Fosse/Verdon (“Life is a Cabaret”)

Season 1, Episode 1
Date of airing: April 9, 2019 (FX)
Nielsen ratings information: 0.614 million viewers, 0.13 rating with Adults 18-49

I must not be a musical lover when I say I have never heard of the names Ben Fosse and Gwen Verdon before. I have watched CABARET before, and I don’t even know who Ben Fosse was before I heard of this show’s existence, watched the trailer, and realized it is right up my angle, because I do like my fair share of musicals and dance numbers. Although I did also watch the 2004 film VERS MATHILDE a few days before FOSSE/VERDON premiered (simply due to the plot description of the documentary), and I happened to get a bit bored by the rather artistic and impressionable dance numbers in it, although I would also say that the documentary didn’t have much of a plot either. I don’t need to say though that I must not be a musical lover, because I can still enjoy the genre without having to know each and every famous name behind the cameras and curtain of a musical show. All I need to know is that I get tingly watching people sing and dance on a fictional stage, transforming me into a world that is either grounded in reality, yet still fantastic to me (CHICAGO might count here), or completely and utterly fantastic (MOULIN ROUGE could be considered among those), entirely surprising from the first to the last song (I was amazed by how fantastic the HAMILTON songs were when I listened to the cast album for the first time), or charming despite the dark back story of the character relationships (EVERYBODY’S TALKING ABOUT JAMIE). And of course there are the simple musicals you can watch or listen to, simply because they have good songs (WAITRESS, fr example, but I’m biased towards Sara Bareilles), or a great cast (the revival of SHE LOVES ME with Zach Levy and Laura Benanti). All of them very different from what Ben Fosse and Gwen Verdon were involved in apparently.

In a way, this show will give me insight to the genre I would have never expected to get otherwise, and I could see FOSSE/VERDON as a school paper – learning something about the musical genre, and maybe falling in love with it all over again, discovering the era of musicals I never even realized I could have been watching all this time. Besides that, the fact that this show exist means Ben Fosse and Gwen Verdon are considered pioneers of the genre, right? So why not learning something about something specific Hollywood has produced during the 1960s and 70s?

Whether the show is fictional or based on real characters, the show managed to start off with intriguing premises getting me all excited about what might be coming, and how the marriage between the titular characters might about to be strained or permanently damaged. First of all, I am surprised to find out that FOSSE/VERDON begins knee-deep into their marriage already, as I was expecting to see a prologue in which they meet, fall in love, marry, have a kid, and realize they are much better in the working field of musical Hollywood when they are actually working together on musicals. Secondly, the notion of Ben being a nobody when his wife isn’t around is fascinating. Here is someone who sweet-talked himself into the job of directing CABARET, because he had a big name in the musical business, but it turns out he is looking for someone no one is able to give him, until his wife is by his side and tells him that what he is being shown is good enough. It’s intriguing to be, because Ben is the man who was hired to make a great film – the business had trust in Ben and Ben alone, but it turns out Gwen is the motor behind the production, and that essentially means Hollywood was giving a directing job to a man, so that a woman can save the picture. Talk about criticizing Hollywood’s business model in the 1960s without actually criticizing it.

Even the children are being jazzed out into the culture

Besides all that, the show already had me with the idea of depicting the production of CABARET. I only watched the movie once, and I can’t remember if I have ever ready the IMDb trivia page (which is something I always do after I have seen a film), but after this episode I could be convinced that CABARET had a troubled production, and that maybe Ben was always close to being fired. I also get a tingling of needing to rewatch the film again, just to understand how much of an impact it had for Fosse’s life and career in Hollywood. In fact, it might even have a big impact for the narrative of the show, as it seems pretty clear from here on that Ben and Gwen’s (there’s a sex rhyme hiding somewhere in those names) marriage will be strained, all while Ben is about to taste the fruits of Hollywood again. There is certainly a conflict here, and not knowing one little thing about the Fosse/Verdon marriage, I could almost think that the success of CABARET is an element in their lives that will separate them even further than Ben just fucking around in Munich, because he is bored. Oh well, at least he screwed with the same woman – things would have looked a whole lot different, if Ben would have, ehm, “tasted” the prostitutes before casting them as extras in CABARET. Anyway, with Ben tasting the success of Hollywood, one might suggest that Gwen is being left behind, becoming jealous of her (cheating) husband’s success, creating the narrative that explains the existence of the show and it’s source material.

Sexual pleasuring?

Meanwhile, this episode delivered what I wanted to see in the first place: musical numbers. I was reminded that “Big Spender” came from SWEET CHARITY, which I have never watched (and suddenly feel the urge to – it’s like this show is bringing me to watch the entire filmography of the titular characters), and I felt tingling within me, when Liza Minelli performed “Mein Herr.” I never even know that the number is considered one of the greatest musical numbers (in film? In general?), but here it is, leading the miniseries, and bringing this excitement that I was expecting from the show ever since I watched the trailer for the first time, and Lin-Manuel Miranda continued to promote the hell out of FOSSE/VERDON on his Twitter account. Of course, I will be expecting more musical numbers, maybe even some rad choreographic scenes, simply because I decided to tune into this show to get a few of those. Besides that, it’s quite easy to fill a multi-hour miniseries with dance and musical numbers, when the actual story happened to be a little thin. I mean, what can eight episodes bring, when the main story of the show is basically just a depiction of Ben and Gwen’s marriage and career moves? Also, how great can this show be in hindsight, when it continues to follow the formulaic elements of a biopic, which FOSSE/VERDON essentially is? In a way, the show will have to do quite a lot to not lose itself in the musical and dance numbers only, while also trying not to lose the sight of what the show is about, AND not forgetting that Ben and Gwen aren’t the only characters of the miniseries.

In love with a gorilla – it’s KING KONG all over again.

Best part of the episode: Kelli Barrett as Liza Minelli. Although I only faintly remember Liza in CABARET, seeing Kelli in this episode gave me the feeling I was in fact rewatching CABARET. And who would have thought that one of the greatest names in Hollywood would turn out to be just a side character in a show about different people? I would love to see more stuff like this – stories in which you see the biggest name everyone knows, but they aren’t the main character.
Worst part of the episode: Hollywood in a nutshell. They hire a director whose latest film flopped at the box office, because he is a big hotshot in the business, and he is a white man. This episode reminds us all that this side of the business has never really stopped.
Weirdest part of the episode: Seeing Evan Handler with hair all over his face. *shudder*
Player of the episode: Michelle Williams not only looks the part, but she also is about to start delivering an Emmy-worthy performance. And while I was confused for just a hot second about whether Gwen Verdon might be mentally a bit challenged (I don’t know, maybe it’s just the voice?), as soon as I got over that, I was enjoying the hell out of her performance. Williams might not have been one of my favorite cast members of DAWSON’S CREEK, but ever since then, she has transformed herself into one of the top players of Hollywood. And she isn’t even halfway done. Gracefully hand over all the awards to her, because she will rule the entertainment business.