Summer 2019


Thomas Kail's
High-Wire Act

Like his inspiration in Fosse/Verdon, the director has mastered multiple mediums

By Paul Brownfield

Director Thomas Kail (Photo: Rich Fury/Contour by Getty Images)

When Fox decided to hop aboard the live musical trend in 2016, Hamilton was the new darling of Broadway, and its director, Thomas Kail, was a natural choice to direct Grease Live! At his first meeting with producer Marc Platt, Kail pitched a staging concept that would blow out the idea of three walls and call attention to the idea of a live TV spectacle.

"If you're going to be up on a high wire, show the wire," Kail says describing his approach. "The fun of it is that these are flats, the fun of it is that it's not actually happening." Grease Live!—which aired in January 2016, ultimately earning Kail and live television director Alex Rudzinski DGA Award nominations—moved with impunity on the Warner Bros. backlot, sometimes via golf cart, with crane shots and crowd scenes and cameras exposing the skeleton of the production alongside the show itself.

"Every one of those actors who performed that night made a movie in one take," Kail says. Naturally, it rained in Los Angeles on show day, with winds gusting to the point that Kail was restaging the curtain-raiser an hour before the show went live. But the weather broke, and "Grease (Is the Word)" went off as planned.

That project would set the stage for something more ambitious, a miniseries that chronicles the personal and professional relationship between film and theater director Bob Fosse and the dancer who would become his third wife and primary muse, Broadway legend Gwen Verdon.

Fittingly, the provenance of Fosse/Verdon can be traced to a dressing room backstage at Hamilton. It was June 2016, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Hamilton creator and star, told Kail that his college friend, writer Sam Wasson, had just sold his 2013 biography Fosse to FX.

"We had all read the Fosse book when it came out," Kail says. "The epigraph of that book is, 'How much time do I have left?' Which is the thing that every director says 50 times a day in rehearsal. All you're ever doing is asking a stage manager 'how much time do I have left?' So the framing device of that really stuck with me."

The film legacy of Fosse, who died of a heart attack in 1987 at age 60, is contained in three movies he made in the 1970s: Cabaret, for which Fosse won an Oscar; Lenny, shot in black and white and starring Dustin Hoffman as the rebel comic Lenny Bruce; and All That Jazz, a roman à clef born of Fosse's experience editing Lenny while mounting Chicago on Broadway, with Roy Scheider providing the duality as the chain-smoking, Dexedrine-popping, chronically womanizing heart attack waiting to happen, Joe Gideon.

Kail, who co-developed the series and directed five of Fosse/Verdon's eight episodes, had four full-time editors on the project, and they all told him about Fosse's influence on their work.

"If you look at the way he framed things in Cabaret, I mean, it was super cutty and kinetic," Kail says. "And he would juxtapose things that seemed striking at the time. Lenny's obviously less well known. All That Jazz, the first 15 minutes when he's doing the audition sequence, that became part of iconography. I don't think Sweet Charity and Star 80 are as remembered as those other three, but for someone who made five films, it's amazing."

On a healthier plane and in an era several light years ahead technologically, Kail is in something of a Fosse period himself, directing TV projects and developing films as he carries the rather outsize theater credit "director of Hamilton."

"It's a constant thrum," Kail says, referring to the many ongoing productions of Lin-Manuel Miranda's show that have him traveling to supervise resident stage directors. This does not include the Broadway show, which Kail drops in on three times a month.

Fosse/Verdon argues that Verdon wielded a far bigger influence on Fosse's oeuvre than history has given her credit for. Structurally, the series follows no overarching chronology save for one: the years in which Fosse grew ever more seduced by the intellectualized arena of 1970s Hollywood auteurism, while Verdon tried to keep her husband's head in Broadway theater by way of continuing their magical collaboration and preserving her own fading status as an "it" girl of musical theater.

Via title cards, time moves back and forth according to days in an edit room or before curtain, and the famous characters in the couple's life—Paddy Chayefsky, Neil Simon—pop in and out of scenes without fanfare.

Thomas Kail, right, directing the episode of Fosse/Verdon that chronicles the making of the movie Cabaret. (Photo: Photo: Eric Liebowitz/FX)

"We kept on imagining this idea of a collection of short stories, not chapters of a novel," Kail says of the show's fractured chronology. "That could give us an ability visually to go to different places. I kept thinking about [J.D. Salinger's] Nine Stories, about the Glass family."

"Hard core pre-production," as Kail calls it, began on Fosse/Verdon in spring 2018; Kail and co-developer Steven Levenson had made contact with Fosse and Verdon's daughter, Nicole. The shoot took 86 days, between October 2018 and March of this year. The production, shot at the Silvercup Studios in New York, comprised a veritable road company below the line, complete with dancers who'd been in the rehearsal room with Fosse—so-called reconstructors—as consultants.

Filmed musical theater would figure prominently, as Fosse/Verdon opens with the two title characters on the set of Sweet Charity, Fosse's debut as a film director, blocking the "Big Spender" number. Kail and the creative team (including his DP, Tim Ives, and production designer Alex DiGerlando) needed to decide how to shoot Fosse shooting such numbers. It helped, on the one hand, to fall back on what they were depicting historically: a director moving through takes. "We didn't need to do anything exactly because they also might have been doing a take that Bob didn't use in the movie, so that gave us a little bit of meta freedom," Kail says.

Three cameras were used for the musical sequences. The prevailing philosophy when it came, say, to shooting Fosse directing Liza Minnelli's "Mein Herr" number from Cabaret, was "Bob shot it the way Bob shot it, so we should only see it in a way that had never been seen," explains Kail. "And if it was going to reference something, what we wanted to do was always make sure the camera placement for the Cabaret camera was getting a shot that was iconic." But even this would only be glimpsed by the viewer, by way of paying quick homage to the original. "Really fast. Just to be like, 'We saw it too.'"

The detailed facsimile of Fosse's Cabaret set in Munich helped immensely. "Anywhere you put a camera worked," Kail says. "It had been so well designed originally, so the fact that we recreated it, everything we did was money." Given the production schedule, time was of the essence. By contrast, Kail notes, on All That Jazz, "Bob took 15 days to shoot 'Bye Bye Life' and was in serious trouble on overages. We had six hours to do 'Mein Herr.' That's a testament to how ready our performers were."

As Fosse/Verdon illustrates, the success of Cabaret pushed the director further from the Broadway directing work that he'd come to regard as fusty and limiting, favoring instead the technical advantages of film and the specific POV that the camera provides.

"I heard a lot of stories about how Bob would try to tech [on stage] after he started making movies," Kail says, referring to shows like Pippin and Chicago. "I think it was challenging for him because the amount of control you have is so precise in film and forever. In theater you're relying on a human, and there wasn't the automation back then that there is now."

Kail, from Alexandria, Va., was never a theater kid; he was an athlete—two shows he has directed on Broadway, Lombardi and Magic/Bird, are about famous sports figures. At Wesleyan University, where he first became aware of a freshman named Lin-Manuel Miranda, Kail majored in political science. After working in regional theater post-college, Kail—by now working as a personal assistant to the actress Audra McDonald—started his own company in the basement of New York City's Drama Bookshop.

In 2011, he was invited by Michael Patrick King—who had seen the Off Broadway production of Miranda's first musical, In the Heights, directed by Kail—to Los Angeles for a loose but invaluable apprenticeship on King's fledgling CBS sitcom 2 Broke Girls.

Kail, who ultimately directed three episodes that first full season, ticks off the directors he shadowed on-set: Ted Wass, Fred Savage, Scott Ellis, Julie Anne Robinson and the dean of sitcom directing, James Burrows. "Where I was in my career in the theater, I was not in a place where I could watch other people direct anymore. I was too far along," Kail says. "The thing that's so fun about film and television is, you get to produce and support other directors." On Fosse/Verdon, they were Jessica Yu, Minkie Spiro and Adam Bernstein. "That just doesn't happen in the theater. There's one director."

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