Dancing in New Direction with ‘Fosse/Verdon’
By Thomas Floyd
The Washington Post
“Fosse/Verdon” director Thomas Kail is quick to rattle off the ways he differs from Bob Fosse, the Broadway legend who shares half the spotlight in FX’s new limited series.
“He would do substances to try to stimulate his creativity; he would create acrimony so he could use that as a spark to create; he was constantly feeling like he was a failure,” Kail says of Fosse, a nine-time Tony-winning choreographer and director. “A lot of those things that fueled him are different than the things that drive me.”
“What I did understand,” Kail adds, “was his seeking of the new challenge.”
“Fosse/Verdon,” which premieres at 10 p.m. Tuesday, taps, shuffles and sways its way through the decades-long professional and romantic relationship between Fosse (Sam Rockwell) and Broadway star Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams). The first episode follows Fosse as the stage staple oversees production of his second film, “Cabaret,” for which he would ultimately win the best director Oscar in 1973.
As the director of the musical theater juggernaut “Hamilton,” Kail, 41, already has a legacy-defining success to his name. When “Hamilton” writer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda approached Kail in June 2016 to gauge his interest in collaborating on an FX adaptation of Sam Wasson’s 2013 book “Fosse,” the Northern Virginia native seized the opportunity to establish himself anew and make an ambitious foray from stage to screen -- not unlike Fosse decades prior.
Although Kail isn’t a stranger to TV -- he snagged an Emmy in 2016 for helming “Grease: Live” -- he had never before worked on a project of “Fosse/Verdon’s” scale. In addition to directing five of the series’ eight episodes, Kail serves as an executive producer (alongside Miranda, among others) and shares a story credit on the premiere.
“I wanted to work on different-sized canvases,” Kail says. “I believe in momentum. I believe in continuing to evolve and trying new things. ... I felt like if I found the right people to collaborate with, then maybe we could make something that could stretch the things that I do and allow me to grow as a craftsman.”
It was in the early days of shaping the story that Kail and showrunner Steven Levenson (“Dear Evan Hansen”) carved out their take on the material. While the book was titled “Fosse,” they soon came to better appreciate Verdon, an actor and dancer who won four Tonys herself. In the series, she is depicted not as a muse, but as a collaborator with a knack for executing and articulating Fosse’s scattershot thoughts.
“We asked the very simple question from the beginning: Why does the world remember him but it doesn’t remember her?” Kail says. “It felt like an opportunity to examine the mythology of the ‘lone male genius,’ which is false. This story is an opportunity to look at a creative partnership that was incredibly equal.”
Told via a fragmented, non-linear story structure, “Fosse/Verdon” also gave Kail the opportunity to slickly re-create iconic musical moments -- such as Liza Minnelli belting “Mein Herr” in “Cabaret,” or Verdon mamboing to “Who’s Got the Pain?” in “Damn Yankees.” But it was the intimacy of Fosse and Verdon’s relationship that most drew Kail toward this story.
“It has to be grounded in emotional truth for the (musical) numbers to make sense,” Kail says. “I love putting together musical sequences, but I also love doing that as it relates to the everydayness of what it was like to live in their apartment, to stay up late with them, to get to know them beyond the work. That informs our interpretation of their work.”