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Fosse/Verdon Explained: Episode 2 — "Who's Got the Pain?"

The second installment of FX's new series explores the origin story of Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon's relationship and the creation of Damn Yankees. Here's some historical context from a theater geek.

Fosse/Verdon, the new FX limited series about Broadway giants Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) and Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams), aired its second episode this evening. Since we at TM spend our days immersed in the history and culture of the Great White Way, we'll be combing through all eight episodes to give theater geeks and non-theater geeks a little background on what they just watched.

Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams as Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon in "Who's Got the Pain?"
(© Eric Liebowitz/FX)

BACKGROUND: A brief look at the bourgeoning careers of Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse, and an even briefer look at their bourgeoning relationship

Gwen Verdon earned her first Tony Award for a showstopping performance in the Cole Porter musical Can-Can in 1954. That isn't a euphemism; Verdon's "Garden of Eden" ballet in the middle of the production literally stopped the show cold on opening night and instantly made her a star. She suddenly had the theater world at her fingertips.

One season later, Bob Fosse found the theater world at his fingertips, too. The Pajama Game, his first outing as a Broadway choreographer, earned Fosse the first of eight career Tony Awards for Best Choreography. He was getting ready to reunite with that show's creative team on the new musical Damn Yankees.

Fosse and Verdon didn't know each other well at that point, and certainly not romantically. He was still married to his second wife, Joan McCracken, a once-famous Broadway actor whose health was now on the decline. But when Verdon was cast as Lola in the 1955 premiere of Damn Yankees, the pair came together in a big way.

Episode 2: "Who's Got the Pain?"

Lights rise on Gwen, carrying the head of a gorilla costume to be used in the film of Cabaret that her husband, Bob, is directing. What we know — and she doesn't — is that Bob has broken his promise of fidelity, and she's about to walk in on him in bed with his translator.

In an effort to mend a broken relationship, the couple joins their friends Neil and Joan Simon at a rented villa in Majorca, Spain. A heart-to-heart between Joan (Aya Cash) and Gwen prompts a flashback to New York City, many years before, when Gwen, at a lunch with producer Harold Prince (Evan Handler), is discussing the project that will change the trajectory of her romantic and professional life.

Damn Yankees is the follow-up musical from The Pajama Game scribes Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, director George Abbott (Byron Jennings), and choreographer Fosse. Prince has offered Gwen the role of Lola, the Devil's assistant, but Fosse, as meticulous as ever, wants casting approval.

The dance audition that Bob requires from Gwen starts off a little awkwardly, but soon, the pair is moving in sync. She lands the role — and Fosse — almost simultaneously. Fosse's sickly wife, Joan (Susan Misner), suspects it after seeing how closely linked the pair is in rehearsal.

From there, we get a bird's-eye view of Damn Yankees, particularly the evolution of the production over the course of its out-of-town tryouts. The biggest conflict stems from Bob's reticence to change his first-act finale, a ballet featuring a game of musical chairs. He even asks Prince and Abbott if he can perform the number himself. Later overhearing a conversation between them at their hotel, Bob tears into them for scheming behind his back. But it leads to the creation of perhaps the show's most memorable dance number, "Who's Got the Pain?", a mambo performed by Gwen and cast member Eddie Phillips.

The show opens to acclaim and marks the beginning of Bob and Gwen's romantic and professional partnership. Joan, having once been Fosse's paramour herself, tries to give Gwen some warning about his penchant for infidelity, but the die has been cast.

Interspersed with scenes from their past, Bob and Gwen walk on the beach in Majorca and try to salvage their relationship. He can't live without Gwen, but he's deeply in love with Hannah, his Cabaret translator. Gwen, seeing the writing on the wall, leaves Bob in Spain and heads back to their daughter in New York.

Michelle Williams as Gwen Verdon in the second episode of Fosse/Verdon.
(© Eric Liebowitz/FX)

In Real Life…

The Majorca trip seems like prime territory for the dramatic contrivance of getting two characters together to fight it out, but according to Sam Wasson's Fosse, the biography on which the series is based, it actually happened. What went on during Fosse and Verdon's conversations, of course, is anyone's guess, but the trip ended with her going back to New York, and he to Ilse Schwarzwald, his translator, who, Wasson says, looked strikingly like Verdon.

Even the events of the Damn Yankees section in the episode are closely linked to reality, at least as Wasson depicts it, down to Fosse, Prince, and Abbott's argument in the Taft Hotel in New Haven, Connecticut. "Who's Got the Pain?" likewise, was really created in an afternoon. "Bob and I put the number together in about two hours," Wasson quotes Verdon as saying.

And Fosse did suggest that he replace the actor Eddie Phillips in the original version of his first-act finale, the one that got cut. While the team didn't take Fosse up on that offer, Fosse had the last laugh. In the film version of Damn Yankees, he's there onscreen alongside Verdon performing "Who's Got the Pain?", and that's the version that exists in posterity forever.

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