Telling the story of two icons of Broadway musical theater and film – Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon – might have been a bit too much inside baseball a decade ago. But not now.
Hollywood is riding a wave of musical mania, on screens big and small. Glee clubs and a capella groups are cool again (thanks to Pitch Perfect and Glee), Hugh Jackman and Lady Gaga sang and danced their way through every awards show this past year (courtesy of The Greatest Showman and A Star Is Born), and movie theaters are filled with blockbuster rock biopics (like Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody).
Fosse/Verdon, a limited series from FX, takes us back to a pivotal era in theater and film history: when Lola gets whatever she wants and Sally invites her old chums to the cabaret and all that jazz. So the music is critical – and complicated – for a project like this one.
To pull it off, Fosse/Verdon tapped Tony Award winning supervising music producer Alex Lacamoire (Hamilton, Dear Evan Hanson) and Grammy winning music supervisor Steven Gizicki (La La Land, Teen Spirit). The project was an easy pitch for both of them. Gizicki was in as soon as he heard the name “Fosse.” Lacamoire, meanwhile, is the go-to music guru for Fosse/Verdon’s executive producing team, which includes Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tommy Kail, and Steven Levenson.
“You just say ‘yes’ when they invite you because you know you’re in for something special,” shares Lacamoire.
Clearly the Television Academy agreed: The show garnered an impressive 17 Emmy nominations, including nods for both Lacamoire and Giziki for their roles.
While Michelle Williams and Sam Rockwell have been getting accolades for their transformative portrayals of Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse, viewers can tell this is a labor of love for everyone involved. Those Emmy nominations reflect meticulous attention to detail across all aspects of the production. Gizicki recounted how Williams and Rockwell would have earbuds in between takes, calibrating their voices and speech patterns to match those of Bob and Gwen. The wardrobe department even tracked down the particular 70s era briefcase Fosse carried back in the day.
“And we did the same. We went back to the original orchestrations for all these songs, blew the dust off of them and had a look,” recalled Gizicki.
But that was just the beginning. The music duo had to figure out how to faithfully recreate these famous key numbers – with their limited budget that wouldn’t stretch to the original 30 piece orchestra – plus craft all new music that felt at home with the familiar songs and sound of the 60’s and 70’s.
“Our show unabashedly takes place in a certain era and certain time so it felt to me that we have to really pay tribute to that in the best possible way,” says Lacamoire. “We went to great lengths to try to be as authentic as possible and use the same kind of instruments, the same kind of instrumentation and have it feel like it was really happening at the moment these scenes were taking place.”
The first episode of the series, ‘Life Is a Cabaret,’ highlights these complexities. It’s also the episode that earned Gizicki and Lacamoire their Emmy nominations. The story opens with the evolution of the infamous ‘Big Spender’ number from Sweet Charity, giving viewers a glimpse into the process of Fosse and Verdon creating that scene.
“I was really up for that challenge of creating essentially a seamless piece of music,” says Lacamoire. “One that felt like it could have all existed in 1968. One that paid homage to the themes of those songs, and when it needed to be original have it be original without straying so far away that it didn’t feel like it was connected.”
Initially slated to include a short clip of ‘Big Spender’ at the beginning, followed by the full performance at the end of the episode, Lacamoire and Gizicki proposed a tweak.
“We ended up deciding to score the whole thing with ‘Big Spender,’ and to kind of build, much like Bob and Gwen visually are constructing the scene [during the episode]. They’re moving dancers and moving things around here and there,” recalls Gizicki. “We did the same thing musically. We put one [musical] building block out, then another building block, then another little bit, until when the visuals all came together to form the scene, so did the music. I loved that moment.”
Lacamoire delights in this deconstruction and reconstruction of the music, building and tweaking themes to advance the narrative on screen.
“Something that I really enjoy trying to do is having music tell a story,” says Lacamoire. “Having the music have humor when it needs to, having it be a nod to these classic songs when it needs to be.”
Lacamoire also sprinkled lots of “easter eggs” throughout the season, with callbacks and thematic references to the original musicals that fans with a keen ear can pick out.
While honoring the original historical productions was important, the team had to walk a careful line to avoid mimicry or caricature. Broadway veteran Kelli Barrett’s performance as Liza Minelli was a prime example. In the clip from Fosse/Verdon below we see Barrett as Minnelli (as Sally Bowles) performing ‘Mein Herr’ while shooting a scene from Cabaret, while Bob and Gwen observe from behind the cameras.
“The decision was made consciously not to do a Liza impression. You don’t want to be like a Vegas Liza impression, because that just comes off as inauthentic,” said Gizicki. Instead, “Kelli is Liza Minelli and she mimics some of Liza’s inflections and tone, but a little bit of Kelli still shone through.”
It was a tall order: making eight movie musicals, on a television schedule and a television budget, all influenced by historical accuracy. Luckily, Gizicki and Lacamoire seem to thrive under pressure.
Gizicki is used to managing these big, complicated musical productions for feature films like La La Land, for which he won a Grammy and two Guild of Music Supervisors Awards. Licensing music, overseeing training the actors to sing or play instruments, on set performances, studio recording, budgets and more all fall under his purview.
“My job is to guide the music and make sure it all works, but also I need to make sure that everything gets covered so that the artists in the room – the Alexes [Lacamoire], the Stephens [Levensen], the Tommys [Kail] – have all the tools that they need to work with,” explains Gizicki. “It encompasses all of what you would consider the traditional music supervision niche, but it also adds the spectacle of putting on a show, I like to say. I think it is a combination of music and theater and film, and it’s visual as much as it is audio.”
Likewise, Lacamoire is a veteran of ‘putting on a show,’ having helmed the music for Broadway juggernauts Hamilton, Dear Evan Hanson, and many more. But this was his first foray into music for television, and its demanding schedule.
“With theater you have multiple attempts to try to get something right – rehearsals, previews, etc. ”, Lacamoire points out. “With TV, the day you film it is the day you have to capture it. You have to be ready to design, check, create, and execute all at once.”
Gizicki and Lacamoire seem to have formed a successful collaboration on Fosse/Verdon. They have reprised their respective roles for the film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, directed by Jon Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) and currently shooting in New York and scheduled to arrive in theaters next year.