Ladies and gentlemen, Michelle Williams. She told Playbill on the red carpet that this role was the hardest she’s worked in her life and, in this episode, we see why. Though the episode (written by Debora Cahn) opens with Sam Rockwell as Bob arriving to the editing studio, this episode is all Gwen.
Every time she presses and tussles those curls on her forehead or holds her face in her hands, it’s Gwen. The slight constant vibrato in her speaking voice. Gwen. It’s in the details, but William also nails heavy emotional scenes as we learn more of Gwen’s backstory and find the root of her pain.
A shout-out, as well, to choreographers Andy Blankenbuehler and Susan Misner (who, by the by, were both onstage in the Broadway company of the Tony-winning musical revue Fosse together). Fosse/Verdon not only recreates iconic numbers (as we’ve seen with “Mein Herr” and “Big Spender” and last week’s “Who’s Got the Pain?”) the opening number from Blankenbuehler (set to Cabaret’s “Willkommen”) shows off original choreo—and introduces audiences who may not be Broadway regulars to storytelling through dance. There’s no mistaking that upon entering the editing studio on Day 1, Bob feels on top of the world. He’s surrounded by beautiful, adoring women—which we know puffs him up. The sensual movement, the hat hanging on the toe of that incredible dancer—rewind if you didn’t realize it’s on the end of her crazy extended leg!—the women closing in on him feeds into Bob’s ego and desires. And then they literally roll out the red carpet for him. Bravo, storytelling.
We’ll get more original dance later, but for now, let’s take this baby from the top.
STEP BY STEP: WHAT HAPPENED IN THE STORY OF BOB AND GWEN THIS WEEK
Willkommen to “Editing, Day 1.” (Shout out to Tony nominee Ethan Slater for his rendition of the Cabaret opener as Joel Grey as the Emcee.) Bob feels on top of the world and ready to get to work, but when he enters the editing room he finds out from (presumably) David Bretherton and his assistant Chrissy (Tedra Millan spotting!) that they’ve already put together a rough cut of the film.
Cut to the screening room where Bob looks like he’s about to swallow the bottle of Seconal he threatened to take just one episode ago. ““I feel sick. It’s unwatchable.” Suddenly, he’s leaving via that same hallway he strutted down moment ago—only now he’s not being caressed by a harem of chorus girls, the floor is coming out from under him and the furniture has a life of its own, sliding away down the rabbit hole.
At home, Gwen is on the phone with her agent, Mel, when Bob walks in to celebrate. (He’s not living there anymore, by the way.) He got a new musical. “Remember that show mommy and I took you downtown Godspell?” he asks Nicole. “The guy who wrote it, this is his new musical it’s called Pippin.” Looks like Bob needed to feel better about himself so he took a stage project—even though he apparently turned it down previously, saying it was “terrible.” “What do I know?” Bob backtracks. “Godspell’s been running over a year. They got productions in London and Washington. This kid Schwartz, he knows what sells.” Of course, Schwartz would be Stephen Schwartz and, of course, he does.
Later on, the truth comes out as to why Bob really came home. It wasn’t to celebrate, it was to ask Gwen for help editing the movie. But Gwen has work of her own: a straight play called Children! Children!. “When’s the last time you acted?” Bob questions her. “An hour ago when you walked in the door. How’d I do?” Wow.
Gwen suggests he asks his German girl to help out. That’s when we learn she’s left him. Rejected by Hannah and Gwen, Bob is frantic. In a tizzy, he’s calling up any girl he can find—spliced with movie shots of Cabaret’s Kit Kat Club is a nice touch. Meanwhile, Gwen is at home marking up her script and, for the first time, we see flashbacks to her adolescence—all slamming doors and babies crying. More on that later.
The next day in the editing room, Bob is working on the number “Two Ladies” and can’t make it work. Gwen drops off Nicole so she can make a dinner meeting and let’s just say Bob’s reaction to “babysitting” doesn’t exactly make him father of the year. Still, he’s begging Gwen to help him—this time with the opening number to Pippin and he dangles the possibility of a role in the show for her as Pippin’s mother. She is insulted at the thought of playing a mother.
Over dinner, Gwen convinces her agent to let her audition. Man, she really wants to work.
Back at the hotel, where Bob is supposed to be watching Nicole—you know, his daughter—he’s leaving her with his pal Paddy Chayefsky (which, honestly, any time we get to see Norbert Leo Butz is time well spent) so that he can rendezvous with Chrissy. “In certain circles I am considered a major American dramatist,” Paddy whines. Not tonight, bucko.
When Gwen comes to pick up Nicole she sees Paddy and Nicole sitting on the bed, totally just hanging out, eating fries, watching TV. [TRIGGER WARNING: GWEN’S HISTORY OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE IS ABOUT TO PLAY OUT. THE VISUAL STORYTELLING IS NOT GRAPHIC IN ITS DISPLAY, BUT IT IS PRESENT AND REAL.]
Gwen cannot handle that her daughter has been left alone with a grown man. Nicole is fine. Nothing happened here, but her own memories haunt her, and Bob’s lack of understanding makes us wonder if he knows about his wife’s history.
As we see play out in flashbacks, Gwen met theatre critic James Henaghan when she was 17. (If you see Santino Fontana as Henaghan, this is where things get dicey.) After performing at a house party, Henaghan follows Gwen into her bedroom, shuts the door, tells her to lie down. The next thing we know she’s being berated by her father, who’s shouting “Who is he?!” Gwen is pregnant—and, of course, her father would assume she’s been “running around” and “loose” rather than consider she was raped. Henaghan marries her.
Back in the present, Gwen auditions for director Joseph Hardy (Jeremy Shamos spotting!) for that role in Children! Children! she so desperately wants. (Read the plot of Children! Children! below, you will not believe.) Gwen gets the part, but apparently was not everyone’s first choice. Bets it was our new favorite director.
That’s when we get another flashback. Gwen’s sitting in a nightclub watching the Jack Cole dancers (a.k.a. Broadway’s Eliza Ohman, Ryan Steele, Reed Luplau, Adrian Lee, Ricky Ubeda!). Gwen’s reviewing the show for the Hollywood Bugle and home life is not good. Henaghan is a drunk, he’s rough with her, they're behind on rent, and their son is shrieking. Not a good situation. And so when Gwen gets to ask one question of Jack Cole for her article, she clearly chooses to ask if she can dance for him.
Flash forward to the present and Gwen and her castmates are in a notes session—though the rest of the cast may as well not be there. (Are they even in this play?) Joe puts her through the ringer. But bravo to the writers, Shamos, and Williams, for creating a scene with such subtle pain as Gwen tries to deflect with attempts at humor.
After that beating, Gwen marches into the editing studio (in a fierce white safari suit, I may add). “What are we working on?” she asks. Music to Bob’s ears. You see, as much as he needs her, she also needs him. Their collaboration makes her feel useful, competent, smart, heard, and equal.
But all that camaraderie goes out the window when the two of them start talking about Gwen’s part in the play and the Angel Boy monologue she’s struggling with:
Bob: Ask for a rewrite. Tell him to change the angel to a little girl. What do you know about boys?
[Her face crumbles]
Bob: You never raised one.
Gwen: F*CK you.
The most devastated f*ck you I’ve ever heard. And Gwen is sent backwards in time again to the moment she leaves her husband and leaves her son in her parents’ care to go join the Jack Cole dancers.
The memory of her son fuels Gwen’s performance in the rehearsal room. She bears her soul here. And Joe still has notes. What is wrong with this guy?
But that’s when we’re reminded of the star that Gwen Verdon is and will always be. She remembers opening night of Can-Can on Broadway. Walking off the stage, Gwen heads to her dressing room, but is called back onstage to bow again because the audience WILL. NOT. STOP. APPLAUDING. (Read the full story of that night below.) Also, can we talk about how this was shot in a single take?!
But where are the cheers now? Gwen seems to wonder, as we cut to New York 1972: Gwen alone in the kitchen and 28 years left in her life.
NAME-DROPPING: FILLING IN THE BLANKS BEHIND THE REFERENCES
· The title of the episode “Me and My Baby,” of course, comes from the musical Chicago. Roxie Hart sings the song when she tells the court she’s pregnant—if you’re only familiar with the Oscar-winning film, time to get thee to Broadway to see this number and more. Gwen originated the role of Roxie; Bob directed and choreographed the show later on in his lifetime.
· “Remember that show Mommy and I took you to downtown, Godspell?” The writers specifically mention “downtown” because—at this point—Godspell is an Off-Broadway hit. It opened Off-Broadway May 17, 1971, at the Cherry Lane Theatre. This was Stephen Schwartz’s first big show, though he would make his Broadway debut with Pippin in 1972—the show Bob was hired to direct and choreograph.
· Children! Children! was written by Jack Horrigan and directed by Joseph Hardy. Gwen Verdon did star in it—and it lasted all of 13 previews and one performance. The plot is wild. According to the Samuel French synopsis: “On New Year's Eve a fashionable couple depart for a party with a doctor and his wife, leaving their precocious children, three pre-teen boys and a girl, in the care of a new babysitter whose conscience requires her to announce that she recently recovered from a nervous breakdown. The children proceed to torture the babysitter, beginning with a story of how a previous babysitter dropped dead right before their eyes of a heart attack, proceeding through sadistic turns, including a pitch at lovemaking by first the boy and then the girl, and ending with a tumble down the stairs. On returning home, the sitter is not able to convince the parents that it all happened; they merely think her still mentally unstable. Then we in turn see in the viciousness of the parents the source of the children's diabolism.” I’ll let you mull that one over.
· James Henaghan was Gwen Verdon’s first husband, played here by Santino Fontana. Henaghan was a writer for The Hollywood Reporter. She was only 17 years old when they married. According to the Sam Wasson’s biography, she lied about her age and was married by a justice of the peace. A son, James Henaghan Jr., was born in 1943. Verdon and Henaghan divorced in 1947. (She made her Broadway debut in 1948.)
· Reminder: Jack Cole is one of the great Broadway choreographers. He is the man who introduced jazz dance to the musical theatre dance lexicon.
· The story of Verdon and Can-Can is practically the reason they invented theatre lore. On the opening night of the Cole Porter tuner, Verdon performed the “Garden of Eden” dance number (according to the Fosse/Verdon Legacy—though the Times said in Verdon’s obituary it was the second act Apache dance) and the audience leapt to its feet, screaming and clamoring for her to return. Verdon had gone to her dressing room to change when choreographer Michael Kidd knocked on her door. He had been in the front row and didn’t understand why Gwen had not returned for another bow. She was down to her undergarments, but Michael told her she had to come out and see this. She threw on a towel and went back onstage to what became a seven-minute-long ovation.
· The final scene takes place in New York “28 years left.” Unlike the premiere episode clocking the time until Bob dies, this time it’s Gwen. She passed October 18, 2000. Let’s watch her make the most of it, shall we?