Maybe this was a fantasy for many of us:
The teacher expects us to parrot his or her theories about what some author – Shakespeare or such – meant. We wish we could grab Shakespeare and get a second opinion.
Nicole Fosse – a producer and consultant for the “Fosse/Verdon” mini-series — did that as a teen-ager.
She was at a dinner table with E.L. Doctorow, she recalled: “I had written an essay based on one of his short stories and got a really bad grade. So I asked him: ‘What was your story about?’”
Many of us don’t have that chance, but it was part of her everyday life. “The first time I served drinks to Paddy Chayefsky, Herb Gardner and Bob Fosse, I was 7,” she said.
If you’re keeping track, Chayefsky (“Network”), Gardner (“A Thousand Clowns”) and Doctorow (“Ragime”) were esteemed writers; Fosse (“Cabaret”), Nicole’s father, was a brilliant director. As childhood companions go, these top Captain Kangaroo or Barney the Purple Dinosaur.
And Doctorow backed her up, disputing the idea of one arbitrary interpretation. “He said, ‘Once I write it and it goes out to the audience, it’s what you all think. There can be a million different opinions.’”
Can we assume she’s been terribly fortunate, surrounded by great ideas? Partly, she said, but:
— The aftermath can be tough. “You grow up and you’re stuck with the laundry and the groceries and you think, ‘Where did all the people go?’”
— And there wasn’t much time for childhood. “There was the feeling of being alone in an adult world.”
That’s clear in the fourth “Fosse/Verdon” episode (April 30). A 9-year-old Nicole guzzles five bottles of Tab watching part of a “Pippin” rehearsal; people worry about her … then go on with busy lives.
These were, after all, extraordinary parents.
Gwen Verdon? “I kept hearing over and over again that she was like the sunshine in the room,” said Michelle Williams, who plays her.
Bob Fosse? “There’s maybe a little bit of narcissism, but he was also, I think, a very kind man,” said Sam Rockwell, who plays him. “A very charming man, but I think there was an addictive thing.”
Very addictive. “He didn’t do a lot of other things,” Nicole said. “Everything was show business.”
He had danced as a teen in Chicago and in the military, then went to New York and Hollywood.
He “wanted to be Fred Astaire,” said Tommy Kail, the Broadway director (“Hamilton”) who’s a “Fosse/Verdon” producer-director. Then he linked with “the greatest dancer of her generation.”
Verdon had already won a Tony (“Can-Can”) in 1954. They met he next year, when he was choreographing “Damn Yankees.” That brought her second Tony; with him as director, she won another for “Redhead” in ’59 and was nominated for “Sweet Charity” in ’66 and “Chicago” in ’76.
Nicole was 3 when she watched the “Sweet Charity” opener. “I remember standing in the back and looking over the railing” to see her mom, a vision in red, singing “If My Friends Could See Me Now.”
On one hand, her parents kept offering a modern image. They changed “the nature of what can be considered sexy,” Nicole said. “Strong can be sexy.”
On the other, Bob Fosse kept the older notion of the male boss insisting on intimacy. They had an open marriage, but the April 30 episode shows him bullying a dancer into having sex.
“There are so many troubling aspects of this story,” said Steven Levenson, a “Fosse/Verdon” writer-producer. As Hollywood people were accused, “it suddenly felt like, ‘Oh no, we have to tell this story.”
Nicole Fosse agreed. “You can’t just sweep it under the rug,” she said.
She praised the way “Fosse/Verdon” put “a light onto my mother, which was long overdue,” showing how she was Fosse’s muse and mentor. It also “made me aware of how distracted my father could be.”
Her upbringing pointed one way: “When I said I wanted to be a dancer, my father said, ‘I’d rather you swallow flaming swords in the circus than be a dancer. But if you’re going to do it, go to class now.’”
She did. She reached Broadway (in “Phantom of the Opera”) and the movies (as Kristine, the nervous auditioner in “Chorus Line”). Now widowed, with three children, she runs the Verdon Fosse Legacy, which uses the original dancers to teach her parents’ techniques. And at times, she recalls the days when she was a kid, pouring drinks for the world’s great writers.
— “Fosse/Verdon,” 10 p.m. Tuesdays, FX; rerunning at 11 p.m. and 1 a.m., with the previous episode at midnight
— The April 30 episode, the fourth of eight, also reruns at 11 p.m. Friday (May 3)
— On Saturday (May 4), FX reruns the first four episodes, from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.
— The photo here is from the third episode, with Michelle Williams and Blake Baumgartner as Gwen Verdon and Nicole Fosse