Actually, most people’s marriages would probably make a pretty interesting mini-series. There’s something about what brings two people together: when they first meet, when they decide to spend their lives together, what happens after that—just all the personal elements related to what keeps people together (or doesn’t keep people together) for all those years.
There are reasons, though, why Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon have an FX mini-series and the rest of us don’t. The connection between these two was not only strong enough to make them lovers, spouses, and parents: They also had a creativity connection that led to some of the greatest musical theater of the 20th century. Chicago can be considered the high point of the collaboration between the two, so it’s not too surprising that it also brings our some of their worst tendencies toward each other, as well as a plethora of old wounds.
Much as I love seeing Michelle Williams-as-Gwen taking on the bandleader/master of ceremonies role we saw in Chicago and Cabaret, not all of it worked for me. She introduces her tale as one of “greed, exploitation, adultery, and treachery.” Sure, this is a bitter Gwen speaking (and, as some commenters have pointed out, part of the actual intro to Chicago), but it’s still sad that love wouldn’t show up on that list somewhere. As the series basically started out with Bob and Gwen’s breakup, compared against a flashback to their beginning, it’s interesting to see that tumultuous moment from their early days, the one where Gwen realized that Bob was going to be just as unfaithful to her as he’d been to wives one and two. Did she think that his ensuing marriage proposal would change things? It didn’t before, and it didn’t with her either. With someone we love, we continually hope for the best, even though sometimes that means we’re continually let down.
So there’s long-simmering resentment on Gwen’s side. On Bob’s too, as he remembers how much her star outshone his in their earliest days. Those hurts and cuts may fade over time, but they never disappear completely. My husband and I just celebrated our 15th anniversary but I can still remember the worst things he’s ever said to me. I’m sure he can remember the most hurtful things I’ve said too. Of course, there are also plentiful memories I wouldn’t trade for anything across all that years, so why are the painful ones sometimes the most vivid?
Bob and Gwen—separated but not, still in each other’s lives even though they’re both with other, younger people—can never truly untangle. They have a child (boy, does Nicole get the shaft at that dance recital, again playing second fiddle to her parents’ ambitions), they have mutual friends, and they have Sweet Charity, Redhead, Damn Yankees, and Chicago. Gwen usually inspires Bob, helping to harness and steer his creative impulses, so it’s interesting to see him go his own way into making Chicago as dark as he wants, indicating how much their creative lives have fractured.
According to the reviewers, maybe that’s a mistake. Just like with Charity, Gwen gets all the good comments, and Bob, so insecure and dependent on reviewers’ whims, gets none. It’s why the look the two give each other across the room at the opening-night party speaks volumes. It could mean, “I always knew you were better than me,” or “I wish that crystal ashtray had hit you in the head, you bastard,” or really, any and all of those things in between. That’s what comes from spending your life with someone. There are going to be good days and bad days and amazing days and dreadful days, and you probably won’t be able to forget any of them, even if you’d like to.
It’s why Gwen’s “Nowadays” rant to Bob about how she saved him from just being a bald Fred Astaire wannabe fits right into this episode, but the infertility departure seemed a bit jarring. Granted, I was also in infertility treatment (ask me anything!) so maybe I’m a bit sensitive, but the glibness of the Gwen narrator just didn’t work for me there. Especially during the “Razzle Dazzle” part: Honestly, what couple isn’t going to try their hardest to win over the adoption agency guy? It wasn’t like anything they were saying was untrue. Besides, we already knew thanks to a previous story from Joan that she and Gwen were pregnant at the same time, coming to fruition this episode with the two babies, Nicole and Nancy. The besotted look that Sam Rockwell’s Bob gives his wife and his child may be be my favorite part of the whole series, second only to every time Michelle Williams’ Gwen opens her mouth. (Third is whenever Rockwell dances, also this episode.)
Which leads us to the time when she couldn’t speak—when she’s replaced by Liza in Chicago for six weeks. I know we have little reason to believe Bob at this point, so maybe it’s the way Rockwell sells it, but I really do believe that Bob was trying to do the best thing for the show and keep Gwen’s role safe. Sure, he probably appreciated finally getting a good review, but the move seemed more practical than malicious. It’s Gwen, knowing everything that they’ve built up between each other over the past decades, aware of all that simmering resentment, who accuses him of getting back at her with Liza.
And Bob doesn’t have to say that painful bit about wanting to do the show with her 15 years ago (as the stern look from Ann lets him know). It’s the kind of thing that family says to each other—but Bob and Gwen are family. Ron urges her to leave the show, but honestly, without Bob, where would she go? For his part, Bob, who was on top of the world post-Cabaret, committed to make Chicago, even though as he tells Paddy, “no other director would sign up to do a musical with Gwen Verdon as an ingenue.” He knew what it meant to her, and he couldn’t say no.
I think that’s the pensive, melancholy look Gwen has in the mirror at the end of the episode. It’s the unbreakable tie between these two people. For Bob and Gwen, for many of us, the “for better or for worse” part means much more than wedding vows. They’re people who will be in our lives forever, no matter what.
- Rando Fosse/Verdon factoid of the week: As a huge fan of Chicago the movie, I didn’t realize that Christine Baranski’s part, the journalist Mary Sunshine was played on stage by a man. It’s why a man is singing that part when they cast is doing “They Both Reached For The Gun” in rehearsal; he will play that part in drag onstage and sings in falsetto, before revealing himself to be a man at one point in the second act.
- This week’s featured member of the Fosse/Verdon inner circle: We haven’t done Neil Simon yet, and time is running out. So Simon is one of those writers you know even if you don’t know you know him: Barefoot In The Park, The Odd Couple, Murder By Death, etc. etc. Since almost all of his dozens of plays have been made into movies, he has received more Oscar and Tony nominations than any other writer in the history of show business. You get a glimpse of wife number two, Marsha Mason, in this episode; he wrote The Goodbye Girl for her, although Richard Dreyfuss got the Oscar. After she and Simon divorced, he married the same woman, Diane Lander, twice, before marrying comedienne Elaine Joyce in 1999; they were still together at the time of his death last year.
- For what it’s worth, I saw Sandy Duncan in Chicago on Broadway when she was in her sixties and she was awesome. Maybe Gwen’s take on Roxie paved the way for future older ingenues.
- “What’s On Tonight” writer Allison Shoemaker rewrote the lyrics to “Me And My Baby” to preview this episode and I think it’s brilliant.
- Both Bob and Gwen’s new loves realize their second-place status this week. You probably can’t blame Gwen for enjoying seeing someone else having to deal with Bob’s frequent late-night “meetings,” while Ron’s pointless attempts to interfere probably mean he’s on the way out. It’s interesting if you compare the two cocktail parties of the series, though: the first one after Charity and this one after Chicago. Before, Bob and Gwen had their perfectly choreographed cocktail party bit; now she and Ron have one.
- As mentioned last week, Bob did in fact do that tap dance at Paddy’s funeral.
- I guess it’s not too hard to believe that some young cast member got Bob his pills, but still, it’s infuriating.
- Next week: Big finish! And it’s called “Providence,” which we learned this week is also Nicole’s interesting middle name. Maybe it’s where she was conceived, like Bryce Dallas Howard. Am assuming we get into the filming of All That Jazz this week; see you then to reluctantly wrap this all up.