The Name on Everybody’s Lips is Gwen Verdon
With the TV miniseries Fosse/Verdon on is way to the small screen this April, I thought I would take some time to look back on one of Broadway’s most captivating triple-threats and honored leading ladies: Gwen Verdon. Gwen Verdon was a multi-Tony Award winner, playing a wide variety of roles, many of which became iconic thanks to her distinctive personality and voice, not to mention her nonpareil dance skills. Let’s take a stroll down memory lane and remember the one, the only, the unforgettable, Gwen Verdon and the Broadway musicals that she touched.
Magdalena (assistant choreographer)
Gwen Verdon’s first work on a Broadway musical was as Jack Cole’s assistant choreographer for the short-lived operetta Magdalena. Opening in 1948, the piece was an operetta that starred John Raitt and Dorothy Sarnoff. Though there are few details about Gwen’s contributions to the show, it was clear from early on that she was a respected dance talent. Fortunately, her career would continue toward this ability and before she long, she would find herself in the spotlight where she belongs.
Alive and Kicking
Alive and Kicking was a 1950 musical revue in which Gwen Verdon made her Broadway debut as a performer. Jack Cole, with whom she had worked on Magdalena, choreographed the show and made Gwen one of its highlights. Verdon was in good company, with a cast that included David Burns, Jack Cassidy, Jack Gilford, Carl Reiner, and Bobby Van. Alive and Kicking was a loosely connected series of sketches, songs and dances much in the vein of an installment of the Ziegfeld Follies or the revue As Thousands Cheer.
The musical that really elevated Gwen Verdon to stardom was the 1953 Cole Porter/Abe Burrows Can-Can. Set in a Paris during the 1890s, the musical starred the French chanteuse Lilo as La Mome Pistache, the proprietress of a dance hall where the lurid can-can dance had women dancers high-kicking and showing off their ankles (gasp). Verdon played a supporting role as Claudine one of the dancers. She ended up stealing the show dancing “The Garden of Eden Ballet”, staged by Michael Kidd. Verdon won a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
From supporting player to star of the show, Gwen Verdon’s next Broadway role was as Lola in the hit 1955 Adler and Ross musical Damn Yankees. Based on Douglas Wallop’s novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, Damn Yankees concerned a Washington Senators baseball fan who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for the chance to become a pro-ball player. Lola was the Devil’s minion, a kind-hearted woman who had no choice but serve her master. Verdon’s Lola was a combination of comedic genius, tremendous heart, and sexy vixen. She danced the “Hell” out of Bob Fosse’s choreography. Fosse was so taken with her abilities that he even carved out a specialty number for her within the show, the show-stopping “Who’s Got the Pain?” This time around, Verdon won Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical.
New Girl in Town
Bob Fosse must have been taken with Gwen Verdon (he did marry her, after all) since he was the choreographer (and sometimes, director) for the rest of the projects of her Broadway career. 1957 found the duo working together on the Bob Merrill/George Abbott musical New Girl in Town. Adapted from heavy Eugene O’Neill play Anna Christie, Verdon was cast as Anna, a hooker who is sick with tuberculosis and must return home after a long estrangement from her father. Verdon won her third Tony Award for New Girl in Town.
A convoluted murder mystery at best, a Tony-winning Best Musical in a lackluster year at the worst, Redhead (1959) featured a shining Verdon regardless of the show’s merits. Fosse directed and choreographed the show, doing a fine job despite the material. Verdon played Essie Whimple, the niece of two sisters who own a wax museum in Victorian,, London. When a murder occurs in the establishment, Essie gets a little too involved in the case, especially when trying to impress an actor of the English Music Hall who becomes involved in the case. By the end of the show, Essie is hiding as a performer in his show, a forced-opportunity for Verdon to perform some delightful show-within-a-show numbers staged with aplomb by Fosse. Both Verdon and Fosse won Tony Awards for their work.
Gwen Verdon was never more incandescent than as Charity Hope Valentine in the 1966 musical Sweet Charity based on the Frederico Fellini film The Nights of Cabiria. A dance hall hostess who wears her heart on her sleeve, Charity was unlucky in love. Sweet Charityis about her journey to find it. Verdon inhabited Charity: her naivete, her winsome charm, her unyielding optimism. Every Cy Coleman/Dorothy Fields song that she sang, every Bob Fosse step that she danced, radiated with something extra, something special. Unfortunately, Verdon was overlooked at the Tonys for her the role of her career, though one can hardly begrudge Angela Lansbury winning for Mame. Still, it would be nice if her Charity had been recognized for the revelation that it was.
For Verdon’s final Broadway musical, she would play Roxie Hart in the original 1975 production ofChicago. Playing a more-wicked character than she had in the past, she was still as loveable and wonderful as she had ever been, playing a liar, a cheat, an aspiring vaudeville star, and, of course, a murderer who uses her crime to help make her a star. Her renditions of “Funny Honey”, “Roxie”, and “Nowadays” seethed with boozy, jazzy fun. As was usually the case, she danced the Fosse choreography as if her body spoke his mind. During the show’s run, she was sidelined with health issues, but she nevertheless returned to the production. Once again, she was nominated for a Tony Award forChicago, her final Broadway performance, but Donna McKechnie took the prize for her role in a little musical known as A Chorus Line.