“Sometimes if you’re very lucky, you find someone who dances better than you ever dreamed it. For me, that someone was Ms. Verdon.” Director/Choreographer Bob Fosse
Gwen Verdon (1925-2000) had rickets as a toddler. Because her mother was a former vaudeville dancer, less extreme measures than commonly taken were employed. The little girl wore orthopedic boots and leg braces. At three, she was enrolled in dance class “I didn’t know I was dancing until I saw a Fred Astaire movie. The next day in school, I signed my papers Ginger Verdon.”
This is a fairly comprehensive look at a unique, consummately professional dancer who told a story with every movement; by all reports, a remarkably warm, generous woman thought to be behind much of Bob Fosse’s originality and success. We hear from co-stars, peers, family, a dance historian, Verdon herself – and twice from Fosse. Clips of the Dick Cavett Show are illuminating.
Verdon appeared as a dancer in two short films when she was a young girl (she wore braces when not performing), but was not discovered. Any aspirations in that direction were cut short when family friend and tabloid reporter James Henaghan, twice her age and an alcoholic, got her pregnant at 17. Her parents insisted they marry. Son Jim was born. The couple divorced four years later.
At 18, teenage Verdon started dancing in films in order to support her child. “The light” didn’t come on until she saw Jack Cole perform at a nightclub, however. Verdon joined his company and became the dancer/ choreographer’s assistant dancing in films and shows. Talking heads declare Cole difficult, often mean and suggest Verdon developed toughness and discipline with him. She deep dived into movement even buying a skeleton to research how the body worked.
During the Golden Age of Hollywood, Verdon coached and often appeared uncredited in films she helped choreograph. “Betty Grable was the only star that let her dance with her on screen,” we’re told. She and Carol Haney actually dubbed Gene Kelly’s taps for Singin’ in the Rain. “We danced in pans of water,” she recalls smiling. Her goal was a speaking role. In the mid 1950s, she achieved that on stage as lead dancer in Cole Porter’s Can Can stopping the show. Opening night, Verdon garnered seven minutes of applause, subsequently earning her first Tony Award. She was making chorus girl money, yet the toast of Broadway.
Two years later, Verdon created the memorable Lola (the devil’s femme fatale assistant) in Damn Yankees. Bob Fosse was the choreographer. “He was nervous, I was terrified,” she comments, going on to describe his demonstrating “Whatever Lola Wants.” She was now a leading lady. A second Tony Award came with change of status. Dancer Charlotte D’Amboise notes that “Two Lost Souls” is really the moment Verdon “translated Jack Cole to Bob Fosse. She had the strength, flexibility and versatility to expand Fosse’s horizons as a choreographer.” We hear from Tab Hunter with whom she went on to make the film.
Despite accolades, Verdon had to audition four times for New Girl in Town, the musicalization of Anna Christie –choreographed by Fosse. A third Tony followed. Fosse was married, but the two grew inextricably closer. Redhead (Fosse directed and choreographed) came next. In her early 30s, she acquired her fourth Tony. This musical gave her the opportunity to emulate hero, Charles Chaplin. The number’s a delight. When Chaplin eventually came to see the show, he gifted her a cane.
After years of infidelity, Fosse divorced and married Verdon. “For a dancer,” D’Amboise reflects, “One of the greatest gifts is to have a partner who’s completely in sync.” A television excerpt from the pair performing “I Wanna Be a Dancin’ Man” joyfully exemplifies her comment. Except for television, Verdon then stepped back to have a child, Nicole. When Sweet Charity was offered, Nicole was asked what musical number she’d like to own. (It was “Brass Band.”) She was accordingly given points in the show and having a vested interest, more willing to let mom go to rehearsal.
Helen Gallagher and Lee Roy Reams talk about Charity. Fosse was a perfectionist. Verdon received 23 notes on “If My Friends Could See Me Now.” A freak accident during the run had a lasting effect on her voice when a feather wrapped around her vocal chords. The artist never considered herself a singer, but this made her more insecure. It also distinguished her voice. Universal bought the musical and hired Fosse, but insisted Shirley MacLaine play the lead. Verdon was asked to help with choreography which she did, wanting it to be done right. There was no apparent jealousy. The film was a failure.
At this point, Fosse’s congenital depression manifest itself in drugs, alcohol, and increased promiscuity. He admits to being hooked on Seconal and Dexedrine. (The one curious thing about the documentary is that we don’t hear more from Fosse himself.) The two separated, but remained married. Verdon kept working with him. Neither has ever spoken negatively about the other.
In the 1970s, the country experienced a crisis that inspired her to create a show about crime, corruption, and fame. Chicago, based on the real story of two murderesses who ended up in vaudeville, had been filmed as melodrama in 1937 and 1942. It was Verdon’s idea to turn it into a musical. Chita Rivera (Velma Kelly to Verdon’s Roxie Hart) gushes about the experience. Fosse suffered a heart attack during rehearsal. His ex-wife took a leave of absence to care for him. It would be her last show on Broadway.
Verdon and Fosse continued to work together. She even accepted his girlfriends. The dancer herself had one long term relationship after him, the somewhat younger Jerry Lanning. Opening night of the revival of Charity in Washington, DC, Fosse suffered a massive heart attack. He died in Verdon’s arms. His hat remained hung in her hallway.
Deciding she wouldn’t dance anymore, she embarked on an acting career of great variety including such films as Cocoon and Marvin’s Room. When honored by a professional organization, she always seemed embarrassed. We see a lovely clip of Verdon in a dance studio with her nephew. Five months later, she passed. “She straddled categories. We’ll never see the likes of her again,” Reams comments.
“I would hope by her example people don’t lose sight of always being a student, working hard, keeping a sense of humor, and humility.” (Nicole Fosse)
“If you’re a dancer, you dance.” (Gwen Verdon)
All photos courtesy of BroadwayHD and the film
Merely Marvelous – The Dancing Genius of Gwen Verdon
Produced, Written and Directed by Chris Johnson & Ken Bloom