Ann Reinking, whose relationship with Bob Fosse is depicted in the TV show “Fosse/Verdon,” enjoyed the two episodes she has seen, but she wishes that the series portrayed him more generously.
It’s an odd feeling to give someone a spoiler alert for her own life story, but I didn’t want to ruin “Fosse/Verdon” for Ann Reinking. As of last week, the veteran dancer had not caught up with the FX miniseries, starring Sam Rockwell as the louche director-choreographer Bob Fosse and Michelle Williams as the Broadway star Gwen Verdon. The show, which is based on Sam Wasson’s fizzy biography, charts the couple through the turbulent nineteen-seventies, when their marriage broke up even as their legendary collaboration persisted. While Fosse honed his glitter-and-doom aesthetic on Broadway (“Pippin,” “Chicago”) and on film (“Cabaret,” “All That Jazz”)—an incredible run punctuated by nervous breakdowns and heart attacks—Verdon raised their daughter, Nicole, played artistic swami when Fosse was blocked, and tried to revive her own thwarted career. Into that two-person minefield stepped Reinking, a sinewy young dancer who became Fosse’s protégée, muse, and girlfriend.
In “Fosse/Verdon,” which airs its final episode Tuesday night, Reinking is played by Margaret Qualley, the twenty-four-year-old daughter of Andie MacDowell. “I haven’t seen much of it,” Reinking, who is sixty-nine and semi-retired, said of the series. She had been in Europe, she explained, and then briefly in New York, to co-host the Chita Rivera Awards with her “Pippin” castmate Ben Vereen. She was speaking from Phoenix, where she lives with her husband and cares for her adult son, Chris, who has Marfan syndrome. Her voice was unmistakable: simultaneously raspy and nasal and elegant, and warmly familiar to anyone who grew up with the movie version of “Annie,” in which she played Grace Farrell. She didn’t consult on the series (unlike Nicole Fosse), but she had seen the first two episodes at a screening at the Museum of Modern Art. “I thought they were wonderful,” she said of Rockwell and Williams, “in how they captured not only how they looked but their mannerisms.” She hadn’t seen any episodes with Qualley, but had watched her in the HBO show “The Leftovers” and in a dance-filled Kenzo ad. “She’s a dancer, which is good, to have a real dancer involved in the show. And I like her acting a great deal.”
But Reinking also seemed conflicted about what she’d seen of “Fosse/Verdon,” and hoped that later episodes would have “a nicer point of view about Bob,” she told me. “Bob was beloved by people, very intelligent people, for their entire lives, and he had tremendous loyalty from everyone,” she went on. “I know he has a reputation for being abusive, but he’s not. That’s the thing that bothers me, is that I fear that they might make him abusive.” The series, which reunites the “Hamilton” collaborators Thomas Kail (who developed the show with Steven Levenson), Lin-Manuel Miranda (as an executive producer), and the choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, undercuts the Fosse myth, casting him as a self-destructive auteur who recklessly blurs work and pleasure, while Verdon is left to pick up the pieces of their broken home life, her artistry obscured. As Emily Nussbaum wrote in her review, “It’s a #MeToo-era take, poking holes in the notion of the dysfunctional male genius—and, crucially, devoting equal time to Gwen Verdon.”
In the fourth episode, Fosse sleeps his way through the female chorus of “Pippin,” the musical he directed in 1972. After one dancer fends him off with a knee to the groin (drawn from an incident described in an earlier biography), Fosse sidelines her from a dance number and has Reinking step in. The real Reinking insisted that this wasn’t an issue. “I didn’t feel that there was any casting couch or anything. I have felt more uncomfortable with other people on a more sinister level, but there was nothing sinister with Bob. And I think for anybody who knew Bob and really worked with him and really knew him, that was not a dynamic at all. You knew that those two things are separate.” She used herself as an example. Reinking met Fosse when she was twenty-two, at the auditions for “Pippin.” “He was up on stage with you,” she recalled. “He wasn’t just the dark voice in the theatre where you can’t see the face, just hear the voice. He would come up to a dancer and say, ‘This is not a great step for you—do this step.’ ‘You stick with that.’ ” That night, he called to ask her out. “I said, ‘Don’t you think it’s not a good idea? Aren’t you being unfair to ask me out and we’re still auditioning?’ He goes, ‘Yeah, but do you want to go out?’ And I said, ‘No, I can’t!’ ”
To 2019 ears, it sounds like a serious case of creepitude, but Reinking told the story with a wistful laugh. “He didn’t hold it against me,” she said. “At first, I thought, Oh, my gosh, this is a little intense. But he was so funny during the conversation. I realized I could say no to him.” She was awed by his way with dancers. “I said, ‘Hopefully we’ll work together, but, if we don’t, it was remarkable to meet you.’ I never thought he was abusive that way at all. I think everybody he was with was completely willing to be with him. I never perceived him as using a part as being manipulative. And I’ll tell you how I knew that—it was instinctual. By the time I got through with all of the auditions, I knew that if I got it, it was the right thing. He never played favorites. He just wanted you to be good, and if you got the part it was because you were right for it.” Months later, when “Pippin” was up and running, she changed her mind about dating him. “I knew I was falling in love, and it just got to be more and more. So by the time we did start going out I was pretty sunk.”
She met Verdon when the show was still playing out of town in Washington, D.C. The two women—romantically and artistically entangled with the same complicated man—might have easily been rivals, but they became unlikely friends. “Gwen and Bob had been legally separated for close to three years, and they had both gone on with their lives with other people, so I wasn’t an intruder,” Reinking said. “I never had an altercation with Gwen. She respected me. And I trusted her. I trusted Bob. I trusted Gwen. And I was right to. My instincts weren’t incorrect at all. They never hurt me, and they were on my side.” Verdon was “eccentric”—Reinking compared her to the topsy-turvy set of “Sweet Charity,” the musical that Fosse conceived for Verdon in the late sixties. When Reinking took on the role years later, Verdon pointed to the zigzagging proscenium and told her, “That’s the way Charity thinks.” Reinking replied, “I think it’s the way you think, too.”
As Fosse’s inamorata, Reinking was flung into the world of brilliant, screwed-up show-biz legends two decades older than she was—not just Fosse and Verdon but their nebbishy circle of friends, including Neil Simon and Paddy Chayefsky. “They weren’t intimidating at all,” Reinking said. “They were very nice to me.” As for Fosse and Verdon, “They talked almost every day. They were friends in the deepest sense of the word. I never competed with it. It didn’t bother me. I knew it made Bob happy. It anchored him. And I think the reason why she liked me—not only could I perform well, but she knew I loved Bob and wanted him to be as happy as possible, so he could do what he needed to do. So I think that we in a tacit way understood that in each other, that we cared about Bob. And the work. But more the human being first.”
Keeping Fosse “happy” was no easy task. In 1973, he became the only person ever to win an Oscar (for “Cabaret”), a Tony (for “Pippin”), and an Emmy (for “Liza with a Z”) in a single year—and promptly had a nervous breakdown. He checked himself into the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic. When I mentioned the episode, Reinking thought I had the timeline all wrong, but then gasped. “I was there. I just blocked it out. I was there. It was bad. He had an epileptic fit—he was an epileptic. He had a grand mal seizure. He went into Payne Whitney for a little while. He went also later. And I’m sorry to get it mixed up. It was bad. He was suicidal. He was really endangering himself, so he went in. There was really a psychiatric issue with him.” Why had he hit bottom after reaching show-biz heights? “You get to a certain point in your life,” Reinking said, “and you think you can do it all. And then you do do it all, and then you have to top yourself.”
Perhaps unwisely, Fosse threw himself back into work, directing the Lenny Bruce biopic “Lenny” and rehearsing “Chicago” with Verdon. In “Fosse/Verdon,” the Ann character worries about the effect that the stress would have on his health—and is proven correct when he winds up in the hospital with a heart attack. “Everybody was worried, without question,” Reinking recalled. “Once Bob commits to something, it’s almost like a child. He doesn’t want anybody else to take care of it, even if it might be to his detriment.” Fosse’s open-heart surgery deepened his depression. He was worried that it had compromised his virility. In one scene in “Fosse/Verdon,” Bob tests his fears by having Ann mount him on his hospital bed. Reinking hadn’t seen the episode, but said, “I heard that I’m in the hospital with Bob and we’re having intimate relations?” She let out a hoarse laugh. “That didn’t happen. At all. First of all, there’d be a nurse in the room in two seconds flat the moment his heart rate went up. He was under severe observation. He almost died. It was the last thing on his mind, or mine. He was just trying to get well.” I read aloud from page 402 of Wasson’s biography: “Having sex with Reinking, he wept with relief that impotence hadn’t set in. She had never seen him cry before.” “But that was later on,” she clarified. “It wasn’t in the hospital.” Besides, when he had the heart attack she was in a back brace, having fractured her vertebrae during a “gravity-defying” jitterbug in the Broadway show “Over Here!”
After “Pippin,” Reinking proved herself in non-Fosse productions, first “Over Here!” and then the musical “Goodtime Charley.” By the time she replaced Verdon as Roxie Hart in “Chicago,” in 1977, “I had already made my way out of the ensemble on my own.” The next year, she starred in Fosse’s revue “Dancin’ ” and then in “All That Jazz,” his clammy and self-excavating film autobiography, starring Roy Scheider as a womanizing, death-obsessed director. Fosse asked Reinking to audition for the thinly veiled role of herself. “I auditioned for everything,” she told me. “That was just par for the course.” But she worried that Fosse’s unflattering self-portrait would taint his reputation. “I said to him, ‘That’s not you at all! I mean, not completely. You work hard, you do this, but people are going to think that’s who you are, and you’re not that person. Why did you do that?’ And he answered right off the bat, ‘I don’t want anybody to pity him, because if they do they won’t get the moral: they won’t see that glamour can kill.’ ”
By then, he and Reinking were no longer a couple. They had broken up while “Dancin’ ” was out of town. “It wasn’t anything he did,” Reinking said. “I knew exactly what I was getting into, and I just wanted to get married. I wanted to have children. I wanted to not worry. And he understood it. So we went our separate ways—but then we never stopped being really good friends. And what was interesting was after we broke up we actually got even closer.” After Fosse died, in 1987, Reinking remained one of his foremost interpreters, co-directing the Broadway revue “Fosse”—with Verdon’s blessing—and choreographing and starring in the revival of “Chicago,” which is still running after twenty-three years. Verdon died in 2000. “Even at seventy-five, before she died, she still had an immense talent as a performer and even as a dancer,” Reinking said. “She said she’s good for eight bars and then she gets tired.”
When I asked what Fosse numbers still stick in her mind, Reinking mentioned “I Wanna Be a Dancin’ Man,” the Act II opener from “Dancin’.” “Even though it was a tribute to Fred Astaire, the lyrics are very Bob,” she said. (“I wanna be a dancin’ man / While I can / Gonna leave my footsteps on the sands of time.”) “He felt that any step, even if it’s on sand—it’s always footprints in the sand, and it can get washed away by wind or the sea. It doesn’t matter. It’s that important that it existed at all.”