Gwen Verdon; Dancer, Actress Won 4 Tony Awards in 6 Years
Gwen Verdon, the brilliant Broadway dancer who won four Tony Awards within six years in the 1950s, died of natural causes at her daughter’s home in Woodstock, Vt., Tuesday evening. She was 75.
Verdon was best known for her work with the late choreographer Bob Fosse, who also became her husband. In recent years, she no longer danced publicly, but she kept the Fosse flame alive as a teacher and as an organizer of such projects as “Fosse,” the dance revue that won the Tony for best musical in 1999.
For the record:
12:00 a.m. Oct. 20, 2000 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 20, 2000 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 6 Metro Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Verdon film--The obituary of dancer and actress Gwen Verdon in Thursday’s Times contained an incorrect reference to the sequel of the movie “Cocoon.” It was called “Cocoon: The Return.”
Her dancing was characterized by her ability to make the most intricate technical choreography look spontaneous and almost carefree.
“Verdon was to Broadway dance what Ethel Merman was to Broadway song: an archetypal personality whose talents inspired the best from those who created works for her,” said Times dance critic Lewis Segal. “More than anyone, Fosse continually mined her saucy yet vulnerable stage persona for new facets, using her as a living anthology of show-dance style.”
Verdon’s Broadway breakthrough in “Can-Can” in 1953 was storybook material. Cast as the second female lead, she saw her part diminished so much in pre-Broadway tryouts--reportedly because of jealousy from the show’s French star, Lilo--that Verdon gave formal notice that she would leave the cast.
But her performance in only two numbers on opening night created such a sensation that she got not only a pay raise but later her first Tony.
“I remember the first time I saw her, in ‘Can-Can,’ ” Fosse told The Times in 1985. “People ask if I created Gwen, and I say, ‘She was hot when I met her.’ That alabaster skin, those eyes, that bantam rooster walk. Her in the leotard I will never forget.”
After “Can-Can,” Verdon created the role of Lola in “Damn Yankees,” choreographed by Fosse. “Marilyn Monroe wanted the part, but I wanted Gwen,” he said.
“Damn Yankees” brought Verdon her second Tony, and she later played Lola in the movie version.
She won her third and fourth Tonys in 1958 and 1959, for “New Girl in Town,” a musical based on Eugene O’Neill’s “Anna Christie” and choreographed by Fosse, and “Redhead,” which Fosse directed as well as choreographed, in which she played a spinster who becomes a music-hall star.
Although the shows are largely forgotten today, Verdon’s performances drew raves. “The amount of physical activity in which this frail-seeming creature indulges is perfectly flabbergasting,” wrote critic Kenneth Tynan, describing Verdon’s “Redhead” performance in the New Yorker. “Yet beneath the athletic ebullience is something more rarefied--an unfailing delicacy of spirit.”
Although she stopped performing professionally over the last few years, she kept dancing until virtually the end of her life. Choreographer Alan Johnson, who observed her working with the young dancers auditioning for the London production of “Fosse” last winter, recalled that “she danced all day. She rolled on the floor, jumped in the air. Her hair was sopping wet. The dancers realized they weren’t just auditioning--they were getting a master class from a master.”
Born in Culver City, where her father was an MGM electrician, Verdon was hardly the most ebullient of children at first. She suffered from rickets, which weakened her legs and required her to wear corrective boots.
She later recalled that other children would cry out, “Here comes Gimpy!” as she approached. But her mother, a former dancer, enrolled Gwen in dance classes when she was 2 years old. By the age of 6, she was billed as “the world’s fastest tapper” in some of the big theaters of downtown L.A.
Verdon’s training wasn’t limited to tap. “You can’t believe the things I studied when I was a kid,” she told The Times in 1996. “We even learned how to juggle! I studied Spanish dancing, flamenco, ballroom, East Indian, Afro-Cuban, you name it.” She also attended public schools, including L.A.’s Hamilton High.
Verdon appeared in the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera’s first revival of “Show Boat,” but her career was diverted by marriage to Hollywood reporter James Henaghan when she was 17. The marriage ended five years later.
Soon after her divorce, Verdon began working for jazz dance pioneer and Hollywood dance coach Jack Cole. She taught steps to such stars as Monroe and Betty Grable, emerging from behind the scenes only occasionally--as one of Cole’s dancers in the brief Broadway musical “Alive and Kicking” in 1950 and in small dance roles in several movies. But her string of Broadway hits soon ended her anonymity.
She appeared less often in the ‘60s, shifting her emphasis to raising her daughter, Nicole, but she did score a triumph in “Sweet Charity” in 1966. In her final performance in a Broadway musical, she created the role of Roxie Hart in “Chicago” in 1975. It “displayed her ability to make the worst possible behavior into a form of social parody, in which she remained delectably, inimitably winsome,” The Times’ Segal said.
Fosse and Verdon married in 1960 and separated in 1971. But they never divorced, and they remained friends. In 1978, Verdon consulted on the Fosse compendium musical “Dancin’.” She was with Fosse when he died of a heart attack in 1987.
Although one of Fosse’s later loves and muses was the actress Ann Reinking, Verdon and Reinking became close too.
Reinking recalled Wednesday that last summer Verdon taught classes for a week at a musical theater program Reinking runs in Florida. “We all know she was a great teacher, performer and artist, and an extraordinarily beautiful woman,” Reinking said. “But she also was an incredibly good person, a great mother, grandmother and friend.”
Verdon seldom returned to work on her hometown stages, but she did appear in “Love Letters” in 1990 at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills. More often, however, she worked on L.A.’s sound stages, winning an Emmy nomination for “Magnum P.I.” in 1988 and two Emmy nominations in 1993, for “Dream On” and “Homicide.” Her movie credits included “The Cotton Club,” “Cocoon,” “Cocoon: The Reunion” and “Marvin’s Room.”
She is survived by her daughter, Nicole Fosse, a dancer who appeared in the 1986 film “A Chorus Line”; a son, James Henaghan; as well as four grandchildren and a great-grandchild. The lights of Broadway will be dimmed at 8 p.m. today in her memory.
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.