What is the real-life story behind Fosse/Verdon?

Discover the true story behind the relationship between director-choreographer Bob Fosse (inventor of the "jazz hands") and Broadway legend Gwen Verdon

Programme Name: Fosse/Verdon - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. 2) - Picture Shows: rehearsing 'Damn Yankees'  - (C) FX - Photographer: Eric Liebowitz

Behind every turn, pivot or jazz hands, are hours of blood, sweat, tears — and secret heartbreak. At least according to the eight-part biographical miniseries Fosse/Verdon, which sees Oscar winner Sam Rockwell and four-time Oscar-nominee Michelle Williams take on the roles of Broadway legends and husband-and-wife duo Bob Fosse and Gwen Vernon.

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But who were the real-life couple, and how does the series portray their turbulent relationship — on and off the dance floor?


Who were the real Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon?

Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse in 1962
Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse in 1962 (Getty)

Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon were legends of Broadway: he an Oscar-winning director, choreographer, and dancer and she a Tony-winning Broadway actor, dancer and singer — and Fosse’s unsung key collaborator

In the beginning, it was Verdon who was the star: a three-time Tony winner whose first rose to fame with a scene-stealing cameo in the production Can-Can. Her performance was so acclaimed that during one performance she was famously dragged onstage dressed only in a towel for an encore.

Screenshot from Fosse/Verdon trailer (YouTube)
Screenshot from Fosse/Verdon trailer (YouTube)

However, Fosse would later go on to become one of the era’s most influential choreographers: the “bad boy” of dance with a distinctive style that included the now-iconic “jazz hands” move. He worked on musicals including Cabaret (for which he won Best Director at the Oscars) and Chicago, and he remains the only person to have won an Oscar, Emmy and a Tony all in the same year (1973).

In Fosse/Verdon, Steven Levenson’s eight-part series seeks to pay tribute to Verdon’s work as her husband’s uncredited choreographer’s assistant; in episode one, we see her lending Liza Minelli her own clothes for scenes in Cabaret (which Fosse directed) and flying from Munich to New York in order to buy a gorilla head for the ‘Meeskite’ number.

How did Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon meet?

Gwen Verdon onstage in the Broadway production of Damn Yankees (Getty Images)
Gwen Verdon onstage in the Broadway production of Damn Yankees (Getty Images)

The pair first met during Verdon’s audition for Damn Yankees, a Broadway musical in which she played “Lola”, a demon temptress — a role she’d later reprise for the 1958 film of the same name.

Fosse was the show’s choreographer, and the series dramatises the pair’s meeting (in which both were effectively auditioning the other), with Fosse encouraging Verdon to “slouch” during the number ‘Whatever Lola Wants’, a dance style that become one of Fosse’s signatures (alongside the iconic “jazz hands”).

You can watch Verdon perform the famous number below in a clip from the film (the film was released under the title ‘What Lola Wants’ in the UK).

The meeting marked the start of a long-running artistic relationship and Verdon would go on to become Fosse’s longtime collaborator and muse.

The pair also embarked on an extramarital affair; Fosse left his wife for Verdon, and they married in 1960, before Verdon gave birth to a daughter three years later.

You can see the husband-and-wife duo dancing alongside one another in this film clip from Damn Yankees, in which Fosse played an unnamed Mambo dancer. The scene is recreated in Fosse/Verdon, and features in the series’ trailer.

Who were Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon’s partners when they began their affair?

When Fosse and Verdon began their affair after their meeting on Damn Yankees, both concealed their relationship from their respective partners.

Fosse was with his second wife, Joan McCracken, a Broadway dancer and comic actress who also featured in the star-studded film Hollywood Canteen. She is also one of several woman who inspired the iconic character of Holly Golightly from her friend Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Joan McCracken, Getty Images
Joan McCracken, Getty Images

Her career was cut short, however, due to ill health and complications from diabetes — in Fosse/Verdon, we see Joan (played by Susan Misner) struggle to stand, forcing Fosse to cut short a rehearsal and carry her out of the room.

Scott Brady and Gwen Verdon at Waterloo Station, London, January 10th 1955 (Getty Images)
Scott Brady and Gwen Verdon at Waterloo Station, London, January 10th 1955 (Getty Images)

Verdon was dating Scott Brady at the time, an actor best known for starring in various Western films and television series.

Did Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon divorce?

Bob Fosse
Bob Fosse on the set of Cabaret (Sky Images/ AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo)

Fosse’s numerous extramarital affairs put strains on the pair’s relationship, and they separated in 1971. However, the couple never divorced and after Fosse died in 1987 Verdon never remarried.

Fosse’s other major creative and romantic relationship was with Ann Reinking (played in the series by Margaret Qualley) who replaced Gwen Verdon in the starring role of Roxie Hart in Fosse’s Chicago.

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The FX series Fosse/Verdon will air later this year on BBC2 for UK viewers