Who Is Gwen Verdon? New Details About The Legendary Dancer

Photo: getty
Who Is Gwen Verdon? New Details About The Legendary Dancer

Wile Gwen Verdon’s name may be new to some audiences, hardcore theatre fans know that she and her husband, legendary choreographer Bob Fosse, are two of the most important figures in the history of musical theatre.

That’s why it’s no surprise that Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tommy Kail, two of the hardest core theatre figures of today after creating the smash hit Hamilton, have brought her story to television in Fosse/Verdon on FX.

Verdon won four tony awards for her Broadway work and was best known for the role of Lola in the musical Damn Yankees, where she first met Fosse. The two were instantly attracted to one another’s talent and eventually married as well. Their romantic relationship didn’t survive Fosse’s infidelity and addiction, but they never divorced and she was at his side when he died.

Who was Gwen Verdon? Read on to learn about the iconic dancer.

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1. Childhood

Verdon was born in California, child of a movie electrician and a modern dancer. She developed rickets as a child and had significant issues with her legs. She spent her early childhood in leg braces and orthopedic boots. In order to rehabilitate her muscles, her mother decided to enroll her in dance classes when she was 3 years old. By the time she was 6, she was performing in area theaters and was hailed as a talented tap dancer.

A promotional poster for Damn Yankees.

2. Broadway

She gave up professional dancing when she was 17 to marry a journalist for the Hollywood Reporter. Though they had a child together, they divorced after five years of marriage and Gwen started dating again. After some small roles in movies, she teamed up with choreographer Jack Cole who helped her land a role in the 1953 production of Cole Porter’s musical Can Can. She electrified audiences with her dancing and won her first Tony award for the production.

Verdon on the cover of Time.

3. Damn Yankees

Fosse was already an established choreographer by 1955. He was hired to choreograph Damn Yankees and Gwen was cast as Lola. The pair allegedly had an instant artistic rapport and immediately began rehearsing the iconic seduction number that would go on to make Gwen a star. Fosse’s biographer Sam Wesson described the meeting: “She saw a crumpled, soft-talking dance tramp. And he saw the sweetest, hottest dancing comedienne of the age. One with a reputation. Underneath her smile, he had heard, Verdon could be a difficult collaborator, a high-class snob with an ironclad pedigree and an almost pathological aversion to the kind of heigh-ho Broadway jumping around she called animated wallpaper.”

But Verdon wasn’t so much difficult as she was exacting in her professional and artistic standards. In that, the two were well suited to working together and collaborated brilliantly. Verdon would later describe the famous number from that show as Fosse’s creation, saying “The flirtatious quality, the accent, minuscule things like: where you push your hair back, when you breathe, when you blink your eyes, and when you just move your little finger. Bob choreographs down to the second joint of your little finger. I just learned it. I’ve always said Bob did it better than me.” Both Fosse and Verdon would win Tony award for that show.

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Fosse and Verdon performing in the movie version of Damn Yankees.

4. Marriage

Though Fosse and Verdon moved in together shortly after Damn Yankees, the wouldn’t marry for many years, largely due to Fosse still being married to his second wife. dancer Mary McCracken. He ended that marriage in 1959. In the interim, he and Verdon collaborated on New Girl In Town and Redhead, which Fosse directed as well as choreographing, at Verdon’s insistence. The show won six Tony awards.

By 1960, Fosse was divorced and the couple wanted to have children together. Verdon said “We wanted to have children. I didn’t feel I had to get married to have children but Bob felt we should be married. . . . We got in a car and went somewhere outside the city limits. It was really funny. We had the license, naturally, and all that stuff and we just got in a car and I kept saying to Bob, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to change your mind?’ He kept saying, ‘No.’ He was very nervous. If he had said, ‘No,’ it still would have been O.K. with me.”

In 1963, they had a daughter named Nicole and Verdon took several years off from performing to be a full-time parent.

Verdon performs a number from Chicago with Chita Rivera.

5. Decline

While Verdon returned to originated the title role in the stage production of Sweet Charity, she was much more focused on her home life with Nicole. Fosse, meanwhile, was continuing to work regularly. He was also abusing substances and having numerous affairs. Because he and Verdon weren’t working together as much, their relationship suffered. He said of it “ “I was always happiest working. I frequently got bored with other aspects of life. The reason Gwen and I lasted as long as we did was because we worked together so well and enjoyed it so much. The best times we had were in the rehearsal hall. If we’d never left it, we’d still be married.”

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Verdon also recognized the gaps in their relationship, saying “I was living like a wife and a mother, which was really what I wanted to be,” Verdon said. “But I was the wrong kind of wife for [Fosse]. I think Bob outgrew me. Bob started writing and he was involved in all kinds of things, and I was so involved with Nicole I didn’t really care if I worked or not. 

Verdon in Sweet Charity.

6. Until the end

While Verdon and Fosse separated, they never divorced, they also never stopped working together. They collaborated on the 1975 stage run of Chicago. Verdon served as supervisor of his 1978 musical, Dancin', and also worked with him on his 1979 autobiographical film, All That Jazz. In 1987, when Fosse collapsed from a heart attack and died, Verdon was with him. Until her own death in 2000, she continued to preserve the legacy of the legendary choreographer, consulting on the musical about his life and teacher other dancers his signature style.

She said “I think there was a time when I was the best [Fosse dancer]. I coach [other dancers] to really look like a Fosse dancer.”

Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon.

Fosse/Verdon premiers on FX this week.

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Rebekah Kuschmider has been writing about celebrities, pop culture, entertainment, and politics since 2010. Her work has been seen at Ravishly, Babble, Scary Mommy, The Mid, Redbook online, and The Broad Side. She is the creator of the blog Stay at Home Pundit and she is a cohost of the weekly podcast The More Perfect Union.