One of the quintessential Broadway stars, Gwen Verdon, was one of the most energetic talents ever to grace the Great White Way. She carved out a special niche in the world of dance as the muse of famous director and choreographer Bob Fosse. Verdon was the anti-Ethel – while Ethel Merman was implacable and blunt, Verdon specializes in sweetly damaged sexuality. She plays roles like dance hall girls, temptresses, mistresses, and prostitutes – but even when at her sexiest form, she still remains the charm and vulnerability.
Verdon won four Tony Awards in the 1950s alone, and her husband, Bob Fosse choreographed three of these shows. But long before Fosse was in the picture, Verdon was already wowing audiences with her moves, charm, and talent.
Gwyneth Evelyn Verdon (January 13, 1925-October 18, 2000) was born in Culver City, California. Her parents, Gertrude Lilian, and Joseph William Verdon are British immigrants to the United States. Her mother was a former vaudevillian and a dance teacher, while her father was an electrician at MGM Studios.
When she was a toddler, Verdon suffered from rickets, which left her legs badly misshapen. She had to walk with orthopedic boots and rigid leg braces. Her mother enrolled her in dance classes at the age of three, and ballet training has strengthened her legs. At the age of six, she can dance on stage. Besides ballet, she also studied multiple dance forms like a tap, jazz, ballroom, Balinese, and flamenco. She attended a high school in Los Angeles and studied under ballet enthusiast Ernest Belcher. While she was in high school, she was cast on a revival of the musical Show Boat.
Verdon began dancing in a repertory company at the age of 15 and in a nightclub the following year. When she got pregnant at 17 years old, her parents asked her to marry their family friend and tabloid reporter James Henaghan, the father of her child. After marrying him, she quit her dancing career to raise her child. She got divorced five years later and entrusted her son Jimmy to her parents.
When she started working again, she quickly found a job as an assistant to choreographer Jack Cole, who was a reputable choreographer by both Broadway and Hollywood movie studios. During her employment with Cole, she took small, uncredited roles in movie musicals as a specialty dancer. She has also choreographed to the stars such as Jane Russel, Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe, Lana Turner, Fernando Lamas, and Rita Hayworth.
Verdon debuted on Broadway, going from one chorus line to another. Her breakthrough role came in 1953 when she starred as the second female lead in Cole Porter’s Can-Can. Her performance upstaged the show’s star, who demanded Verdon’s role to be cut to only two dance numbers. But during the opening night, her Garden of Eden performance was very well-received that the audience screamed her name. She received her first Tony Award for her outstanding performance.
Her biggest success, both critically and commercially, was George Abbott’s Damn Yankees (1955), which was a musical that ran for 1,019 performances. Starring as the lead actress, she won another Tony Award and went to Hollywood to reprise her role in the 1958 film adaptation.
Verdon won her third Tony award for playing the role of Anna, a girl fleeing from her past as a prostitute, in the musical New Girl in Town (1957). In 1959, she won her fourth Tony Award for the murder-mystery musical Redhead, which was Bob Fosse’s debut as a director and choreographer. The year after that, Verdon and Fosse got married.
She returned to the stage in 1966, playing the role of Charity in Sweet Charity, a musical choreographed and directed by her husband. She would also travel with Fosse to help choreographing his musical film Cabaret. The two worked in a lot of projects together and became Broadway and Hollywood’s power couple. Still, the challenges of their personal and professional lives led to the disintegration of their marriage. The couple official separated in 1971, yet remained friends and frequent collaborators after. They are also never legally divorced. Verdon had a child with Fosse named Nicole.
Verdon continued to collaborate with Fosse on projects such as the musical Chicago (1975), where she originated the role of Roxie Hart. She got nominated for a Tony Award for this role. She also developed a close working relationship with Ann Reinking, a Broadway dancer, and Fosse’s partner.
Film and Television Career
After appearing in Chicago, Verdon focused on acting on the big screen, starring in movies such as The Cotton Club (1984), Cocoon (1985), and Cocoon: The Return (1988). She also appeared as Alice’s mother in the Woody Allen movie Alice (1990), and as Ruth in Marvin’s Room (1996), where she co-starred with Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep, and Leonardo DiCaprio. She also appeared in Walking Across Egypt (1999) and in Bruno (2000).
Verdon had special appearances in episodes of several television shows, including M*A*S*H (1981), Fame (1982), All My Children (1982), Gimme a Break! (1984), Webster (1986), Dear John (1989), Key West (1993), The Cosby Mysteries (1994), In Cold Blood (1996), Touched by an Angel (1997), Walker, Texas Ranger (1997-1999), and Promised Land (1998). She got nominated thrice for Emmy Awards for her appearances on Magnum P.I. (1998), Dream On (1993), and Homicide: Life on the Street (1993).
Gwen Verdon died in her sleep at her daughter’s home at the age of 75 on October 18, 2000. Later that night, all marquee lights on Broadway were dimmed as a tribute to her.
- Theatre World Awards (1953)
- Best Featured Actress in a Musical, Tony Award (1954) – Can-Can
- Best Actress in a Musical, Tony Award (1956) – Damn Yankees
- Best Actress in a Musical, Tony Award (1958) – New Girl in Town
- Best Actress in a Musical, Tony Award (1959) – Redhead
- Best Broadway Show Album, Grammy Awards (1959) – Redhead
- Outstanding Performance, Outer Critics Circle (1966) – Sweet Charity