What draws two people together over the course of decades? And when you first meet that person, how long does it take you to know that they’re going to impact your life forever? The high point of this second Fosse/Verdon episode is Bob and Gwen’s first meeting, a kind of relationship duel as the two slowly realize how much they’ll mean to each other.
This episode, fortunately, features more of the Gwen perspective that was missing in the debut last week. When Gwen Verdon met Bob Fosse, she was an established Broadway star and he was an up-and-coming choreographer, who cheekily asks for an audition disguised as a meeting. (Her “Fine, I’ll do it,” to director Hal Prince is epic in its resignation of the hoops women have to jump through that men do not.) When she walks into that tension-filled rehearsal studio, she feels she has to make him like her, but also conquer him to get the part of Lola in Damn Yankees that’s obviously so perfect for her.
Because this all-important meeting is from her perspective, we don’t really get what he’s thinking until afterward. Rockwell’s initial portrayal of the young Bob Fosse is cocksure and creative, and the Fosse /Verdon creative team (same as last week, Hamilton director Thomas Kail directs and Dear Evan Hansen writer Steven Levenson writes) does an excellent job of teasing the eventual final Damn Yankees choreography, from the peeling off of the gloves to the burlesque-esque shimmy.
Bob and Gwen slowly start to win each other over over the course of dancing together; Lola’s seduction works on both sides. So much so that Bob’s wife Joan (Susan Misner) knows something’s up as soon as he comes home from that meeting. Well, she’s likely seen it before. One of Fosse/Verdon’s thorniest questions is why women keep getting involved with this man who will so likely cheat on them, and why Bob keeps cheating. (Granted, Fosse’s eventual power to cast in the industry, referenced last week with the woman flirting with him at the cocktail party to get a part in a movie, likely accounted for much of it.) We see the resulting devastation of his actions as Joan packs her bag, as Gwen runs away from him on the beach. “If he cheats with you, he’ll cheat on you” is an adage for a reason, but it’s difficult to remind yourself when you’re in love with that person. The insecure Bob clearly can’t stand to be alone, whether his devoted wife is only a few or thousands of miles away.
But Bob and Gwen are clearly in love, as is so obvious during the rehearsal scene. Sam Rockwell pulls off an expression looking at Michelle Williams’ Gwen that is straight-up besotted, and when she mimics the beating of her heart, she’s looking only at him. It’s bittersweet because it’s likely the happiest time these two ever had with each other—falling in love, while learning that they’ve found a worthy creative partner who can help them each reach the next level. Joan’s impromptu drop-in at rehearsal is a rude awakening that everything isn’t as idyllic as it seems in a stage musical—reality is about to rear its ugly head.
That was the secret to Fosse’s success: his willingness to expose the darkness on stage. We see it in the struggle over the final musical number in Act 1, when the insecure creator (still fighting those incessant taps in his head) needs Gwen, not his wife, to help him create a new number. It’s for the worst reason imaginable—his wife is too sick to dance anymore—but Gwen, always a trooper, immediately steps in, to the devastation of the left-behind Joan down the hall. And he’s right, “Who’s Got The Pain?”, despite its title, is a deceptively cheery number, as the performers frantically try to dance their pain away to little avail. Fosse himself was able to recreate the number in the cinematic version with Gwen, and in only a few minutes it displays perfectly why the two were destined to be partners (in some form) for life. They’re practically mirror images, matching each other with each amazingly athletic yet still graceful feat.
It’s when Bob explains to Gwen the reasoning behind “Mambo” though, that she and we both realize why that destiny is so certain. When he talks about the pain the dance is hiding, Gwen’s face contains multitudes of fear and recognition and resignation. Not only can Bob tap into her own pain, she realizes, but he’s in so much pain himself. And she’s going to have to deal with not just her own demons, but his, for the rest of her life. As subtly as she’s playing this series, Michelle Williams’ performance is astonishing in this scene, as she’s able to convey so much with so little.
She outwardly emotes a bit more in the confrontational beach scenes years later, where the delusional Bob pulls out the old, “This doesn’t affect how I feel about you,” incredibly even suggesting that he can handle relationships with both women. As he told both his first wife and Gwen all those years ago, “It’s a complicated situation” is his mantra (Joan points out that it really isn’t), as if he isn’t the one complicating things. Gwen’s a trouper, but she’s also strong, walking away from the Simons’ idyllic retreat while muttering about her sunglasses and wallet, practically shutting the car window on Bob’s fingertips to do so.
But the pull between the two that we see in three separate rehearsals in this episode isn’t going to be so easy to break. The background score of “Whatever Lola Wants” as Gwen looks at the ocean is doubly poignant, hearkening back to the pair’s happiest days while highlighting the fact that Gwen is not getting what she wants this time. The look on her face as she drives away is one of shock and terror, as if she can’t believe what she’s just ripped asunder.
- Rando Fosse/Verdon-related factoid of the week: Joan McCracken unfortunately didn’t have a ton of luck in the marriage department. Her first husband, Jack Dunphy, wound up being Truman Capote’s partner until the end of his life. But Ms. McCracken was a bit more vivacious than she’s depicted in this F/V episode; she was apparently one of Capote’s inspirations for Breakfast At Tiffany’s Holly Golightly.
- This week’s featured member of the Fosse/Verdon inner circle: That’s Harry Goldenblatt himself, Evan Handler, as legendary theater producer and director Hal Prince, who won 21 Tony awards over the course of his career, more than any other person.
- I liked the minutes counting down to Bob’s death in the first episode, but those black title cards were not as effective this week, even as they tried to pin down the timeline. “Days since Gwen Verdon’s last Tony award” was just not as compelling (it was still less than a year), while counting down the days left that Joan had to live was unnecessarily callous.
- Really enjoyed the epic showdown in the ladies’ room between Bob’s two wives. It even starts out with a hug—incredibly genteel for two women at odds with each other over a man. They acknowledge that Bob’s gift is to take what’s special about a woman and make it his own, but the world-weary Gwen points out, “Don’t they all do that, though?”
- Less successful was the decision to feature almost all of stage number “You’ve Gotta Have Heart” from Damn Yankees, unless it’s to try to explain Bob’s romantic proclivities that lead him from woman to woman. More pointedly, it highlights his position on the sidelines, then eclipsed by Gwen’s bow—a hierarchy in their careers that will soon be reversed.
- Next week: We go even further into Gwen’s past in “Me And My Baby.”