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‘Fosse/Verdon’ Boss on Exposing the ‘Grit and Grime’ of Bob Fosse in the Wake of #MeToo

Musical theater legend Bob Fosse was a man known for many things: His artistic flair; the creation of jazz hands; his unique, directorial eye; his marriage to Gwen Verdon and his penchant for sparring with producers. And then there was his “complicated” relationship with women, especially those who worked under him.

When FX’s latest limited series “Fosse/Verdon” kicks off April 9, producers — along with portrayer Sam Rockwell — will attempt to pull back those layers to reveal the inner workings of an artistic soul who wasn’t always on his best behavior, but became revered by Hollywood nonetheless as the accolades and awards washed over him.

“There was always a sense that Bob Fosse was turning on the lights in the darkness, exposing the things that were otherwise left out — that people otherwise didn’t want to see,” says executive producer Steven Levenson. “Sort of the grit and the grime underneath the bright lights. And in a way that’s what we’re doing with his story. Or at least that’s the attempt, to shine the light on what was going on backstage and behind the scenes.”

Over the course of the eight-episode series, Levenson and creative partners Thomas Kail (“Hamilton”) and Joel Fields (“The Americans”) also expanded Fosse’s story by transforming the series into an in-depth look at his complicated relationship with Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams), including adding her previously unexplored creative contributions into the fold.

“The main thing we do is we widen the lens. As we began to research and to really dig into the story we discovered that the story of the singular male artist who created all of this brilliant work, in his own head, wasn’t true,” Levenson adds. “There’s a tremendous amount of mythology around all that. One of the things we hope the show gets at and circles around is that what we know about Fosse, a lot of that is actually Verdon as well. She has been left out of that narrative. Part of it is about reclaiming the story for her and reclaiming her place in the
work.”

Here, Variety talks with Levenson ahead of the show’s debut to discuss the series’ overall timing, translating source material, and celebrating an artist without forgiving the man.

Why is now the time to tell this story?

When I first started talking about this project and this subject with Tommy Kail two falls ago, that was the question at the forefront of our minds. We knew there was a fascinating story there but we wondered what about this was relevant or felt important for the moment we were living in. This was right before all of the incredible revelations came to light in the entertainment industry and all across corporate and all across the US, with #MeToo and Time’s
Up. As soon as that happened it suddenly felt like, oh that’s the reason to do this story. Before then we had wondered how to tell the story of this man who had a bit of a complicated relationship with women, to say the least. [We wondered] how to tell that story and navigate it, and we decided to steer right into it. That is the story.

Given the increasing intolerance for that kind of behavior today, how do you celebrate the artist without forgiving the man?

It’s complicated, that idea of celebrating. In a way we are revisiting this work and we are trying to explore it but we’re definitely not uncritically celebrating it. We are trying to examine the conditions under which it was created and really be honest about the behavior that went on and was tolerated and encouraged. How the myth-making about Bob and idea of Fosse and this great artist, how that is part of the problem. And is part of what allowed that kind of behavior to proliferate.

How does Sam Rockwell’s portrayal sway the character one way or the other in terms of likability?

There’s a very reassuring narrative that we want to hear, in that there are monsters in the world and we all know to stay away from monsters. You see a monster and you know that’s what they are. There certainly are monsters in the world and that much is clear. What makes Bob so fascinating and why I think this story in particular is so important, is that Bob was charming, and Bob was likable. And most of the people in his life adored him — thought he was just the greatest. But he also did really terrible things, and things especially in the light of today that we would view as abusive of his power and his role over these people’s lives. So that to me is what makes the character and the portrayal so interesting, is that it doesn’t let us off the hook. It doesn’t allow us to look at it and say, “Well I would never put up with that. I would never allow that kind of thing to happen,” because you see the way that Bob and Sam can seduce the people in his life and can sort of, get out of things with that smile and that wink. Hopefully in a way that makes the story a little more complicated and makes us question our own roles in those kinds of situations, and doesn’t allow us to say, “Well we would have been smarter than the people there.”

Why was Sam Wasson’s book “Fosse” your chosen source material for this project?

Sam Wasson wrote an incredibly exhaustive book, in which interviewed hundreds of people. What the book really got at, what I certainly found incredibly compelling and I know my collaborators did too, is that idea that Bob in a way never really escaped his past. He was in a sense imprisoned by his past and the things that happened to him as a young man. The trauma he endured really became both the source of the incredible images and ideas that he would bring into the world later, but were also the source of some really horrendous mythology that damaged him and damaged the people around him. A lot of what we want to explore in our version of this story is the way these scars from our pasts shape us and the question is, “Can we outrun, can we change?” Both Bob and Gwen are people that were so designed by the things that happened to them and they struggled throughout their lives to make different choices and to be different people, and seemed a little bit incapable of ultimately changing.

What was your main source material for Gwen’s history?

When we started thinking about this show we did think this was going to be a series called “Fosse,” based on the book “Fosse.” And then we met Nicole Fosse, who is the only daughter of Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse, and it was in talking to her and getting to know her and hearing her history and her memories that we realized that this really was the story of two people. There is one biography of Gwen out there, but it’s kind of spotty: It’s mostly just a collection of things that were written about her. And so a lot of the excavation of that character was through Nicole and through the kind of personal and also archival material that she could share with us. And then we talked to a lot of people, we talked to people who worked with both of them, and there was a lot of material on Gwen in Sam’s book, because she was such a huge part of Bob’s life, but we kind of had to fill in the rest. Instead of conceiving of her as Bob’s plus-one, we began to understand that she was an equal player in that relationship and in certain parts of their lives, she was the more prominent of the two of them. She was more successful. Little by little we sort of pieced it together, our version of who that woman was.

At what point did the title change?

The title changed long before we started production, when we started hiring writers and really imagining what this would be as a series. From that moment on the title was “Fosse/Verdon” and then it kind of stuck. It was very important to us that they both be in the title and also that we set that challenge for ourselves. These narratives are so powerful in our society and Bob was such an incredibly dominating figure in the lives of the people around them, and we just wanted to set that challenge and say, “We know this is going to be their story and we’re going to have to figure out how to understand the story of these two people.” And as we went along and as we learned more it became more and more inevitable that there was no other way to tell the story.

What kind of a mandate was it to include female writers given the male-heavy production team?

The writers’ room was three female writers and one other guy. It was a very diverse room and from the beginning we knew we needed to have strong female voices. I know enough about who I am and what I bring to things to know that I can’t speak to everything and I certainly didn’t want to speak to that experience. From the beginning that was very important, to make sure that we were being authentic to all the women in this project.

As you’re nearing completion on post, do you feel as though you were able to give both personalities equal consideration and coverage?

Yes. My hope when I walk away from these eight episodes is a tremendous appreciation of who Gwen Verdon was, her talent, the role she played in things that have her name in it and things that don’t. In some ways because she was such a dynamic, thrilling person, she rings so large in this series, and people will come away with a profound appreciate for her, I hope. But also a sense that neither of these characters are all good or all evil. Gwen has her own complications and she’s not meant to be a saint either.

“Fosse/Verdon” premieres April 9 at 10 p.m. on FX.

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