of playfulness, the angles, and the weird hand moves are all on display. Watch it on Amazon.
You can see elements of Fosse's style everywhere, from Austin Powers' famed opening sequence to noted Fosse enthusiast Beyoncé, who borrowed from "Rich Man's Frug" heavily for her "Get Me Bodied" video.
Precious few of us can claim to have seen the original staging of Fosse's choreography when the Broadway production of Chicagohit the 46th Street Theater in 1975. But it's hard to find someone who isn't at least a little bit familiar with this show -- the revival of which is the second longest running show in Broadway history -- and its numbers, including "All That Jazz." This is thanks in part to the 20o2 movie version starring Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Queen Latifah, which won six Oscars. Fosse's choreography informs the film, and he's thanked in the credits. See it on Direct TV
3. "Mexican Breakfast"
Fosse, with Verdon in the center, debuted the routine "Mexican Breakfast" on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1969. It went viral in 2007 when some brilliant soul set the routine to the music of Atlanta rapper UNK's song "Walk It Out," which inspired Beyoncé's Fosse dreams once more. Challenging herself to do a dance all in one take, like this one, Bey "channeled" the routine for her black-and-white video "Single Ladies."
4. Damn Yankees
In their first Broadway show together, Fosse and Verdon become fast hits with Damn Yankees, winning Best Choreography and Best Actress in a Musical Tony Awards, respectively. The 1958 film version has Verdon reprising her role as Lola -- and making "Whatever Lola Wants" instantly iconic. It also includes this wonderfully whimsical number "Who's Got the Pain," which Verdon performed with Fosse. The dance demonstrates their radiant chemistry and illustrates how watching them together is nothing less than a sublime, joyful experience.
5. All That Jazz
This 1979 movie, directed by Fosse, is a semi-autobiographical work based on Fosse's life and career. Recognized as culturally significant by the Library of Congress, the film follows protagonist Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) -- a chain-smoking, drug-addled theater director and choreographer -- as he descends into a personal hell. But it's the dancing, the editing, and the hallucinatory nature of the piece that captures Fosse's genius at its most extravagant. See it on Direct TV
Referenced in multiple episodes of Fosse/Verdon, Cabaret -- which debuted in 1972, three years after Sweet Charity flopped at the box office -- jolted Fosse's career. With Liza Minnelli in the lead role, the film (initially given an X rating in the U.K. for its depictions of hedonistic excess) puts Fosse's wicked humor and impeccable eye on display in its rawest state, and it won eight Oscars, including a Best Actress trophy for Minnelli and a Best Director win for Fosse. Watch it on Amazon.
Fosse/Verdon premieres Tuesday, April 9 at 10/9c on FX.