Musical theatre fans, I know you might have been disappointed that this episode didn’t include the flash of Fosse and Verdon—especially after last week’s Pippin spectacular.
No rehearsal scenes. No “how they made it” scenes. But because of that we get to see these A+ talents act their faces off. Margaret Qualley as Ann Reinking is revelatory. And Michelle Williams...if that scene between the two of them doesn’t clinch her the Emmy nom (if not the award itself), then what are we doing here?
Once again director Thomas Kail delivers, this time in a sensitive, grounded, close-up way (here’s to seeing more screen work coming his way) with an episode written by Charlotte Stoudt.
But let’s take this baby from the top.
STEP BY STEP: WHAT HAPPENED IN THE STORY OF BOB AND GWEN THIS WEEK
The episode begins with flashes of blank faces, one after the other after the other. Do we know these people? Are they flash forward versions of characters we’ve met? No. When we see Bob as the final face, we realize they are all patients at the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic and there are “14 years left.”
Gwen and Nicole are visiting a catatonic Bob and, honestly, it’s terrifying. Was Bob Fosse once actually reduced to a nonverbal, unresponsive patient? Yes. He pushed himself way too far. But that doesn’t stop Gwen from verbally committing her and Bob to make Chicago next season.
(Side note: Can I just say how much I love at the title card of this show is different every time? Always fits the exact story of the week and I dig it.)
We’re now in Southampton: 3 months later, 7 weeks after Joan Simon’s death. Not gonna lie, I had to pause and rewind after seeing Bob just hopping around the porch of his beach house and make sure this was a flash-forward and not a flashback because I couldn’t understand how someone in such a catastrophic mental state could now be the man before us. But alas, three months later…
Bob, Paddy, and Neil—as in Simon—have begun a weekend getaway. It seems Annie (a.k.a. Ann Reinking is fully in the picture now) and Nicole are there and Annie is nervous because Gwen is about to arrive with Ron. But Bob assures her. “Gwen’s gonna be on her best behavior tonight, believe me. No one puts on a show like she does.”
The conversation turns to Bob’s latest project: the movie Lenny about comedian Lenny Bruce, and Dustin Hoffman is interested in starring. Gwen arrives with Ron, Ron compliments Ann on her show (Pippin), and it’s hugs all around. Bob and Gwen rib each other about their younger companions. But enough of that, Gwen wants to “sit down with Bobby and Joey, maybe John and Freddy, too” to talk about Chicago. (For those of you keeping tabs that’s producers Robert Fryer and Joseph Harris and composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb.) Gwen’s secured the 46th Street Theatre for the production for a year from now. Remember when you could make a musical in a year?
Meanwhile, Ann and Paddy are talking about Bob. Paddy assures her that she’s different. But it’s not reassurance about her relationship she’s really after. Turns out, Bob’s health is as bad as we thought, but worse than his friends did. He checked out of the clinic after six days when the doctors wanted him there for a month. They want him to take a year off. “There are only two people in the world that he listens to and the other one, I can’t talk to her about this,” she begs Paddy.
But Paddy’s not worried. Or he at least lives in the reality of Bob’s stubbornness. “That man is going to do exactly what he wants to do whether we want him to or not. I’ve known him a long time and you gotta trust me on this. OK? Don’t worry so much. He’s got nine lives. He always figures it out one way or another.”
In the corner, Nicole sneaks some of Paddy’s beer—and later in the episode she smokes a cigarette (sans filter) before getting ill. But the grown-ups are reminiscing about Joan and arguing about Bob’s career: Lenny or Chicago. And now it’s Gwen’s turn to push.
Gwen: We’ve been talking about doing Chicago for the last decade but now we finally have the rights
Bob: One more year isn’t the end of the world
Gwen: But we’ll lose the theatre.
Bob: There’s always another.
Gwen: That’s our theatre
Bob: I have to respect Dustin’s schedule.
Gwen: What about my schedule?
Bob: It’s Dustin Hoffman.
Priorities. Clear. But Gwen hasn’t given up yet. She’s trying to bring Ann over to her side, but Ann doesn’t want Bob working at all. But Gwen has the last word: “The best thing for Bob Fosse to do is work. Trust me.”
Meanwhile, the guys are swapping “how I lost my virginity stories.” (The one-upping with these kinds of stories is the poster symptom of raising men in a misogynistic society—just saying.) And Bobby has “the best” story. [TRIGGER WARNING] He was 13 and working in a burlesque house in Chicago and the women took a liking to him. And one night, that liking turned physical. Bob lost his virginity as a teen to rape. But at the time of Bob’s adulthood, he’s seen as the big man, the one with the most experience, the man the women couldn’t resist. “Taught me everything I know, you know what I mean?” Bobby mumbles. And the sadness of that hits you in the gut.
As Bobby leaves the room to gather himself, he’s sucked into the conversation between Ann and Gwen. And here comes what I’m calling the “because he’s doing it for his art” speech. Gwen has reached the end of her rope. All the waiting. All the cheating. She reaches her boiling point and the frustration comes out as she warns Ann. (Familiar to that scene with Joan McCracken? You decide.)
After Annie walks out, Bob tells her she’s different and that he just wants to be with her. But Ann isn’t sold.
Downstairs, they’re huddled around the piano and Neil asks Gwen to sing. She lands on Joan’s favorite, “Where Am I Going?” In a brilliant turn of storytelling through song, Gwen sings the final line straight to Bob: “Where am I going? You tell me.”
Bobby’s sleeping on the couch and Gwen is trying one last time for Chicago. She doesn’t want to wait. They throw soft insults at each other, but they fall into each other, a mess of passion and frustration. These two are inseparable.
Still he wakes Annie the next morning telling her he wants to make her happy and he is so damn convincing I don't know what to do!
At the breakfast table, Gwen tells Ann what to do: keep him alive “because he’ll give you what he gave me.” “You mean Nicole,” Ann says. “Yes. But not just Nicole. Lola. Charity. Roxie.” And that’s where we learn that she has just as much drive as he does. She wants. She’s ambitious. It might also be that whatever Gwen wants, Gwen gets.
So where does that leave us? Southampton: 1973, 13 months before Bob Fosse’s heart attack, a man barreling towards his own death but helpless to stop it because the thing that will kill him is also the thing he lives for.
NAME-DROPPING: FILLING IN THE BLANKS BEHIND THE REFERENCES
Oh Lenny. This movie would mark Bob’s third feature directing credit after Charity and Cabaret. The story of the 1960s comic Lenny Bruce, whose boundary-pushing comedy often landed him in jail for public obscenity. But Fosse believed there was a human story there, about a man railing against the Establishment and being punished for it. Guess who plays Dustin Hoffman in an upcoming episode? Brandon. Uranowitz. (Yes, that three-time Tony nominee.)
The 46th Street Theatre really was Bob and Gwen’s Theatre. They did Damn Yankees in 1955, New Girl in Town (starring Gwen and choreographed by Bob) in 1957, and Redhead (starring Gwen and directed and choreographed by Bob) in 1959 all under that roof, and all three earned Gwen Tony Awards. The 46th Street Theatre has since been renamed the Richard Rodgers. That is where both In The Heights and Hamilton have bowed—both collaboration between Lin-Manuel Miranda and director Thomas Kail. Miranda is an executive produce on Fosse/Verdon; Kail is an EP and director on the show. Coincidence? Perhaps.
For those keeping track of the times, Adam-12 was a buddy cop show starring Martin Milner and Kent McCord. It ran from 1968–1975.
Gwen keeps talking about the rights to Chicago. While the production was an original musical, it did have source material. The Kander & Ebb musical is based on the eponymous 1926 play by reporter Maureen Dallas Watkins, based on the actual criminals she reported on. Gwen had seen a movie made of the play in the 1940s starring Ginger Rogers as Roxie Hart—that’s where her idea to make it a stage musical came from. In the 1960s, Watkins rebuffed Bob and Gwen’s offers of a musical adaptation. It seems that over the years, Watkins realized her play had gained sympathy for one of the women and she was disturbed that her work may have helped acquit a murderer. But Watkins passed in 1969, at which point C.R. Leonard was appointed the trust officer of her estate. He is the one who negotiated the rights to the play, which is why “after ten years” they were available for Gwen and Bob.
As we see, Bob doesn’t want to do Chicago. Gwen says she’ll just get Hal—as in Prince—to direct it because “he’s been on a hot streak recently.” It’s summer 1973 here, so if you’re doing the math that means that Hal hit big with Cabaret in 1966, Zorba in 1968, and then Company in 1970 and Follies in 1971. He did a couple of smaller play revivals in 1972 and then made a splash with A Little Night Music in February 1973. A hot streak, indeed.
When Bob asks Paddy “Where are you with that TV news script?” he’s talking about Network, the 1976 Oscar-winning film that would cement Chayefsky's reputation.
Fun fact: Bob never lived nor rented a home in Southampton, it was actually The Village of Quogue, according to Nicole Fosse's longtime manager.