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Sweet Rarity

Remembering Gwen Verdon -- Bob Fosse's inspiration was perhaps Broadway's greatest dancer

Remembering Gwen Verdon

During the out-of-town tryouts of Cole Porter's Can-Can in 1953, Gwen Verdon, then an unknown 28-year-old dancer, repeatedly stopped the show in her featured numbers. The ovations drew the ire of Can-Can's star, the French actress Lilo, who saw to it that this sassy upstart's role was diminished. To no avail. When the musical hit Broadway shortly thereafter, critics hailed an incandescent originality, daring, and humor that made the sexy, carrot-topped Verdon a legend in musicals like Damn Yankees, Sweet Charity, and Chicago.

Verdon's death at age 75 on Oct. 18 was attributed to natural causes. But a mournful Broadway — refusing to believe anything natural about the extinguishing of such a spirit — dimmed its marquees in honor of the four-time Tony Award winner.

''Gwen had this unique brightness, swiftness, and focus,'' said Chita Rivera, who was a dancer in Can-Can and later, in 1975, Verdon's co-star in the original production of Chicago. ''She taught me how beautiful dancers, who were thought of mainly as workhorses, could be.''

Though Verdon appeared on TV and in film (1985's Cocoon, 1996's Marvin's Room, and, most memorably, re-creating her stage role as Lola in 1958's Damn Yankees), she was a true creature of the theater. Born in L.A. to British expats (mother Gertrude was a vaudevillian and dancer; father Joseph, an MGM studio electrician), Verdon was tapping on stage by age six, having literally pulled herself up by the straps of the corrective boots she'd had to wear since infancy to straighten out legs weakened and misshapen by illness. Her career hit its stride with the 1955 stage version of Damn Yankees, whose choreographer was the brilliant young Bob Fosse — whom Verdon would marry in 1960 and whose signature work she introduced in New Girl in Town, Redhead, Sweet Charity, and Chicago. ''Gwen had this incredible sex appeal though she never thought of herself as sexy,'' recalls Rivera. ''She could do a bump but never in a million years could she be vulgar.''

Although Verdon and Fosse separated in the early '70s, they never divorced and continued to be close and professionally involved until his 1987 death. (A character based on her, drawn with affection and warmth, figures prominently in Fosse's autobiographical film, All That Jazz.) Verdon last danced on Broadway in '76 but she oversaw the creation of the current hit Fosse with the couple's daughter, Nicole, and Ann Reinking, the actress-dancer who was her successor in Fosse's life.

Fred Ebb, the lyricist of Chicago, said that he had often shared a bus ride home after a performance with the unassuming Verdon and was regaled by her Hollywood tales. As an assistant to choreographer Jack Cole before Broadway beckoned, Verdon taught movement to, among others, Lana Turner, Marilyn Monroe, and Jane Russell. ''Gwen was a very funny woman, on stage and off,'' says Ebb. ''She was extremely singular: that ability as a dancer, that range as an actress, that rare comedic skill. Because she was incapable of being fake, she could root everything in a sort of reality. She's like a textbook of musical comedy perfection, someone for every dancer to study, every actress to analyze. I don't think I'll know anybody better than Gwen my whole life.''

Originally posted Nov 03, 2000 Published in issue #567 Nov 03, 2000 Order article reprints