Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon: Breaking Down Their Famous Broadway Romance and Legacy
By the end of Fosse/Verdon, the name on everybody's lips is gonna be... Gwen Verdon.
The new series from FX sheds a spotlight on the legendary, red-headed Broadway dancer and her on-and-off stage relationship with work-obsessed director/choreographer Bob Fosse. Together, the two reinvented the entertainment industry throughout the '50s, '60s and '70s, but perfection certainly didn't come without a price.
Whether you're a theater fan or not, you're more than likely familiar with the work of Bob Fosse. His innovative choreography -- the signature sultry hip rolls, sideways shuffling and turned-in knees -- landed him nine Tony Awards, three Emmys and an Academy Award, and has influenced the pop culture scene for decades. (Even Beyoncé has gotten on board with the Fosse style; the choreography in music videos like "Get Me Bodied" and "Single Ladies" was inspired by his work.)
But without Gwen, there would be no Bob, and vice versa. The series does a fantastic job of highlighting just how crucial of a role these two played in each others' lives, even after their decision to separate. "The happiest times I ever had with Gwen were when we were working together," Bob said in an interview in 1971. ''They stimulated all sorts of things.''
Though Bob received much of the praise from their collaborations, Gwen, his longtime muse, is equally paramount when telling the true Fosse story. "I think [Fosse/Verdon] brings a lot of light onto my mother, which is long overdue," executive producer/creative consultant Nicole Fosse -- who is Bob and Gwen's only child together -- explained to reporters, including ET, last week. "She was in the shadow of my father for a long time. She was not the director, she was not the choreographer, although she contributed behind the scenes an incredible amount. So, I'm very happy that she's really being brought forth into the public eye."
The pivotal ups and downs of Bob and Gwen's romantic and creative partnership are phenomenally played out in Fosse/Verdon by Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams, respectively, through a series of flashbacks and time jumps. Because of this, you'll definitely want to familiarize yourself with the timeline of their history before the show premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. PT on FX. Here at ET, we've done the work for you -- see below for our official breakdown!
Gwen Verdon, before Bob
Born Jan. 13, 1925 in Culver City, California, Gwen was immersed in showbiz since day one. Her mother, Gertrude Lilian Standring, was a vaudeville performer and dance teacher, and her father, Joseph William Verdon, worked as an electrician at MGM Studios. As a way to combat Gwen's severe rickets (the softening and weakening of bones in children), her parents placed her in ballet at the age of three. At just six years old, she was already performing on stage.
Ballet led Gwen to study other forms of dance, like jazz, tap and ballroom, which she later taught to stars like Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She also landed various roles on stage and in film, but it wasn't until 1953, at the age of 28, that Gwen got her big break.
Gwen was a featured dancer in Can-Can on Broadway, and on that stage, a star was born. Despite having a full ensemble of incredibly talented dancers, audiences simply couldn't keep their eyes off of Gwen. Opening night and mid-performance, she upstaged the show's star (French actress and singer Lilo). As she went back into her dressing room to change, a producer told her she had to come back out for a curtain call. Gwen took her bows covered in a towel, as the audience chanted her name and gave her a seven-minute standing ovation. She won her first Tony Award for the performance.
It was a late arrival for a dancer, but it's important to note that 11 years before this, at the age of 17, Gwen had eloped with reporter James Henaghan after discovering she was pregnant but "not in love," as she admitted in a 1983 interview. The two divorced in 1947 and their son, Jimmy, was handed over to the care of Gwen's parents.
Bob Fosse, before Gwen
On June 23, 1927, Bob was born in Chicago to father Cyril K. Fosse and mother Sara Alice Stanton. Growing up, Bob was an aspiring dancer, often referred to as a "wannabe" Fred Astaire. He performed in local theaters throughout Chicago, many which were vaudeville and burlesque shows, until he enlisted in the navy in 1945. There, he was assigned to the Tough Situation variety show, where his primary job was to perform at various military and naval bases.
At 18 years old, he tied the knot with his first wife and dance partner, Mary Ann Niles, a marriage that lasted four years. The two appeared together in a sketch titled Call Me Mister, which got the attention of industry greats like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. "Jerry started me doing choreography," Bob, who appeared as a dancer in movies like Give a Girl a Break and Kiss Me, Kate, said in an interview from 1986. "He gave me my first job as a choreographer and I'm grateful for that."
Despite his dreams of becoming a star performer and dancer, Bob found most of his success as a choreographer and director. In 1954 -- two years after he married his second wife, dancer Joan McCracken (portrayed by Susan Misner) -- Bob choreographed his first Broadway show, The Pajama Game, at the age of 26. The show landed him his first-ever Tony Award for Best Choreography.
Following Can-Can, Gwen landed the lead female role of Lola in Damn Yankeeson Broadway, a musical comedy about a baseball fan who sells his soul to the Devil. Bob was the show's choreographer, and it was through this project that he and Gwen met, developed an artistic partnership and fell in love -- though he was still married to Joan at the time.
The two had instant chemistry from their very first rehearsals, where Bob was teaching Gwen the quirky choreography to numbers like "Whatever Lola Wants." Bob was able to shape his movements on Gwen in a magical way, with her naturally bringing them to life and becoming his muse for decades to follow. ''Bob choreographs down to the second joint of your little finger," Gwen once explained in an interview.
At the 1956 Tony Awards, Gwen won for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical while Bob scored the award for Best Choreography. The Damn Yankees musical was so successful that a film version was made in 1958. Gwen reprised her role as the seductive Lola, and this time, Bob also appeared in front of the camera. The two danced a mambo duet to "Who's Got the Pain," a number that is recreated in episode two of Fosse/Verdon.
Bob, as the choreographer, and Gwen, as the star, worked together again in 1957 for New Girl in Town, followed by Redhead in 1959, the same year he divorced from Joan. The latter -- a murder-mystery musical -- marked Bob's first Broadway show as both choreographer and director. Gwen, fresh off her third Tony-winning performance, reportedly said she'd only accept the lead role of Essie Whimple if Bob could take on both jobs, in order to have complete creative control.
And it paid off. Redhead won six Tony Awards that year, including a Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical win for Gwen, Best Choreography for Bob and Best Musical. It proved once again that Bob and Gwen were on their way to becoming one of Broadway's most successful couples.
It came as no surprise then that one year later, on April 3, 1960, the two got married in Evanston, Illinois, while Redhead was touring. In the years following, Bob continued to absorb himself into his work, while Gwen shifted her focus to starting a family. Just three years after tying the knot, Gwen gave birth to daughter Nicole.
1966: Sweet Charity
Raising a newborn became Gwen's priority, so it wasn't until 1966 (at the age of 41) that she returned to the stage, as dance hall hostess Charity Hope Valentine in Sweet Charity, choreographed and directed by Bob.
The musical featured now-iconic numbers like "Big Spender," which won Bob another Tony Award for Best Choreography that year. It was then turned into a film in 1969, marking Bob's feature directorial debut, with Shirley MacLaine taking over the role of Charity from Gwen. Still, Gwen played a titular role in helping Bob with the rehearsals and staging of the dancers, which fans will get to see played out in Fosse/Verdon.
Putting on a show was never a problem for Bob and Gwen, but behind the curtain, their marriage began to crumble. Around this time is when Bob's personal life started to go through a downward spiral, as he began having affairs with an array of women. He also struggled with depression, heavy drinking and an addiction to pills. "They had a lot of complementary qualities. My mother was always bringing the joy and the fun, and was very nurturing to my father in a sense," Nicole explained. "He had a lot of fun and mischief in him as well, but I think he could lose sight of that sometimes."
Though Bob and Gwen never divorced, they decided to formally separate in 1971. "They knew they could trust each other, even when their marriage was no longer really a marriage," Nicole added. "It was no longer a romantic marriage but they still had a romance together and a lifelong relationship with each other. I don't really know how that happened but they had a lot of trust with each other and a lot of loyalty. If you exclude the bedroom part, they were loyal to each other their entire lives. They spoke every day, twice a day, on the telephone."
1972: Cabaret / Pippin
In 1972, the time came for Bob to work with another new star, landing on Liza Minnelli (portrayed by Kelli Barrett), the daughter of Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli, for the film version of Cabaret. (Fun fact: Liza played Sally Bowles, a role that Michelle Williams actually revived in 2014 when she made her Broadway debut.)
Despite their recent split, Gwen continued to help Bob with the film, which he felt was going to be a flop. Naturally, he was shocked to learn that it received rave reviews from outlets like The New York Times and The Hollywood Reporter, which called Cabaret a masterpiece. At the 1973 Academy Awards, Bob won Best Director for Cabaret,and Liza took home Best Actress in a Leading Role for her performance. Due to their success, Bob and Liza teamed up a second time for a television special, Liza With a 'Z'. A Concert for Television.
Around the same time, Bob also signed on as the director and choreographer of Pippin, a musical that seemingly imitated what was going on in his own life. "The statement of the show is that life is pretty crumby but, in the end, there stands the family -- pretty ugly, stripped of costumes and magic, but holding hands," he said in an interview with The New York Times. "I've been swinging, very free in the last year and a half, and it can be a dangerous way to work. But I'm no longer as afraid. Maybe it comes out of desperation. Maybe I owe it all to anger -- at myself, at my marriage falling apart, at a bruised ego when others are called great choreographers."
Again, Pippin was a major success for Bob. He won Tony Awards for both his directing and choreographing. He also won the heart of a new dancer, Ann Reinking (Margaret Qualley), who came to his attention during rehearsals for the show. It wasn't long before their relationship turned romantic. However, all of Bob's battles behind the scenes came front and center in 1973 when he was checked into the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic, seeking treatment for depression.
Meanwhile, in addition to helping Bob creatively prior to his brief hospitalization, Gwen was busy working on her own show, Children! Children! The play was a flop and only lasted one performance. But luckily, as The New York Times so perfectly put it, there was one more Broadway musical "waiting in the wings" for her...
Bob and Gwen teamed up again in 1975 to create a new Broadway rendition of Chicago, a show Gwen had been wanting to do for years. It premiered on June 3 of that year at the prestigious 46th Street Theatre, which was also home to Damn Yankees, New Girl in Town and Redhead.
Gwen, now 50, finally got to play her dream role of Roxie Hart after nearly a decade of trying to get the rights to Chicago from playwright Maurine Dallas Watkins. The original stage play was written by Maurine in the 1920s, and was based on the true story of Beulah Annan, fictionalized as Roxie Hart, and the murder of her boyfriend.
"Gwen was like a huge, beautiful, bright light," raved Chita Rivera, who starred opposite Gwen as Velma Kelly. "With the most infectious laugh."
Though she didn't take home a win, Gwen's portrayal of Roxie landed her another Tony nomination that year. And to this day, Chicago is the longest-running American musical in Broadway history. The 2002 film version, starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renée Zellweger, received the Academy Award for Best Picture.
1979:All That Jazz
One of Bob's last projects was the semi-autobiographical film All that Jazz, in which actor Roy Scheider portrayed a stressed out, addiction-ridden choreographer and director named Joe Gideon. He starred opposite Bob's real-life girlfriend, Ann, at the time, who played Joe's lover, Katie Jagger. The musical drama was named after the song of the same name, written by Kander and Ebb for Chicago,and loosely based on Bob's own life.
Bob, who had an obsession with death, directed the film with a series of dream sequences that showcased all the struggles in Joe's life, which seemingly mirrored his own. During the "Bye Bye Life" finale number, Joe is seen being zipped up in a body bag. "The history of it is odd because I was in the hospital myself and had been ill," Bob explained in an interview. "I became very interested in death and hospital behavior and the meaning of life and death and those kinds of subjects."
Bob followed up All That Jazz with Star80 in 1983, which marked the last film he'd direct. He died in Washington, D.C., in 1987 at the age of 60 from a heart attack, as the opening for a revival of Sweet Charity was underway. Gwen was by Bob's side at the time... he reportedly collapsed into her arms on the sidewalk outside the Willard Hotel.
The Fosse/Verdon Legacy
Before her own death from a heart attack at the age of 75 in 2000, Gwen worked closely with Ann to keep Bob's legacy alive. In 1999, they teamed up for a show called Fosse, which highlighted Bob's signature jazz dance style and won the Tony Award for Best Musical.
Today, the choreography and movements Bob once shaped on Gwen are still taught throughout the entertainment industry, continuing to influence a whole new generation of aspiring dancers and theater mavens. The Verdon Fosse Legacy was created as a way to "promote, preserve, and protect the artistic and intellectual property" of Bob and Gwen, which their daughter helps oversee.
"Part of my parents' enduring legacy is that my father really changed the framework for Broadway," Nicole said. "Pieces like Hamilton or In the Heights or Rent can happen because of my father's work. The framework is different; musicals are different because of the way he constructed them. I also believe that my mother had an impact on the nature of what can be considered sexy. That strong can be sexy, that innocent can be sexy."