FX’s new limited series Fosse/Verdon delves into the complicated personal and professional lives of musical theatre icons Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon. The series stars Oscar winner Sam Rockwell and four-time Oscar nominee Michelle Williams as Oscar-winning director Bob Fosse (Cabaret) and four-time Tony Award winner Gwen Verdon (Can-Can, Damn Yankees, New Girl in Town, Redhead). The couple’s daughter, Nicole Fosse, helped ensure Fosse/Verdon‘s authenticity as producer and creative consultant.
The only child of Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, Nicole Fosse is a guardian of her famous parents’ legacy as director of the Verdon Fosse Legacy. The Verdon Fosse Legacy serves to protect and promote Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon’s work. The organization’s mission is to assist in educating performers, directors and choreographers, as well as all scholars and students interested in American film and musical theatre.
Fosse/Verdon spans five decades and focuses on the creative partnership between Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, and Nicole Fosse was instrumental in helping to bring their story alive to fans of the talented duo as well as to a new generation of potential admirers. During a conference call in support of the eight episode series’ premiere on April 9, 2019, Nicole Fosse explained the depth of her involvement in the highly anticipated limited series and provided insight behind the scenes into the lives of her famous parents.
Can you talk about seeing Michelle Williams and Sam Rockwell perform as your parents?
Nicole Fosse: “I loved working with Sam and Michelle. They’re just so fantastic. They’re so thoughtful and nuanced and detailed. And they’re so curious about finding truth that may be buried deep within something, within the language. They both really cared a lot about all the details from how you wear a hat to the kind of shoes you have on or the clothing or the type of teacup, because they felt this all informed them as to who their characters sensibilities were. It helped them to create authenticity from a genuine place rather than an imitation of Bob and Gwen.
I have so much respect for both of them as actors. The deep-dive research that both of them did. Sam would be in his trailer in the middle of filming watching on a huge screen my father doing a television interview, and he would have father’s voice in an iPod in his ear all the time.
There were times when I saw him do a scene and it felt to me that I was watching my father because he understood the spectrum of behavior that my father could be in. Like joy – how do you express joy? And there’s a huge spectrum of how you express that. And he was always finding different levels and different ways within the spectrum that he was discovering to be the truth.
And the same goes for Michelle. She was wonderful. She would come to me sometimes and say, ‘Have you got anything?’ There was one scene – this isn’t going to spoil anything – but Gwen Verdon was having a throat problem and she’s talking to Bob and she happens to be drinking a glass of wine in the scene. She asks me, ‘Have you got anything?’ And I said, ‘Wine has alcohol in it. Gwen would gargle with that to help her throat.’ So, you see her pick up on that and gargle with the wine to help her throat. That’s just a real Gwen-ism. Or she would take something like that and apply it in a different scene. But that sort of sensibility of just being a little oddball and off and wonderful and funny and genuine.”
What does the show reveal about your parents that audiences might not know?
Nicole Fosse: “I think it brings a lot of light onto my mother which I think is long overdue. She was in the shadow of my father for a long time. She was not the director; she was not the choreographer, although she contributed behind the scenes an incredible amount. So, I’m very happy that she’s really being brought forth into the public eye.”
What more has the series taught you about your parents that you didn’t really recognize prior to the production?
Nicole Fosse: “I recognize a lot about my parents. I guess I knew it somewhere in my psyche, but it really is the storybook unfolding in front of my eyes, in a sense. I’m much more aware of how distraught my father could be internally. Being raised with him as my father, that was normal to me – the obsession with work, the crazy hours. And when I watch it on screen or read it in a script, I really see how enveloped he was by show business to the point where he didn’t really develop a lot of another life, much of another life. Everything was show business to him – film and theatre.
And my mother, it’s really wonderful to see her sense of fun and her sense of joy. The way she dressed and fixed her hair and laughed at situations. She found humor in situations that to others might not have humor in them. And so, I think that has been really wonderful to watch unfold.”
The series does time jumps and isn’t linear. How would you describe it?
Nicole Fosse: “I heard Tommy Kail describe it in a really wonderful way. What they’ve done is the core of the show is the 1970s and then it branches out forward to the ‘80s and also grows roots back into the ‘60s, ‘50s,’40s…a little bit into their childhood. He had also made a comment that the branches happen because of the roots. I just thought that was such a great way of explaining how it’s constructed and how they came at the material which at the core of it was the 1970s and then all the branches that come off of that of their work and of their lives, and then to jump back in time to show the roots because it is those roots that created those branches.”
Did you work closely with the production and choreographers to make sure they got it right?
Nicole Fosse: “The three primary reconstructors at the Verdon Fosse Legacy all worked on the show. So, Valarie Pettiford worked on ‘Mein Heir.’ Dana Moore worked on ‘Who’s Got the Pain?’ and also ‘Big Spender.’ And Lloyd Culbreath worked on ‘Two Lost Souls.’ There is some more authentic stuff coming but I don’t want to do a spoiler. But Andy Blankenbuehler did turn to the Verdon Fosse Legacy and our reconstructors and all the work that we’ve been doing over the last decade to gather information because it takes a village to reconstruct the truth.”
To what extent were your parents opposites who in some cases worked and some cases didn’t?
Nicole Fosse: “I don’t know if I can completely get on board with their being opposites. I don’t know. They did have a lot of complementary qualities. My mother was always bringing the joy and the fun, and I think my father – that was really nurturing to him in a sense. He had a lot of fun and mischief in him as well. But I think he could lose sight of that sometimes.
They knew they could trust each other even when their marriage was no longer really a marriage, they still had each other. It was no longer a romantic marriage; they still had a romance together and they had a lifelong relationship with each other. And I don’t really know how that happens, but they had a lot of trust with each other and a lot of loyalty. And if you exclude the bedroom part, they were loyal to each other their entire lives, really. They spoke every day, twice a day on the telephone.”
Was it important to you to show your mother was an integral part of your father’s success?
Nicole Fosse: “I had never spent a lot of time previously thinking about that. After a few initial discussions with Thomas Kail – Tommy and Steven Levenson came up north; I live in Vermont and they came up north. They had the Sam Wasson book Fosse as their foundation. And they came up to talk to me and spend a long weekend, sort of do a think tank/brainstorm session with me over the course of a couple of days.
And so, we did that and I have personal archival material that I brought to them for them to look at. On their drive back from Vermont to New York City, they realized that they wanted to do Fosse and Verdon, that they were equal components.
So, Sam Wasson’s book is only about Bob Fosse and we had no really in-depth source for Gwen Verdon. There is a biography coming out about her soon, but it’s not yet published. They used multiple sources for information on Gwen Verdon, but there was a lot less information available about her. I became a primary source for that information, and I became a primary source for what the family life was like from my perspective because that’s not included in the Wasson book. So, it became more and more important for me to tell my mother’s (story).
The writers made me aware…they would ask me, ‘What’s she doing while this is going on?’ And I would tell them and then I started to understand as an adult much more about her participation.”
What did the producers bring to the story given their Broadway backgrounds?
Nicole Fosse: “I think what Tommy and Steven and Lin-Manuel (Miranda) and Alex Lacamoire and Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams… I mean the list goes on for the creative input in this. These are top of the line non-commercialized storytellers. They may have commercial success, but they do not approach work from a commercial perspective. They are in-depth, nuanced, highly sensitive storytellers, each one in their own right and their own way.
Everybody on board this project was determined to tell an authentic story, an emotionally authentic story and make it beautiful even when it was difficult. There was an integrity level from every single person including camera loaders and electricians. Everybody on board was so invested in being the best that they could be and feeling proud to be on the project that an incredible storytelling has blossomed out of this.”
How do you feel about the younger version of yourself as you watch the series?
Nicole Fosse: “I think there’s emotional authenticity. You can’t include everything so certain parts really may have been left out. You know, like the giggly slumber party with 10 seven-year olds because you just don’t hire 10 seven year olds for a slumber party. A lot of minors on the set, you know? So there were certainly things that get left off. I think that the writers and director are really trying to show that even through all the joy and everything that there were also some difficulties with raising a child in that environment.”
What was the good and the bad of being so involved in a grown-up world when you were a kid?
Nicole Fosse: “The good and the bad of being around all those smart grown-ups is it is a privilege to be around that level of intellect, curiosity, and creativity. It fires up your brain as a little kid to think that way and want to explore literature and art and music and life and the human condition.
The bad part is when you get out of that situation, you grow up, and all of those people grow old and die, and you are stuck with a pile of laundry and a grocery list. It’s like, ‘Where did that other stuff go? Where’s the party?’ So, I think that that would be the bad is that it’s not exactly reflective of real life – or all the parts of real life.
And I just want to address when you say the good and the bad. I think that it took me a long time to learn that both can exist simultaneously. I can only speak about myself, but I think it is common to think that something is all good or all bad. We want to label things like, ‘That’s all good’ or ‘That’s all bad.’ And what I’m finding is that every situation, every person, every event has good and bad in it. Those are perceptions; those are judgements on what’s good and bad. What’s good and bad to you may not be good to me. I think that one thing that this series is really exploring is how there can be something so fabulous co-existing with equal weight to something that is also devastating.”
Your parents were truly icons of their time. How do you hope a 2019 audience connects to their story and what do you want them to take away from Fosse/Verdon?
Nicole Fosse: “I do believe that the way it is written, directed, and the characterizations portrayed, I think it’s a very human story. We all feel the same feelings. My parents just happened to live in an orange crushed velvet living room and wear sequins, which is uncommon, but the feelings are all the same.
I think that Sam and Michelle as well as Tommy and the other directors and Steven and the other writers have done such an incredible job of telling the humanity, showing the humanity within these people. So, I think for a 2019 audience, historically, I think it could be very interesting for people, younger generations, to see where so much influence has come from. I think it gives, if you’re using my mother as a role model, it gives women the permission to be kooky and wonderful and individual and unique and loyal and independent all at the same time.
This is another sort of black and white question. I feel like for myself as a woman born in the ‘60s growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I really had to explore can I be independent and can I be loyal to a relationship at the same time. Like, do those two things go together? I think that it’s a very interesting exploration when we watch Gwen go through that.”