The producers behind “Fosse/Verdon” are not concerned that the still-living subjects of their upcoming FX limited series will be so upset over their depiction they will respond with a lawsuit, as Oliva de Havilland did after “Feud: Bette and Joan.”
“We’re incredibly careful when we talk about living people and it’s not our desire to impugn anyone,” executive producer Steven Levenson said at the FX Television Critics Assn. press tour panel for the new limited series Monday.
“Fosse/Verdon” explores the personal and professional partnership between Bob Fosse (played by Sam Rockwell) and Gwen Verdon (played by Michelle Williams), in part during the pivotal time in the 1970s when they worked with actresses such as Liza Minnelli and Shirley MacLaine. While Nicole Fosse serves as a creative consultant and co-executive producer on the project, Minnelli and MacLaine are not involved, nor have they even seen any of the footage yet. With characters like those, executive producer and director Thomas Kail said, the key was to create “authenticity and integrity by capturing essential characteristics.”
The central part of “Fosse/Verdon,” though is of course the relationship between Bob and Gwen themselves. For that, Kail said, they wanted to examine not only “this particular love story” but also “how things are actually made.”
“There’s a narrative of the lone genius [but] what’s actually happening beyond that, where your eye’s not supposed to go?” he said. “One of the things I want people to see in this show is there’s this incredible photo of Bob on the set of ‘Sweet Charity’ with the dancers and if you crop it in such a way it looks like it’s just Bob…but if you zoom out you see that there’s Gwen Verdon, directing this group of dancers. Part of what I hope the show does, in terms of talking about ‘how do you separate the man and the work?’ we also broaden the definition of the work and understand it’s not just this one man’s work — it’s also Gwen’s, it’s also the dancers’.”
For this, executive producer and writer Joel Fields added it has been “easy to follow what the truth was as we see it and then let the drama flow out of that.”
Working with Fosse has been key, as she is not only a “tremendous wealth of information and archival materials,” said Levenson, but has been able to provide invaluable insight into the “whole human being” behind the personas.
“The thing I kept hearing over and over again was that she was the sunshine in the room,” Williams said of Verdon. “And the way I’ve come to think of her is somebody who’s always trying their hardest and will occasionally be backed up against a wall where she’s cornered and things aren’t in her control anymore but…constantly trying to rise above and be her best self at all times.”
Williams called Fosse and Verdon “twin souls” and “the yin and yang…always chasing each other.” And Levenson added that while Fosse and Verdon’s marriage never actually ended, different elements of their relationship would come to the forefront at different times in their lives and careers — from love to friendship to rivalry. This will come out in the series, as “the dynamic between them is constantly shifting.”
Rockwell pointed out, though, that “Gwen was obviously his muse.”
“I don’t think Bob was meaning to hurt anybody,” he said. “When you’re having a crisis…he thinks [it] has got to take precedence over everything.”
When viewing the way a man like Fosse worked in the ’70s with today’s lens, Levenson admitted “there are so many troubling aspects of this story.” He and executive producers including Kail, Fields and Lin-Manuel Miranda were talking about doing the show “right around” the explosion of the #MeToo movement, which made them momentarily question whether or not this was a story that needed to be told but very quickly it became “Oh no, we have to tell this story,” Levenson said. “That’s actually the subject of what we’re doing.”
And Fosse added: “It’s a conversation that never ends [and] you can’t just sweep it under the rug. It needs to begin in the household, it every family, and it needs to be open and ongoing. … We also need to see how far things have come. … It is a period piece in that sense. You see things clash here, and you see the effort made to find the gray areas — to not go into black and white thinking…because people can do terrible things and still be good people, so there’s a struggle between the characters.”
“Fosse/Verdon” premieres April 9 on FX.