When it came to enchanting terpsichore, no one since, perhaps, Marilyn Miller in the 1920s won the hearts of as many critics and ticket buyers as Verdon. She did it with a headful of bouncy red hair, a smile that went from here to the next county, a pair of astonished eyes, a voice that seemed to have been purloined from a loquacious kewpie doll, and limbs that never met an angle they couldn't duplicate.
The four-time-Tonyed Verdon made all but her first two appearance on wide New York stages as one half of a great collaboration with Bob Fosse. She met him when she was signed to play Lola, the Devil's helper, in Damn Yankees. It was nothing but Fosse/Verdon, Verdon/Fosse from then on through New Girl in Town, Redhead, Sweet Charity and Chicago--and also through a marriage that didn't quite work out, although it was never officially ended.
Himself a dancer of great and idiosyncratic character, Fosse found in Verdon his female counterpart. They showed just how sympatico they were when they danced together on-screen in the movie version of Damn Yankees; she could hitch a hip and knock a knee in exactly the way he could. Moreover, the vulnerability she projected was a nice match for his magnetic hint of sleaze.
The truth is that Verdon, who was an actor of some accomplishment, never strayed too far from the same role: the hooker with a heart of gold. She played that part, or something quite close to it, in at least four of her musicals. Her appeal was that she never looked as if she had completely lost her innocence, no matter what had happened to her along her way to the next musical number. Whether it was as Anna in New Girl in Town (an adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie) or as Lola calling out to her seducee, "Hallo, Joe," she was piquant, if not kittenish, and always irresistible. For that reason, no one who saw her in the original production of Chicago is likely to feel that any of the expert song-and-dance women seen in the long-running revival of that show have quite measured up. It so happens that I saw Chicago earlier this week and thoroughly enjoyed Charlotte d'Amboise as Roxie Hart; but my companion and I, both veterans of the earlier version, came away discussing Verdon.
Those who saw the lady strut her blazing stuff in whatever probably never quite believed that she had retired for good. Die-hards held out hope she would come back for yet one more show. In part, that's because she said that, when she went into the rehearsal hall, she could still do it; she just felt she couldn't do it for eight perfs a week.
Now that Verdon has shuffled off to some dancer's heaven, where undoubtedly she is being welcomed with a standing ovation, only the images of her that were caught on film or tape are left behind. These include her Damn Yankees seduction of Tab Hunter, in that merry widow corset, plus the aforementioned mambo with Fosse; at least one number from Chicago with Chita Rivera; and "If My Friends Could See Me Now" and "I'm a Brass Band" from Sweet Charity, as performed on The Ed Sullivan Show. Lost to posterity, I believe, is the Can-Can apache dance that made Verdon an overnight star at a rather late 28. (This weekend, as a tribute, the Museum of Television & Radio will showcase a 1962 episode of the American Musical Theater series in which Fosse and Verdon talk to high school students about their lives, their careers, and the art of choreography; the program features copious dancing by the duo, including numbers from Damn Yankees, Redhead, and New Girl in Town).
Though she was a supreme dancer, Verdon also had the ability to put over a song when there was no choreography attached. The high point there may have been "Flings," the duet she did with Thelma Ritter in New Girl in Town. Verdon was never upstaged, but there were times--e.g., with Rivera and Ritter--when she was part of a terrific team.
The names of Verdon and Fosse will always be linked when people talk about great Broadway dance, a fact which Verdon acknowledged. She continued to champion Fosse well after she stopped performing his choreography: She lent a hand on Dancin' and various revivals, including Chicago, not to mention last year's Tony-winning Fosse. This means that another generation has been schooled in the master by someone who most assuredly felt these dances in her muscles and bones.
Of course, Verdon did work with others. Who wouldn't have wanted to work with her? That show-stopping Can-Can turn was thunk up by the great Michael Kidd. Verdon also served as muse for Jack Cole, whom she assisted in Hollywood (she stands out in the rentable-tonight On the Riviera) and for whom she made her Broadway debut in a show called Alive and Kicking. For countless Verdon fans, that phrase will be eternally apt.
[Ed note: TheaterMania published one of the last interviews with Gwen Verdon, by David Barbour, in conjunction with the Tony Awards this year. Click on page 2 below to see that interview.]