Can we talk about this writing?? Steven Levenson (Tony winner for Dear Evan Hansen) is bringing his A-game to the FX series—and his work on Episode 2 (directed by Thomas Kail) is masterful. Have you ever heard a more haunting description of art than these lines:
“That’s what we do isn’t it? We take what hurts and we turn it into a big gag… and we’re singin’ and we’re dancin’ and the audience they’re yuckin’ it up, and they’re laughing so hard they don’t realize that all they’re laughing at is a person in agony, a person who’s peeled of his own skin.” (As Carrie Fisher once put it: Take your broken heart and turn it into art.)
We heard these lines from Sam Rockwell as Bob Fosse in one of the trailers leading up to the series, and in this episode, we see behind the pain of Fosse and Gwen Verdon—the pain that loving each other caused themselves and one another, the pain that competing (as Joan Simon put it) caused, the pain of creating art. The threat of rejection—romantic, creative—constantly looms.
Also, good luck getting “Who’s Got the Pain?” out of your head. Erp.
And with that, let’s take it from the top.
STEP BY STEP: WHAT HAPPENED IN THE STORY OF BOB AND GWEN THIS WEEK
We begin in Majorca. As we can now safely assume, things did not go well when Gwen returned earlier than expected to the Cabaret set and now the couple are visiting their friends Neil and Joan in Spain. Joan is pushing for them to reconcile, but also knows it’s hard when they are competing. “Bobby and I aren’t competing!” Gwen protests Maybe in her mind.
(Side note: Verdon says on camera in the documentary Steam Heat, “Bobby was very competitive. He didn’t need siblings. He had a sibling rivalry with himself.” Here, we see that thought earlier in her life.)
Flashback to New York circa 1954—or as the show puts it “263 days since Gwen Verdon’s 1st Tony Award.” Gwen is lunching with Hal Prince. Gwen is babbling about how she quite likes baseball as they discuss Damn Yankees. Hal and George (meaning Abbott, a.k.a. the director) have chosen a choreographer: Bobby Fosse. Gwen doesn’t like it. He’s only done one show. She likes it even less when she finds out Bobby requires her to audition.
“Gwen,” Hal says, “if I didn’t think the two of you were a perfect match, I’d tell the guy to take a hike.”
How right you are, sir.
In New York, now “267 days since Gwen Verdon’s 1st Tony Award” Gwen nervously takes the elevator to her audition while Bobby nervously fiddles with his hat and making sure he’s got the combination down. But neither show their cards when she enters the room; she’s confident, and he’s laissez-faire.
They’re sizing each other up as Bobby teaches Gwen his choreo to “Whatever Lola Wants”—which will go on to be the definitive star number in the show. But in this sequence lies the magic of Fosse/Verdon. We get to imagine what it would have been like to create that iconic movement. How did it come to be? What did he say? What did she throw back? He wants her standing still, she challenges him, he holds strong (“What’s sexier than standing still?”); she throws in a look, he finds the X-factor he needs.
We also learn—as the two choreograph the striptease—that they both grew up dancing in burlesque houses. They make allusions to their parents; no doubt that will come back to haunt us all.
Back at home, it’s after midnight and Bob;s wife, Joan McCracken, is in bed. Insulin on the nightstand, she’s a diabetic. And if Levenson’s writing shines in this episode, so too does Kail’s direction. As we watch the tentative dynamic between Bobby and Joan at home—her asking about his new starlet—the editing keeps cutting to Gwen and Bobby growing closer during rehearsals for Damn Yankees. Then scenes of Bobby and Gwen officially sleeping with each other cross-cut with more rehearsal scenes. And when Joan shows up to the end of rehearsal and Gwen doesn’t notice her, she hangs on Bobby’s neck and gives them away.
Just then, Joan has an episode of incontinence and Gwen realizes she’s not just sleeping with her choreographer, she’s sleeping with this ill woman’s husband.
Back on the beach in Majorca, another affair comes to a head. Gwen flew to Spain because Bobby threatened to kill himself. “Maybe you should have let me,” he says unconvincingly. “Why don’t you take that line again, the dialogue’s fine it’s just the delivery wasn’t very convincing,” she snaps. They’ve played this scene before, but this time he says he’s in love with the German translator—but he doesn’t want to leave Gwen. He wants to have his cake and eat it, too, and that is more than Gwen can handle.
Damn Yankees rehearsals are wrapping up, but not before a gorgeously intimate scene between Bobby and Gwen when he confesses his love, his need for her, but she says she can’t take away a dying woman’s husband. Michelle. Williams. Ladies and gents.
But aside from the offstage drama, there’s also onstage drama. George isn’t happy with the Act 1 closer and Bobby is taking it as a personal affront. When he hears George and Hal talking about it through their hotel room wall, he calls Hal’s room and has it out then and there. No one is able to console him. He’d rather die than let people see a number that’s half rate. And the tap-dancing in his head reaches a fever pitch. (Love this device—by the way—tapping as the manifestation of crippling anxiety.)
Bobby wakes Gwen in the middle of the night. What’s revealed here is seemingly the first time he runs to Gwen, knowing she is the one who will understand, knowing that she is the partner to help him fix it; it’s also the first time she drops everything and answers the call.
In the rehearsal, the duo tries to find something happy and with energy to end Act 1. That’s when the rehearsal pianist (Jeff Blumentkrantz cameo!) suggests a mambo. Gwen brushes it off (“It’s a song about pain. Bobby, listen to the lyrics”), but Bobby likes those lyrics. “They’re not gonna hear that, they’re not gonna hear anything. They’ll be too busy looking at you. And you’ll be smiling so wide and dancing so magnificently. They’ll think it’s a musical but you’ll know and I’ll know—that’s what we do isn’t it?”
Brilliance. Worth repeating.
And then we get to see the real number, hats and pom-pommed shirts to boot on the New Haven stage. Watching Bobby watch Gwen, Joan can’t take it anymore. When the two ladies bump into each other in the restroom, Joan’s anger with her husband seeps out. “I’d say it’s like watching him up there but it’s more like watching what he wishes he was.” She remembers when Bobby left his first wife for her and now she’s fully aware he’s doing it again with the roles reversed. Again, Kail manages to use musical theatre techniques to tell this story about musical theatre icons without making Joan or Gwen sing a note. Because in the background of Joan’s tale of infidelity and frustration is “Who’s Got the Pain?”
Meanwhile, Bobby may not have had plans to leave Joan, but she’s not staying and soon Gwen and Bobby move in together. As the baseball players of Damn Yankees sing “Heart,” we know that Bobby loves Gwen—then and now—but it might not be enough. Gwen leaves Spain and Bobby is not invited with her.
NAME-DROPPING: FILLING IN THE BLANKS BEHIND THE REFERENCES
- Strolling on the beach in Majorca, Spain, Joan Simon did dance with the Martha Graham Company, the leader in contemporary dance.
- Gwen has lunch with Hal Prince (Evan Handler) and they discuss Damn Yankees, which Hal produced. (His second musical after The Pajama Game). Hal tells her they found a choreographer in Bobby Fosse and Gwen scoffs saying “What about Jerry?”—meaning Jerome Robbins. Robbins had been established since his 1944 On The Town. But after directing Pajama Game, Robbins was working in Peter Pan so no-go on Damn Yankees.
- A plot refresher on Damn Yankees: Joe Boyd is a long-suffering fan of the Washington Senators baseball team and wants them to beat “those damn Yankees.” He sells his soul to the Devil, Mr Applegate, to become Joe Hardy, a player who will make the Senators a winning team. But Applegate actually wants the Yankees to win. Lola is Applegate’s assistant enlisted to seduce Joe and make sure Applegate wins.
- This lunch is also the first mention of Joan McCracken, Fosse’s second wife.
- Scott Brady, Gwen’s boyfriend when she first meets Bobby, was an actor. He had one Broadway credit: 1959’s Destry Rides Again.
- In the audition room at Walton’s Warehouse in midtown Manhattan, we see Bobby tossing his hat. That’s the famous hat toss from Pajama Game’s “Steam Heat.”
- While Gwen puts on her shoes, she’s firing some zingers and says “Michael Kidd told me he met you in Hollywood.” Michael and Gwen did Can-Can together—the show that earned Gwen her first Tony. Kidd staged the musical numbers. Kidd was also the Tony-winning choreographer on Destry Rides Again, Finian’s Rainbow, Guys and Dolls, and Li’l Abner. (Check out the Playbill Vault for his full credits.) Michael and Bobby knew each other because Bobby had been under contract at MGM at 23.
- Bobby asks Gwen if “Richard and Jerry play you any of their tunes yet?” referring to Damn Yankees composer-lyricists Richard Adler and Jerry Ross.
- As Bobby teaches her the number “Whatever Lola Wants,” Gwen is “already making it better” and Bobby asks if she would ever make suggestions to Jack Cole. Cole was another legendary choreographer, foundational to musical theatre dance. Gwen made her Broadway debut in Magdalena, choreographed by Cole, and followed that up with Alive and Kicking, also choreographed by Cole and also featuring him as a performer.
- When Damn Yankees rehearsals starts, "George" is director George Abbott. (He’s the one making sure the line readings happen correctly—he’s also the one played by Broadway’s Byron Jennings.)
- Damn Yankees goes for its out-of-town tryout in New Haven, Connecticut, at the Shubert. When Bobby keeps complaining that Eddie’s not doing it right, he’s talking about Eddie Phillips, who played Sohovik.
- George and Hal want to cut the Act 1 number that Bobby’s set and Bobby is taking it personally. But George says they can leave it in there and change it out “by the time we get to Boston.” In New Haven, Bobby adds “Who’s Got the Pain?” as we see by the end of the episode. Fun fact: In Boston, the team added “A Little Brains, A Little Talent.”
- The team stays at the Taft Hotel during their New Haven tryout.
- When Joan and Gwen meeting the ladies’ room, Joan mentions that Bobby was married when they met, too. “He was married to one of the girls in the chorus, Mary Ann.” Mary Ann is Mary Ann Niles, his first wife. The three were all in Dance Me a Song on Broadway.
- FYI 2,389 days (the time “before Joan McCracken’s death”) is about six-and-a-half years.
- In the flashes of Gwen alone on a stage beaming as an audience roars, it seems she’s holding a bathrobe around her. This will definitely come back in a future episode.
Life is just a bowl of cherries, ain’t it?