If concept and casting are half the battle, “Fosse/Verdon” earns a curtain call before the overture. Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams play director Bob Fosse and star Gwen Verdon, whose tumultuous relationship and partnership provides another delicious window into what amounts to an FX niche chronicling the big personalities of old Hollywood.
The allure of the subject matter is surely helpful, since this handsomely produced eight-part series – which counts Lin-Manuel Miranda and daughter Nicole Fosse among its many producers – gets off to a slow start, choreographing the story out of sequence, in a manner that’s initially as disorienting as some of those scenes in “All That Jazz.”
Stick with it, though, and this limited series provides not only a fascinating snapshot of its time but of the unique qualities of the central duo’s relationship, with Fosse wooing Verdon, cheating on her and divorcing her, but never losing his reliance upon her as a creative muse and confidant.
The depth of that interaction proves vital, since Fosse alone represents a virtual cliché in terms of a tortured artist – someone who can’t sit through the premiere of “Cabaret,” his breakthrough film, muttering, “All I see is the s**t I should have fixed.”
Through quick-cut flashbacks, there are glimpses of Fosse as a performer, someone who dreamed of becoming Fred Astaire. He instead became a choreographer and director, meeting Verdon while devising her routines for “Damn Yankees,” after she won her first Tony Award.
Both were with other people at the time, a foreshadowing of things to come. In a way, though, “Fosse/Verdon” doesn’t really begin to find its footing until the second and third episodes, proceeding to provide glimpses of their early lives, hardships and sacrifices that provide significant context.
Until then, students of the era can simply enjoy the parade of stellar characters that pass through their orbit, in what feels like a fitting follow-up to FX’s “Feud: Bette and Joan.”
Like that Hollywood yarn, this one is a virtual master class of name-dropping. The playbill includes writers Paddy Chayefsky (Norbert Leo Butz) and Neil Simon (Nate Corddry) along with Simon’s wife Joan (Aya Cash), all of whom marvel at how Fosse can’t seem to enjoy his success.
There is also the spectacle of Fosse brazenly bedding actresses who are working for him, luring them to his place with transparent invitations to come watch a rough cut of his TV special. Those who balk risk losing roles, a demonstration of the way the casting couch openly operated during his heyday.
Both Fosse and Verdon were titans on their own, but they clearly needed each other, even if they frequently appeared to be “in competition,” as one of their friends observes.
In terms of the performances, it’s a somewhat easier lift for Rockwell, a master of playing unlikable characters with roguish qualities, than Williams, who wrestles with Verdon’s distinctive voice – an element that serves as a bit of a distraction before settling into a deeper portrait.
One device employed in “Fosse/Verdon” involves chyrons that refer to how much time – years, days – is “left,” without identifying specifically to what the chyron refers. It’s a way of signaling, as the narrative flits about, the time the two had, while the greatest virtue in this limited series involves shining a spotlight on what they accomplished with it.
“Fosse/Verdon” premieres April 9 at 10 p.m. on FX.