Broadway Musical Legend Gwen Verdon Is Dead at 75

Obituaries   Broadway Musical Legend Gwen Verdon Is Dead at 75 Gwen Verdon, one of the quintessential Broadway musical stars of the 20th century, died in her sleep during the night of Oct. 17-18. She was in Woodstock, VT, where she was visiting her daughter, Nicole Greiner, said a spokesman for the show Fosse, in which Verdon had a hand. She was 75.
Gwen Verdon in Sweet Charity (1966) and at the Fosse opening night party in 1999.
Gwen Verdon in Sweet Charity (1966) and at the Fosse opening night party in 1999. (Photo by <i>Fosse</i> photo by Aubrey Reuben)

Gwen Verdon, one of the quintessential Broadway musical stars of the 20th century, died in her sleep during the night of Oct. 17-18. She was in Woodstock, VT, where she was visiting her daughter, Nicole Greiner, said a spokesman for the show Fosse, in which Verdon had a hand. She was 75.

Ms. Verdon received four Tony Awards over the course of her three-decade stage career, all for legendary performances: Can-Can in 1953; Damn Yankees in 1955; New Girl in Town in 1958 (in a tie with Thelma Ritter); and 1959 for Redhead. She was also nominated for two other landmark portrayals, in Sweet Charity and Chicago.

Among theatre professionals and theatregoers, Ms. Verdon's name was a byword for verve, sass and vivacity; "a gem of light-hearted but consecrated show business," as Harold Clurman put it. She was widely recognized as a rare, true triple-threat, equally adept at dancing, singing and acting. Her voice had a rough-hewn, grainy quality, but fans found her interpretations of some of musical theatre's most fetching songs ("Whatever Lola Wants," "If My Friends Could See Me Now," "Where Am I Going," "Roxie," "Nowadays") to be true originals, full of feeling.

She was married to choreographer Bob Fosse, who guided her through many of her most memorable stage appearances. The couple separated but remained friends and colleagues, and, of course, shared a daughter, Nicole. Fosse died in 1987 after collapsing on a Washington DC street, with Ms. Verdon at his side, during the time of a revival of Sweet Charity, recognized as one of two signature shows for Ms. Verdon (the other being Damn Yankees).

Ms. Verdon was born to Joseph William and Gertrude Verdon on Jan. 13, 1925, in Culver City, CA. She studied with choreographer Jack Cole, assisting him on the shows Magdalena and Alive and Kicking; she made her Broadway debut in the latter show in January 1950. Ms. Verdon would come to dominate the American musical theatre in the 1950's. In the supporting role of Claudine, she was the highlight of Cole Porter's Can-Can. According to David Sheward in "It's a Hit," she stopped the show twice on opening night. "At the conclusion of one number," wrote Sheward, "Verdon left the stage, went to her dressing room and changed into her bathrobe. The audience was still applauding and would not let the performance continue until Verdon took another bow, which she did dressed in her bathrobe."

Her most emblematic performance, however, was probably that of the sexy, volatile seductress and devil's assistant, Lola — as in "Whatever Lola Wants (Lola Gets)" — in Richard Adler and Jerry Ross' Damn Yankees. The image of Ms. Verdon in black corset, legs apart, hands on hips, on the original cast album cover is still familiar to millions. (That picture is credited in some histories with making the show a hit.)

The show helped cement the reputations of both Ms. Verdon and her choreographer, Fosse. The collaboration, one of the most symbiotic in theatre history, would continue through New Girl in Town, Redhead, Sweet Charity and Chicago. Indeed, Ms. Verdon was often regarded as the living embodiment of the Fosse style — jazzy, sinuous, sexy and fun. They married in 1960. (An earlier marriage by Verdon ended in divorce.) Their separation came long before they stopped working together. The couple never officially divorced. They appeared together in the 1958 film, "Damn Yankees," singing and dancing the specialty mambo number, "Who's Got the Pain?"

By the end of the '50s, people were building shows around Ms. Verdon. Albert Hague and Dorothy Fields wrote Redhead, the title a reminder of Ms. Verdon's signature fiery mop of bobbed hair. She later toured the nation with the show, in which she played Essie Whimple. Harold Clurman's opinion of the show was typical: "It would be easy but not quite accurate to say that its sole attraction is Gwen Verdon... She has an extremely ingratiating speaking voice, a lovely figure, fine eyes; she dances delightfully and acts with charming spontaneity. Yet all these attributes, valuable as they are, do not explain the `mystery' which gives her — or any almost similarly endowed player — a star quality."

Ms. Verdon repeated her turn as Lola in the film version of "Damn Yankees," but otherwise never carved out much of a name for herself in the movies. Indeed, her next film job came in 1984 in "The Cotton Club." Other late-career film credits include "Alice," "Marvin's Room" and, memorably, "Cocoon" and "Cocoon: The Return."

Her greatest stage triumph of the '60s was Sweet Charity, a musicalization by Cy Coleman, Dorothy Fields and Neil Simon of the Fellini film "The Nights of Cabiria," about the adventures of a spirited and hopeful Rome prostitute. Cabiria's name was changed to Charity Hope Valentine and her profession made the less licentious one of dance hall hostess. The locale was shifted to New York City. In the show, Ms. Verdon was spotlighted in "If My Friends Could See Me Now," "I'm a Brass Band," "Charity's Soliloquy," "You Should See Yourself," "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This" and one of Fields' most searching lyrics, "Where Am I Going," which Ms. Verdon's strained, warbling voice on the cast album makes more powerful because she sounds so stricken and unsure. She was said to have breathed a feather into her throat in one scene in Charity and it forever affected her vocal cords.

(On the evening of Oct. 18, the cabaret artist Sally Mayes dedicated a pairing of "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This" and "Where Am I Going" at the Firebird in Manhattan to Ms. Verdon, without explanation of her passing. People in the theatre community were shocked by news of Ms. Verdon's passing and were digesting the loss Oct. 18. She had been an inspiration to generations of dancers.)

Sweet Charity ran over 600 performances and Ms. Verdon, always a trouper, was in it much of that time. The film, like the musical, was directed by Bob Fosse (his movie debut), though the starring role went to Shirley MacLaine. Ms. Verdon was said to have coached MacLaine throughout, and the famous bedroom scene in which Charity sings "If My Friends Could See Me Now" largely matches the performance Ms. Verdon gave on stage. Her earler Charity work is preserved on old "Ed Sullivan Show" tapes. Indeed, Ms. Verdon made a number of appearances on TV variety programs in which she danced wildly in specialty numbers not from Broadway shows. Her TV appearances over the years also included "MASH," "Fame," "Trapper John MD," "Webster," "Magnum PI," "Dear John," "The Equalizer," "Homicide" and more. She was artistic advisor on the Emmy Award-winning Fosse documentary, "Steam Heat."

Ms. Verdon's last major stage role was in 1975's Chicago, by Fosse, Fred Ebb and John Kander, with Fosse again directing and choreographing. Verdon was paired with another musical theatre veteran, Chita Rivera, as a couple of merry murderesses trying to beat the rap in 1920's Chicago. Though the production was successful enough to run 898 performances, it was largely overshadowed at awards time by A Chorus Line, which opened a few months later. It wasn't until the 1996 revival (still running), that Chicago received its due as a musical.

Liza Minnelli famously substituted for Ms. Verdon early in the run of Chicago, when the latter required throat surgery.

Many of the events surrounding the often-troubled development process surrounding Chicago were dramatized in Fosse's 1979 autobiographical film, "All That Jazz." In the movie, a Verdon-like character was played by Leland Palmer.

In recent years, Ms. Verdon helped keep alive the legacy of her husband, lending her wisdom and experience as a creative consultant to the Broadway revue, Fosse. In that show, many dances first made famous by Ms. Verdon are recreated by other dancers. Ann Reinking recreated Fosse's work for both Chicago and Fosse. Ms. Verdon's bio in the Fosse Playbill says, "Thank you, Annie Reinking, for bringing Bob Fosse back to Broadway." Reinking was not available to speak Oct. 18.

Plans for a memorial service are forthcoming.

In a radio interview Ms. Verdon gave on the opening night of Sweet Charity in 1966, she said this of her most indelible musical theatre creation, the taxi dancer Charity Hope Valentine: "I like the character of Charity because she's so hopeful. She's never bitter, and plenty of things happen to her that could make her bitter. She always thinks tomorrow's going to be beautiful. And someday it will be."