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It’s Showtime, Folks! The Tonys, Marriage & Therapy

The Tony Awards are this Sunday night. While I’m sure James Cordon will do a great job hosting, I’ll be looking at it a bit differently this year.

That’s because FX’s amazing Fosse/Verdon ended last week. An eight episode look into the career and lives of Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse – between them winners of thirteen Tony Awards and countless nominations.

Eight episodes of Verdon’s dancing and singing brilliance and the perfectionism of Fosse – first as a choreographer, then as a director. All across almost three decades of Broadway’s greatest musicals, and a decade of classic movies.

Of course, if the show were simply an “Inside Baseball” look at how Broadway musicals are put together, or how Cabaret was edited (continuously), FX wouldn’t have needed eight episodes. Nor would it have been anywhere near as gripping.

No, the series was really about Verdon and Fosse’s marriage – intersected by the marriages of their friends.

The Verdon-Fosse marriage is fascinating. It was fascinating to read about, it was fascinating to glimpse in Fosse’s autobiographical All That Jazz, and it was even more fascinating with every episode of the series.

And, for me, it’s even more fascinating today, a week after it ended. Maybe I can boil it down to two reasons: first, Verdon and Fosse were, in effect, business partners. I’m married to my business partner. The permutations can be staggering – the series nails them all.

Second, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened to Verdon-Fosse – the marriage and the partnership – had they married in 1990 instead of 1960. I know, it’s a leap, but bear with me.

Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse met in a dance studio in 1955, he had just won a Tony for his choreography for The Pajama Game, she was the hottest star on Broadway. Choreographers weren’t that well known then, it would take Bob Fosse to make them as famous as directors and actors.

That first meeting resulted in the iconic ‘What Lola Wants‘ scene in Damn Yankees. Damn Yankees would go on to win seven Tonys, including a Tony each for Gwen and Bob. Gwen would win another Tony in 1958 New Girl in Town, Fosse was again nominated for best choreography but lost to one-timefriend-and-mentor-arch-rival Jerome Robbins for West Side Story. 

Fosse was not pleased. He said something along the lines of, “You have to direct as well as choreograph to get to do what you want to do . . .” In 1958 Gwen was offered the lead in a hot new show, Redhead. Verdon, off of three straight Best Actress awards, said she would take the part only on condition that Fosse would direct and choreograph. It was a big gambit, it worked. Redhead won six Tonys, Gwen won Best Actress, Fosse won Best Choreography.

A business partnership, then. In Verdon’s own words, “I was a great dancer when he got hold of me, but he developed me, he created me.” Verdon used her fame and extraordinarily high profile (she was about to star in the film version of Damn Yankees. Bob appeared with her, dancing alone with her in another iconic scene – “Who’s Got the Pain” – Gwen wowed; until the invention of the internet and IMBd, Bob was uncredited, listed only as “mambo dancer”) to boost Fosse’s career.

Though, of course, the partnership was more than that, even in 1959. They creatively collaborated, they built scenes and they built plays around those scenes, sometimes to the consternation of the writers and lyricists. Like a lot of business relationships the ‘business’ would grow as well.

Gwen and Fosse got married in 1960 while on the road tour of Redhead. Verdon had the couple’s only child, Nicole, and stayed home. Fosse won another choreography Tony and was nominated for Best Actor for Pal Joey. Verdon returned to the stage in 1966 for Sweet Charity, directed and choreographed by, on paper, Fosse.

The thing is, as is made very clear in the FX series, Sweet Charity, was virtually a Fosse-Verdon co-creation. They consulted with each other on everything. They were both technical and creative forces. They made the plays they were associated with incrementally better.

The partnership carried over to movies when Fosse directed the film version of Sweet Charity and the studio insisted on Shirley MacLaine for the lead instead of Gwen. Verdon was still instrumental in the creative process.

Married and business/creative partners. That’s a lot to handle for any relationship and it was especially hard for the Fosses. Both of them were haunted by childhood experiences. Bob was afflicted with depression which he, famously, handled with alcohol, affairs, and drugs, particularity Dexedrine. No therapy, though friends like Neil Simon and Paddy Chayefsky begged him to. Of course, there was a stigma attached to therapy in the ’60s and early ’70s and Bob Fosse was very conscious of his ‘image.’

Fosse and Verdon separated in 1971 but never divorced. They just moved on to new relationships. But, they remained business partners. Verdon was instrumental in the editing of Cabaret. She helped with Pippin and the editing of Lenny while developing Chicago with Fosse, which she headlined in a triumphant return to Broadway in 1976. None of these projects would have been the same without both of them.

Verdon assisted with All That Jazz – it was, after all, some of her life’s story as well. Fosse’s last project before his death in 1987 was one Verdon brought to him and insisted on – a revival of Sweet Charity. It won four Tonys.

A thirty-two year business partnership bisected by an eleven year ‘real’ marriage. Great successes, obviously, with large chunks of living hell for everyone involved – Gwen, Bob, and Nichole. Drugs, alcohol, betrayals, jealousy, attempted suicide, overdoses, heart attacks . . . repeat.

After Fosse’s death, Verdon went on as a choreographer, working on Fosse revivals and ‘teaching new generations of dancers Fosse’s style.’ And this: she became a strong mental-health care advocate, she taught dance therapy, actively raised funds for mental-health research and joined the board of the New York Post-Graduate Center for Mental Health.

It turns out, Verdon started therapy in the early ’50s – to get over her fear of success.

So, back to my 1990 wish. I can’t help wondering what the Fosse-Verdon story would have looked like in a time when therapy was accepted as a norm and not a stigma.

Would therapy have saved their marriage? Impossible to say.

Would therapy have helped them separate and divorce and still go on to work together but without some (most?) of the drama and crises? Absolutely. No question in my mind.

It’s one of the tragedies of the Verdon-Fosse story. One we do not want our clients repeating.

Written by Meghan Freed