Inside The Dark, Decades-Long Romance That Inspired Fosse/Verdon

Photo: Martha Holmes/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images.
Musical theater fans, the wait is nearly over. On Tuesday, April 9, the FX limited series made specifically for Broadway lovers is finally airing. Fosse/Verdon tells the decades-long tumultuous love story of Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) and Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams), the choreographer and dancer hailed for shaping the landscape of musical theater as we know it today. Naturally, modern Broadway legend Lin-Manuel Miranda is involved in the making of the show.
The eight-part series touches on the highlights of Fosse and Verdon’s professional careers, like their collaboration on the movie Cabaret that is depicted in the trailer. But Fosse/Verdon doesn’t skimp on showing the darker aspects of their relationship. For much of his adult life, Fosse vacillated between two primary addictions: pills and chorus girls. And despite her enormous fame at the time, Verdon’s name has dimmed while Fosse’s continues to occupy cultural real estate.
After all, even if the name Bob Fosse doesn’t ring a bell, you’ve almost definitely been exposed to his creative legacy. For example, in the seventh season of The Office, Jim (John Krasinski) does “jazz hands” every time Dwight (Rainn Wilson) sneezes to drive his work nemesis just a bit crazier. While Fosse didn’t invent jazz hands, he brought the move to the mainstream — the show Pippin, which he directed, begins with a sea of jazz hands on a dark stage. Beyond the popularization (and eventual meme-ization) of spirit finger — see Bring It On — his distinct choreographic style is still a mainstay on Broadway.
But Fosse/Verdon is about the enduring relationship in both of their lives, not just Fosse’s. Let’s get into it.
Photo: Courtesy of FX.
Fosse and Verdon took very different paths to fame, but both got started young.
Bob Fosse, born in 1927, had an unusual childhood. By the age of 13, he was already performing in Chicago’s cabaret clubs — and having sexual relationships with grown women dancers. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Sam Wasse, the author of the biography Fosse, classified these as abusive relationships. Many believe his hypersexualized dance style was rooted in that period. “I think it’s an essential point in understanding and empathizing with Fosse — that he got clobbered by sex too young,” Wasse told Vanity Fair.
After graduating from high school in 1945, Fosse enlisted in the Navy and served in WWII. Upon his return, he moved to New York and pursued a career in musical theater and film. Even before Verdon, Fosse had a history of marrying dancers. Between 1949 to 1959, Fosse was married to two dancers: first to Mary Anne Niles, then to Joan McCracken. Meanwhile, he was getting super famous. By 1960, he was a household name thanks to his work in the movie Kiss Me Kate and the Broadway shows The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees.
Unlike Fosse, Verdon began dancing as a kind of physical therapy. A childhood case of rickets left Verdon’s legs misshapen. Her mother, a Vaudevillian and dancer, hoped dance could help. So Verdon started taking dance lessons at age 3 — and she didn’t stop. At age 11, Verdon was cast as a solo ballerina in a movie. But at 17, Verdon eloped with a young man and quit her career.
Still, she never stopped dreaming of dance. Seven years and a son later, Verdon left her husband to pursue her past career. She was met with success. After being cast as Lola in the 1955 stage version of Damn Yankees, she was put on a path that would bring her to Fosse.
Sparks flew when Fosse and Verdon first met.
Their chemistry wasn’t guaranteed, though. Fosse wasn’t looking forward to working with someone he’d never met before. Plus, Verdon had a reputation for being demanding — she later admitted the reputation was fully warranted. “I was. I couldn’t stand bad dancing. I hated choreography that was like animated wallpaper. It wasn’t about anything, but it kept moving,” she said at an interview with CUNY in 1991.
During those rehearsals at the Walton Warehouse in New York’s West Village, Verdon and Fosse made theater history. They collaborated on the now-iconic dance scene in Damn Yankees. Lola, Verdon’s character, is a seductress sent by the devil to ruin men’s lives. Her locker room-set dance number is both funny and seductive.
It’s worth noting that Fosse was still married to Joan McCracken at the time of meeting Verdon. Thanks to McCraken’s intervention, Fosse scored his first major choreography gig with The Pajama Game. Yet when McCracken was hospitalized following a series of heart attacks and pneumonia in 1955, Fosse wasn’t around, physically or emotionally — he was consumed by Verdon. McCracken died alone in 1961. She’ll be played by Susan Misner of The Americans in Fosse/Verdon.
Damn Yankees was just the start of a fruitful creative partnership.
Fosse and Verdon’s relationship began when they were working together; that’s also when it shined. ''The happiest times I ever had with Gwen were when we were working together,” Fosse said in an interview in 1971. ''They stimulated all sorts of things.''
After Damn Yankees, Fosse and Verdon teamed up for the 1959 show Redhead, which starred Verdon and was directed and choreographed by Fosse. The show racked up six Tony Awards. In 1966, the duo applied their magical collaborative powers to Sweet Charity and Chicago on Broadway. But Verdon wasn’t cast in the 1968 movie, which Fosse directed — she had “aged out” of the part of Charity. Fosse continued to get work as Verdon (and her creative genius) were edged out by a Hollywood with unforgiving standards for women.
The romantic aspect? Not as smooth.
Fosse and Verdon were married in 1960, at the height of their collaborative powers. In 1963, they welcomed Nicole, their daughter, into the world. But the marriage was rocked by Fosse’s near-constant infidelity, addiction, and depression. Fosse was once linked to FX mainstay Jessica Lange.
They separated in 1971, but remained legally married until 1987, when Fosse died in Washington, D.C at the age of 60. He left behind a slew of professional highlights: He won eight Tonys, and was the first person to win an Oscar, Emmy, and Tony in the same year. Gwen Verdon died in 2000 at the age of 75.

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