The definitive Broadway dancer of the 20th century, Gwyneth Evelyn Verdon was born on January 13, 1925, in Culver City, California. A childhood case of rickets left her legs deformed. As therapy, her mother, a dancer with RUTH ST. DENIS’s Denishawn troupe, enrolled her in dance classes when she was only two. Gwen studied a wide range of dance styles, including ballet, ballroom dancing, and tap. By age six, she was a professional dancer, often billed as “the fastest little tapper in the world.” With fiaming red hair and alabaster skin, her beauty won her the Miss California title when she was 14. In 1941, Verdon eloped with James Henaghan, a Hollywood Reporter journalist. After five years, they divorced, and she resumed her dance career. They had one child, James.
Verdon won a spot as an assistant to Jack Cole, a noted Hollywood dance coach. Under his direction, she made her Broadway debut in 1950 in Alive and Kicking, but the musical was a commercial failure. While working with Cole, she became the leading interpreter of his expressive, sometimes erotic dance style. She appeared as a specialty dancer in several films, including On the Riviera (1951) and Mississippi Gambler (1953), in which she choreographed her own movements. She was also hired to teach stars such as MARILYN MONROE and BETTY GRABLE how to move seductively on screen. Eager to get out from under Cole’s thumb, Verdon accepted an invitation from choreographer Michael Kidd to audition for his Broadway show Can-Can. Cast as the second female lead, she stole the show during its tryouts. The show’s jealous lead, the French actress Lilo, insisted Verdon’s role be cut back. Verdon was so annoyed that she announced that she would soon be leaving the production. The night Can-Can premiered on Broadway, however, Verdon became an instant star. After she performed her first number, she rushed to her dressing room for a costume change. She did not hear the audience chanting her name until a producer brought Verdon, wearing her bathrobe, back onstage for a curtain call. After winning her first Tony for Can-Can, Verdon became the hottest dancer in musical theater.
Her next show was Damn Yankees, the story of a baseball fan willing to sell his soul to see his favorite team win. Verdon appeared as Lola, the devil’s helper, and performed a memorably seductive dance to the song “Whatever Lola Wants.”The musical ran for more than 1,000 performances and won Verdon a second Tony Award. Verdon also starred in the film adaptation in 1958. Damn Yankees marked the beginning of her collaboration with choreographer Bob Fosse. They worked together on New Girl in Town (1957) and Redhead (1959), for which Verdon was awarded two more Tonys. In 1960, she and Fosse were married. After the birth of their daughter, Nicole, in 1963, Verdon briefiy retired from show business. In 1966, she was lured back to star in Sweet Charity, a musical about a dance-hall girl that was directed and choreographed by her husband. Exhausted by its long run, Verdon surrendered the lead to Helen Gallagher before the show’s close.
Shirley MacLaine took over the part for the 1969 film version, though Verdon generously coached her for it. In 1971, Verdon and Fosse were legally separated, though they never divorced. They continued their working relationship, most notably in Verdon’s last musical, Chicago (1975). Verdon originated the role of Roxie Hart, a gold digger acquitted of shooting her lover. Audiences considered the show too dark and cynical in its first run, though it was revived to great acclaim in 1996. Her dancing days over, Verdon began taking straight acting roles in the 1980s. She appeared in small parts in several films, among them Cocoon (1985) and Marvin’s Room (1996). Verdon also was a guest on many television series including Magnum, P .I. and Homicide. Her television work won her three Emmy nominations. After Fosse’s death in 1987, Verdon emerged as a guardian of his artistic legacy. In 1999, she collaborated with dancer Ann Reinking—Fosse’s former lover—on the dance revue Fosse, which was awarded a Tony for best musical. The following year, Gwen Verdon died on October 18 at her daughter’s home in Woodstock, New York. That night, the lights of Broadway were dimmed in her memory.
Berkvist, Robert. “Gwen Verdon, Redhead Who High Kicked Her Way to Stardom, Dies at 75.” The New York Times, October 19, 2000, p. 21.
Grubb, Kevin Boyd. Razzle Dazzle: The Life and Work of Bob Fosse. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Damn Yankees (1958). Warner Home Video, VHS, 1991.