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Verdon, Gwen (1925–2000)

Verdon, Gwen (1925–2000)

American dancer, singer, and actress whose string of hits included Damn Yankees and Sweet Charity. Born Gwyneth Evelyn Verdon on January 13, 1925, in Los Angeles, California; died on October 18, 2000, in Woodstock, Vermont; daughter of William Verdon (a gardener) and Gertrude (Strandring) Verdon (a dancer); attended Hamilton High School in Los Angeles; married James Henaghan (a Hollywood journalist), in 1942 (divorced 1947); married Bob Fosse (a dancerchoreographer), in April 1960 (legally separated 1971,died 1987); children: (first marriage) one son, James, Jr.; (second marriage) one daughter, Nicole Fosse.

Selected theater:

Broadway debut in Alive and Kicking (1950); Claudine in Can-Can (1953); Lola in Damn Yankees (1955); Anna in New Girl in Town (1957); Essie Whimple in Redhead (1959); Charity Valentine in Sweet Charity (1966); Roxie Hart in Chicago (1975).

Selected filmography:

On the Riviera (1951); David and Bathsheba (1951); Meet Me After the Show (1951); The Mississippi Gambler (1953); The Farmer Takes a Wife (1953); Damn Yankees (1958); The Cotton Club (1984); Cocoon (1985); Nadine (1987); Cocoon: The Return (1988); Alice (1990); Marvin's Room (1996).

An irrepressible redhead whose high kicks and crackling voice won her four Tony Awards, Gwen Verdon was once described by critic Brooks Atkinson as having everything anyone could want in a musical performer. "She can portray character like a full licensed dramatic actress," he wrote in 1959. "She can sing in a russet-colored voice that is mighty pleasant to hear…. And Miss Verdon can dance with so much grace and gaiety that her other accomplishments seem to be frosting on the cake."

Gwyneth Evelyn Verdon was born in 1925, in Los Angeles, the daughter of British expatriates. Her father Joseph Verdon was a stage electrician at MGM and her mother Gertrude Strandring Verdon had been a member of the influential Denishawn modern-dance troupe (founded by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn). Throughout her childhood, Verdon wore kneehigh orthopedic boots to strengthen legs which had been weakened by several early illnesses. Still, her determined mother dragged her to dancing lessons from the age of two. At four, she appeared in her first dance recital and at six was billed at the Loew's State Theater as the "world's fastest tapper." During her teenage years, Verdon modeled and danced in the chorus at various night clubs.

Verdon's career was just getting off the ground when she eloped with Hollywood journalist James Henaghan, with whom she subsequently had a son, James, Jr. (Jimmy). When the marriage ended five years later, Verdon left her child with her parents and went back to work, joining the troupe of the talented and notoriously difficult choreographer Jack Cole. She made her Broadway debut in Cole's short-lived musical Alive and Kicking (1950), and through his connection with the Hollywood studios, obtained

some small dancing roles in several films. She also worked as a movement coach for such stars as Lana Turner, Betty Grable , and Jane Russell .

In 1953, at the suggestion of choreographer Michael Kidd, Verdon auditioned for the musical Can-Can, and won a part as a featured dancer. The show starred the temperamental French actress-singer Lilo , who was so threatened by Gwen's talent that she had Verdon's numbers whittled down in out-of-town tryouts. However, on opening night, Verdon's Apache dance brought the audience to their feet. They remained standing and chanting her name even after the dancer had exited to her dressing room for a costume change, and one of the producers had to fetch her back on stage for a curtain call before the show could continue. It was thus, at age 28, Verdon won her first Tony Award and made her presence known on the musical stage.

Verdon's next Broadway role was Lola, the devil's beguiling assistant, in the Adler and Ross musical Damn Yankees (1955), based on Douglass Wallop's novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant. Verdon, still stinging from her first Broadway experience, signed on mainly for the opportunity to work with the bright new choreographer Bob Fosse. As it turned out, dancer and choreographer forged not only an artistic collaboration but a love match. Years later, Fosse told the Los Angeles Times, "People ask if I created Gwen and I say, 'She was hot when I met her. That alabaster skin, those eyes, that bantamrooster walk. Her in the leotard I will never forget.'" For Verdon, Fosse provided the direction she needed. "Bob choreographs down to the second joint of your little finger," she once said.

Verdon won a second Tony for her portrayal of Lola, bringing the house down with her rendition of "Whatever Lola Wants," a locker-room seduction scene in which she danced a seductive but playful striptease. "She was absolutely magic onstage," said Ray Walston, who portrayed the cunning, lovable devil. "I would glance into the first five or six rows, and all eyes were glued on Gwen." Verdon later reprised the role of Lola in the 1968 movie, stipulating before signing the film contract that no part of her performance would be cut without her permission.

Verdon won two subsequent Tonys for her roles in New Girl in Town (1957) and Redhead (1959), both of which were directed and choreographed by Fosse. In the former, an unlikely musical adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's bleak waterfront tale Anna Christie, Verdon had as much of an opportunity to act as dance, and she proved capable of the challenge. "The finest thing in New Girl in Town is Miss Verdon's reticent, moving performance as Anna," wrote Brooks Atkinson about her portrayal of the unhappy ex-prostitute who is redeemed by love. "There is nothing hackneyed or superficial about [her] acting. It is an illuminating portrait of a wretched inarticulate creature." Redhead, the story of Essie Whimple, an English spinster transformed into a music-hall performer, also gave Verdon ample opportunity to emote, but it was the Fosse dances, everything from tangos to ragtime, that stole the show. "The amount of physical activity in which this frail-seeming creature indulges is perfectly flabbergasting," wrote Kenneth Tynan in The New Yorker, "spinning, prancing, leaping, curvetting, she is seldom out of sight and never out of breath. Yet beneath the athletic ebullience is something more rarified—an unfailing delicacy of spirit."

After her marriage to Fosse in 1960, Verdon retired from performing, giving birth to their only child Nicole Fosse in 1963. It would be six years before she would return to the stage to play a dancer in Sweet Charity (1966), a show developed especially for her and again both directed and choreographed by her husband. Despite lukewarm reviews, the show ran for 600 performances, although Verdon was forced by fatigue to surrender the lead to Helen Gallagher before the end of the run. In the later film version of the show, Verdon lost out to the younger Shirley MacLaine .

Meanwhile, Verdon's marriage was in trouble, due to Fosse's numerous affairs. In 1971, the couple separated, although they never divorced. Verdon starred in the original production of Fosse's Chicago in 1975, sharing the stage with Chita Rivera and Jerry Orbach in what Clive Barnes called "three superlative, knock-em-inthe aisles performances by three stars who glitter like gold dust all evening." It was, however, Verdon's farewell Broadway performance; Ann Reinking , Fosse's paramour at the time, succeeded her in the role and also restaged Fosse's choreography for a later revival of the show.

Despite their marital woes and separation, Verdon and Fosse continued their working collaboration. Verdon served as supervisor of his 1978 musical Dancin', and also worked on his 1979 autobiographical film All That Jazz. She was with him in 1987 when he suffered a fatal heart attack on a Washington street shortly after the opening of the revival of Sweet Charity. Following his death, she was instrumental in helping to preserve his remarkable dance legacy, in which she had played such an important part.

Verdon's later work included the made-for-television movie "Legs" (1983) and several films, notably Cocoon (1985), Cocoon: The Return (1988), and Marvin's Room (1996). In August 2000, the dancer moved to Vermont to help her daughter, the mother of three, whose husband had been killed by a drunk driver. Verdon died there in her sleep on October 18, at age 75. That evening, the League of American Theaters and Producers arranged for the lights of Broadway's marquees to be dimmed at eight o'clock in her memory.


Charles, Nick, Lucia Green, and Lorenzo Benet. "Show Stopper," in People Weekly. November 6, 2000.

Current Biography 1960. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1960.

Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: Harper-Collins, 1994.

"Obituary," in The New York Times. October 19, 2000.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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