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Goodbye to Gwen

The theater community bids farewell to four-time Tony Award-winner Gwen Verdon. logo
Gwen Verdon in Sweet Charity
Broadway dimmed its lights last night in salute to Gwen Verdon, who died yesterday in Woodstock, Vermont at 75. And if Broadway could have put its fingers to the brim of a bowler and tipped it, that would have happened, too. Because that stance was one of the many associated with a woman whom many consider the best dancer ever to have trod the light fantastic along the Great White Way.

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.

Verdon as Lola
in Damn Yankees
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.]
Gwen Verson at a recording session
for Redhead in 1959
(May 2000)
By David Barbour

In the 1950s, Gwen Verdon was Tony's favorite lady. She grabbed the featured actress in a musical award for Can-Can in 1954, followed by best actress awards for Damn Yankees (1956), New Girl in Town (1958), and Redhead (1959). (For New Girl in Town, she tied with her co-star, Thelma Ritter). Verdon was also nominated for Sweet Charity (1966) and Chicago (1976).


TM: Do you remember your first Tony Awards ceremony?

VERDON: Oh, sure. I won a Tony. It was held in a little room at the Gotham Hotel.

TM: That was for Can-Can?

VERDON: Yes. And Audrey Hepburn won that year, I think, for Ondine.

TM: Ondine. There's a title you don't hear every day.

VERDON: No! (Laughs)

TM: So the awards ceremony was very different in those days.

VERDON: Oh, yes. It was just a little...I don't even think it was a cocktail party. It wasn't lunch. It wasn't anything!

TM: Was it exciting to win?

VERDON: Oh, yes. But the awards are much better looking now.

TM: Do you mean because they're produced on television?

VERDON: No, I mean the award itself is much better looking.

TM: What did it look like back then?

VERDON: It was just a little disk.

TM: Once you won for Can-Can, there were several years where you seemed to win the Tony quite regularly.

VERDON: Every year I did a show, I got one, until Sweet Charity. I did not get one for Sweet Charity.

TM: That was the year Angela Lansbury won for Mame. Did it ever get a little dull to keep winning like that?

VERDON: Oh, it never gets dull! It's amazing, but never dull!

TM: You were nominated again in 1976 for Chicago, but lost that year as well [to Donna McKechnie, for A Chorus Line]. Did you mind losing for Chicago?

VERDON: No. I always liked the shows I did. That was the only thing that was really important to me. You know, I think I was nominated for every show that I did, but I never talk about nominations. I mean, I've seen people whose walls are covered with the nominating certificates. And I didn't even know you got those things. If I did, I have no idea where mine are!

TM: But then, not everyone has as many awards as you do. For some people, the nominations are everything.

VERDON: (bemused) I guess so.

TM: Have you seen many of the nominated shows this year?

VERDON: No, I've been in London.

TM: Of course, you were working on [the West End production of] Fosse.

VERDON: Yes. And the touring company and replacing people in New York.

TM: You must be a very busy woman.

VERDON: Yes, I've escaped to California right now. I'm either out here visiting my son and daughter-in-law, or up in Vermont with my daughter and her husband and my three grandkids.

TM: One show that's a big success is Contact.

VERDON: I know, and I haven't seen it.

TM: There's a controversy about it. Some people say it's not a musical because it's an evening made up entirely of dance, performed to recorded music.

VERDON: Well, Fosse has no book. And Dancin', well, it sort of had a book. Actually, Fosse sort of has a book.

TM: Of the awards that you won, was any one the most exciting?

VERDON: I received a Tony Award [for Redhead] from Ingrid Bergman, and that was truly exciting, because she had not been allowed back in the country. They felt there was too much controversy [over her romance with director Roberto Rossellini]. The American Legion was protesting. But, to me, it was most exciting getting it from her--and I said so, when I got it.

TM: Will you be attending the Tonys this year?

VERDON: I think so. When exactly do they take place?

TM: The first Sunday in June. June 4.

VERDON: Yes, I can make that!

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