Performer, Choreographer, Creative Consultant, Assistant
( b. Jan 13, 1925 Culver City, California, USA - d. Oct 18, 2000 Woodstock, Vermont, USA ) Female
Gwen Verdon, whose high-kicking artistry, flaming red hair and head-turning figure made her an unforgettable presence in musicals like Can-Can, Damn Yankees and Chicago.
Widely regarded as the best dancer ever to brighten the Broadway stage, Ms. Verdon was also a performer who brought more than physical excitement to her roles. A highly capable actress as well as an exceptional dancer, she was adept at enriching the characters she played. Whether oozing seductive come-ons as the Devil's sexy troubleshooter in Damn Yankees or brooding over a whiskey as a disillusioned prostitute in a waterfront dive in New Girl in Town, she always reached for, and found, her character's heart.
Can-Can made Ms. Verdon a marquee name and brought her her first Tony Award. Nevertheless, she left the show before it ended its run and returned to working with the Hollywood choreographer Jack Cole, whose assistant she had been in the early 1950's. She was working on a film with Cole when she was approached by the producers of a new Broadway musical to be called Damn Yankees Written by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop, the story centered on a Faustian deal made by a passionate baseball fan who agrees to sell his soul to the Devil for the chance to help his beloved Washington Senators beat the New York Yankees.
Damn Yankees opened to bravos in May 1955. Ms. Verdon's co-stars were Ray Walston as the Devil and Stephen Douglass as the hapless fan who is transformed into the home-run-hitting Joe Hardy. Damn Yankees racked up over a thousand performances and brought Ms. Verdon her second Tony. It was an impressive showing for a performer who spent her early childhood years laced into orthopedic boots to correct legs that had been weakened and deformed by a series of illnesses.
It wasn't until 1966 that Ms. Verdon returned to the stage, in Sweet Charity. The musical had its unlikely roots in Fellini's film classic "Nights of Cabiria." Fosse was director and choreographer. Ms. Verdon played the role immortalized by Giulietta Masina although the character had been changed from a Roman prostitute to a New York dance-hall hostess. For Ms. Verdon, working with Fosse provided ''direction like I've never had in my life.'' Years later, looking back on that experience, she recalled how ''Bob choreographs down to the second joint of your little finger.''
Chicago, which began life as a stage play in the 20's and then became a vehicle for Ginger Rogers in the 1942 film ''Roxie Hart,'' was a show Ms. Verdon had wanted to do for years. When Fosse decided to take it on as a musical, and John Kander and Fred Ebb signed on to write the score, Ms. Verdon at last got her chance to play Roxie, a woman jailed, tried and acquitted for shooting her lover.
When it opened in 1975, Chicago won applause for its three leads, Ms. Verdon, Chita Rivera and Jerry Orbach. Clive Barnes in The Times saluted ''three superlative, knock-em-in-the-aisles performances by three stars who glitter like gold dust all evening,'' but most of the critics found it too determinedly seedy and cynical for its own good. It proved to be Ms. Verdon's farewell to Broadway.
In 1999 she made an offstage return to Broadway as the artistic adviser for the musical Fosse, a compilation of highlights from his career. Ms. Verdon was with Fosse in 1987 when he died at age 60, minutes after the opening of the revival of Sweet Charity in Washington, which she had helped him reconstruct. Their collaboration was relatively brief, but remarkably productive and intensely shared. Reflecting on their years together in an interview before Fosse's death, she said: ''I was a great dancer when he got hold of me, but he developed me, he created me.'' She made the most of it.
Source: The New York Times obituary
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