Gwen Verdon Remembered: Dancers React to the Death of a Legend

News   Gwen Verdon Remembered: Dancers React to the Death of a Legend Jane Lanier, the dancer who performed numbers originated by the late Gwen Verdon in the original company of Fosse in 1999, said she imagined the energy level at the Oct. 19 performance of the show would be "at 300 percent" in honor of Verdon, who died Oct. 18.

Jane Lanier, the dancer who performed numbers originated by the late Gwen Verdon in the original company of Fosse in 1999, said she imagined the energy level at the Oct. 19 performance of the show would be "at 300 percent" in honor of Verdon, who died Oct. 18.

The legendary Verdon was 75 when she died in her sleep at her daughter Nicole's house in Vermont. A four-time Tony Award winner and longtime partner and colleague of the late choreographer-director Bob Fosse, Verdon was artistic advisor to Fosse, the hit Broadway revue at the Broadhurst Theatre, and helped teach a new generation of dancers the unique steps and style of Fosse.

The Broadway Fosse company had its weekly day off Oct. 18, and many performers learned of her death via the internet or from phone calls from friends. The show went on Oct. 19 as scheduled, with choreographer Ann Reinking speaking to the combined casts of Fosse and Chicago on the stage of the Broadhurst before their performances (the shows, which Verdon, Reinking and Fosse are intimately linked to, are next door to one another).

At the end of the Oct. 19 Fosse performance, actress-dancer Stephanie Pope, spoke to the audience and asked for a moment of silence in memory of Verdon. The national touring company is currently playing in Columbus, OH.

Reactions from Verdon's friends and colleagues include a statement from two-time Tony Award winner Chita Rivera, who starred with Verdon in Chicago. Rivera was on a plane heading to see her own daughter in California when the news broke that Verdon had died. Rivera later said, "The 'greatest' has left us. My partner and my inspiration. There was one and only one… and there will never be another. The heavens will shine beyond our imagination from her light." Director-choreographer Ann Reinking, who shared personal and professional connections with Verdon over the years, including working closely together on the revue, Fosse, was not available to comment.

Lanier, who left the show a year ago, said by telephone from California that she considered Verdon a friend and was awed by her energy and talent. They had worked together previously when Lanier was cast in the ensemble of the revival of Sweet Charity in 1985 (the show was recreated by Fosse with Verdon's assistance; the 1966 tuner was a signature show for Verdon, along with 1955's Damn Yankees, in which she played the vamp named Lola).

"She was harder on us than Bob," Lanier admitted. "I remember her teaching us 'Big Spender' and she was so intense. We would do it over and over and over and over again."

What Verdon didn't tell the dancers in rehearsals was the sure fire response they would get in their deadpan, fish-eyed portrayal of jaded taxi dancers. The number is all about isolated movements and humorless expressions — the dance hall hostesses were bored and soulless in their jobs. The effect is outrageously comic, and the first time the actresses did it for an audience, the crowd roared its approval and howled with laughter.

"That was the most electrifying feeling I've ever had on stage," Lanier said. "That night [in the tryout] in L.A. in 1985."

Lanier said she did not grow up in the Broadway world, where young women dancers aspired to be Gwen Verdon — the gifted gypsy who becomes a star but never forgets her roots. "I knew who she was, but I grew up as a ballerina in Indiana in a non showbiz family," Lanier said.

"When I did Sweet Charity with her and Bob, and got the opportunity to see her live, it was better than anything I ever imagined. Watching her, nobody could do it like she could..."

Lanier had "pretty much given up dancing for five years," when Verdon suggested she come back to perform as one of two featured players in Fosse — to play the signature Fosse muse, a redhead in the tradition of Shirley MacLaine, Carol Haney and Verdon.

"She knew me [from Sweet Charity], we were friends, she called me when my first son was born," Lanier recalled. "She knew my work and I think that she thought I could do it. She thought I could help recreate what those three ladies did."

Although Verdon had retired from public dancing, lucky dancers in the Sweet Charity revival and Fosse routinely saw her warmup, demonstrate moves, recreate steps and genuinely strut, well into her senior years.

Andy Blankenbuehler, also of the original Fosse cast, said he was always aware that a legend was in the room, but Verdon made herself out as just another gypsy.

By phone from Connecticut, where he is choreographing Goodspeed Opera House's Red, Hot and Blue, he told Playbill On-Line he was "totally shocked" when he heard the news of Verdon's death. "It was a year ago that she would be in warmup with us, dancing and showing us steps," he said. "She never showed any sign of life being heavy on her. She was always there to pick everybody else up."

Although she did not perform publicly, she wowed the audience at the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS Easter Bonnet show in 1999 with a few impromptu steps. The crowd went wild.

Blankenbuehler said he met Verdon at an early workshop for Fosse eight years ago. The first day of it, she introduced herself.

"She took me by the hands and she explained the steps to me, and it was an amazing moment," he said.

He was later a part of the original Tony Award-winning company, and she coached him in the Fosse style for his performance of "From This Moment On," from the film of "Kiss Me, Kate."

"We would bleed for that work because it was so important," he said. "We went through a difficult process, an exhausting experience. She was the singular person that made us glad we were there."

Blankenbuehler recalls doing warmup stretches and looking between his legs and seeing Verdon beside him, in her black tights and white sneakers — "right next to me!"

He added, "I think we were very aware of being with a legend, but she was so like your mother or grandmother. You're in the room with a legend who wants to share the room with you. It's not that we were privileged to be around her, but to be with her. She was always a team player."

Actress-dancer Valerie Wright (Steel Pier, Annie Get Your Gun) was one of countless performers who, as a young woman, looked up to Verdon. If you ask women dancers on Broadway who they always wanted to be, chances are, Wright agreed, they would say, "Gwen Verdon."

"I saw [the film version] of Damn Yankees when I was in college and I couldn't believe what I was watching," Wright said by telephone from Philadelphia, where she is in rehearsals. "My mom had long talked about Gwen Verdon. Every performer finds somebody in her youth that they feel a kinship toward and that person becomes their inspiration, whether it's because of body type or sensibility. She was it."

Wright played Lola in the national tour of the revised revival of Damn Yankees, and, in 1998, played Essie Whimple in the rare revival of the Verdon vehicle, Redhead, at Goodspeed Opera House. Verdon came to Goodspeed to see the show and Wright got to meet her idol.

"I later wrote to her and said she was the standard that we all strive to meet," said Wright. "I think that she wasn't 'just a dancer.' She moves you and that is a combination of being able to dance like that and be completely vulnerable all at the same time. I think that kind of fragility is very human, but dancers tend to be very far away from it. They put on a real hardness. You very rarely see a dancer with that kind of softness and that openness — so everybody could really be let in."