As I walked into a class during my final week of the 2000 Broadway Theatre Project, I realized they had saved the best for last. To my left, a TV was playing the quirky “Who’s Got the Pain” scene from Damn Yankees!—featuring my dance idol Gwen Verdon (1925–2000). And to my right, Verdon herself was executing the steps in time with the vintage version. Her fire-red hair was swept atop her head in a disheveled bun and she wore all black on her divinely proportioned body.
I took a spot in the front row of the master class and focused fiercely as Verdon broke down the piece in great detail—from the physicality of Bob Fosse’s steps to the narrative motivation behind them. She noted the dipping motion of the hips and the scooting feet that create a mambo groove. In a series of small leaps, she moved with the grace of a prancing antelope. At 75, Verdon was certainly the most buoyant dancer in the room. She still embodied the sexy humor that was her invaluable trademark: She was a lady who was one of the boys, but also an object of desire for all men. But what really stood out in that class was that while Verdon was Fosse’s muse, she was also a creative force in her own right.
“Gwen was finely tuned. There wasn’t any type of dancing she couldn’t do, but she never gave it all away,” says Chita Rivera, the living dance legend who starred alongside Verdon in Fosse’s original Chicago. “She had such class. If it was East Indian dance, it was authentic. If it was a wild French girl, it was wild but controlled, never sloppy. She was brilliant.”
Born on January 13, 1925, in Culver City, California, Verdon developed rickets as a youngster and was put into dance class to improve her shaky legs. With her father Joseph employed as an electrician at MGM Studios and her mother Gertrude a Denishawn veteran and dance school owner, Gwen Verdon seemed destined for showbiz. She began performing in stage acts at age 4 and ballroom gigs in her late teens. Although a brief first marriage to tabloid reporter James Henaghan (which produced her son, Jimmie) pulled feisty Verdon from dance, she returned six years later after seeing the Jack Cole Dancers at a Los Angeles club. Struck by Cole’s exotic and sensual choreography, she became an obedient disciple, serving as both a dancer and model on which he set work.
Through her dedication to Cole, especially at MGM (where he was on contract), Verdon nabbed her first Broadway gig in his short-lived Alive and Kicking. They soon returned to Hollywood (now at 20th Century Fox), working on films, coaching stars and performing. At one performance, Verdon caught the eye of New York City producer Cy Feuer, who convinced her to come back to the East Coast to dance in Can Can—a supporting role that became a critical favorite and won her a Tony Award. A young chorus girl named Conchita Del Rivero (Chita Rivera) was in that show. She recalls: “Gwen told me I’d be her understudy. But then she also told me to look for something that was all mine. That’s a heck of a thing for a star to tell a young girl. She cut my destiny.”
Verdon’s meeting with Fosse was not far off. Producer Harold Prince wanted her to play the role of seductress Lola in his new musical, Damn Yankees! But first she had to meet the young burgeoning choreographer himself. Leery of each other, the dancer and choreographer courted at a studio near Lincoln Center, with Fosse showing Verdon steps and Verdon quickly mastering them. It was a natural fit and the session was indicative of their work and personal relationship to come: Fosse the creator, Verdon the perfect vehicle. The sassy, iconic role of Lola became her signature, and it earned her another Tony.
From this point on, Fosse and Verdon became inseparable. She starred in four more of his original hits, including Chicago and Sweet Charity, and won Tony Awards for her roles in his New Girl in Town and Redhead. They married, had a daughter and then separated, but to the confusion of many, Fosse and Verdon never divorced. Instead they continued as collaborative partners with a unique, creative simpatico.
Unfortunately, Verdon’s artistic contributions to Fosse’s canon are often forgotten. And one might question if his creations would have been so intensely manifested without her, the incomparable performer, bringing them to life. For while Fosse’s style and technique have found many wonderful embodiments on other dancers, it was Verdon who set the standard. DT
Lauren Kay is an associate editor at Dance Spirit.
Photo courtesy of Dance Magazine archives
Bob Fosse’s Broadway, by Margery Beddow, Heinemann, 1996
All His Jazz: The Life and Death of Bob Fosse, by Martin Gottfried, Bantam Books, 1990
Unsung Genius: The Passion of Dancer-Choreographer Jack Cole, by Glenn Loney, Franklin Watts, 1984
Damn Yankees! (1958), Warner Home Video, 2004
The Cotton Club (1984), MGM Home Entertainment, 2001
Ready for the Quiz?
1. Name the famous scene from Damn Yankees! (1958) in which Gwen Verdon danced with Bob Fosse.
2. What was her invaluable trademark?
3. True or False: Verdon developed rickets as a youngster and was put into dance class to improve her shaky legs.
4. With whom did she become an obedient disciple of, serving as both a dancer and model on which he set work, after seeing his company perform in a Los Angeles nightclub?
5. Verdon caught the eye of New York City producer Cy Feuer, who convinced her to return to the East Coast to dance in what show? (Hint: Her supporting role in this show became a critical favorite and won her a Tony Award.)
6. What famous dancer claims that Verdon “cut my destiny”?
7. Fosse and Verdon’s first meeting was indicative of their work and personal relationship to come: Fosse the _________________, Verdon the _________________ ____________________.
8. The sassy, iconic role of _____________________ became Verdon’s signature, and earned her another Tony Award.
9. Name three original Fosse hits that she starred in.
10. True or False: Fosse and Verdon divorced shortly after having a daughter.
1. “Who’s Got the Pain” 2. Her sexy humor: She was a lady who was one of the boys, but also an object of desire for all men. 3. True 4. Jack Cole 5. Can Can 6. Chita Rivera 7. Creator; perfect vehicle 8. Lola, Damn Yankees! 9. Damn Yankees!, Chicago, Sweet Charity, New Girl in Town and/or Redhead 10. False: Fosse and Verdon never divorced. Instead they continued as collaborative partners with a unique, creative simpatico.
Photos courtesy of Dance Magazine archives