How Broadway Legends Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon Made Headlines Long Before ‘Fosse/Verdon’
She was a megawatt performer, one of the best Broadway dancers of the last century, but it’s his influence that is remembered today
Fifteen minutes into FX’s new limited series “Fosse/Verdon,” director-choreographer Bob Fosse stews over a slew of reviews panning his first movie musical, a box office black hole. The New York Times, Sam Rockwell-as-Fosse reads aloud, had dubbed Sweet Charity “haunted by the presence of the unseen star” who originated the role on Broadway. The missing megawatt performer is four-time Tony winner Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams). In addition to being Fosse’s best collaborator and muse, she also happens to be his wife.
Verdon’s legend outshone Fosse’s then, but it’s his name and slinky, jazz-handed style of dance that have cultural cache today. When Verdon died at 75 in 2000, Broadway’s marquee lights dimmed in her honor, and The New York Times coronated her “the best dancer ever to brighten the Broadway stage.” That same tribute namechecks Fosse 20 times and even wraps up its overview of her life by referencing him: “I was a great dancer when he got hold of me,” Verdon had said in a past interview, “but he developed me, he created me.”
“Fosse/Verdon” traces how this balance of fame shifted over the course of the duo’s decades-long romantic and professional partnership. Grounded in the late-’60s/early ’70s, when Fosse’s name began to eclipse hers, the series shows Fosse’s reliance on Verdon, who played an integral artistic role on and offstage in many of the works for which he’s best known. It aims to re-examine the self-made mythology of a problematic man and, in the process, reintroduce audiences to the woman who helped make his moves famous. In that goal, according to critics, it only partially succeseds.
But there’s another way to see these career reversals play out and watch their legacies develop: through the paper trail the two stars scorched through in newspapers and magazines. Headlines captured Verdon’s meteoric rise to fame, her charisma, the fawning over both her talent and her looks, and then, the spotlight dimmed. Critics went from mentioning Fosse as an afterthought to praising him as an auteur with demons to match.
Verdon got the adoring headlines first. “Gwen Verdon, the principal ballerina, is the practical star of the show,” wrote The New York Times’ critic Brooks Atkinson of the 1953 Broadway musical Can-Can. Later, stories circulated of the seven-minute-long standing ovation that announced Verdon’s blazing arrival: how the show’s star had pushed for Verdon’s part to be reduced when she found herself being overshadowed; how Verdon, exasperated, attempted to leave the role for which she would soon win a Tony but couldn’t find a substitute; how one particularly ferocious number had kept the audience roaring until Verdon returned for an impromptu, towel-clad bow.
“I don’t know that there’s ever been anybody like Gwen, or will be again,” says Broadway choreographer Liza Gennaro, whose father danced for Fosse and knew Verdon, of the genuine triple-threat.
Fosse’s name, in the first half of the ’50s, made the occasional side note; he danced in Hollywood on an MGM contract and was one of several listed “swift and likeable dancers” in the 1950 Broadway production of Dance Me a Song (where he met his second wife, star Joan McCracken). “Reports from out of town are enthusiastic about Bob Fosse’s dances for ‘The Pajama Game,’” wrote John Martin of the NYT, offhand, an early Fosse choreography gig (for which he’d earn his first Tony in 1955).
The two met that year, and in the first of their many collaborations, Verdon stole the thunder. The NYT 1955 review of Damn Yankees praised Verdon in the role of Lola, the devil’s right-hand temptress: “Vivacious, as sleek as a car on the showroom floor, and as nice to look at, she gives brilliance and sparkle to the evening with her dancing.” Fosse, reviewer Lewis Funke wrote, “with Miss Verdon’s aid, is one of the evening’s heroes. His dance numbers are full of fun and vitality.” The affair between the dancers, although reportedly obvious to cast members, did not make The Gray Lady’s headlines.
For the rest of the decade, Fosse and Verdon seemed to be Broadway’s ubiquitous power couple, although her name and precisely-positioned limbs carried the bulk of the star power. When Verdon missed preview performances of the Fosse-choreographed New Girl in Town, headlines blared that it took four separate understudies to replace her. But backstage, biographer Sam Wasson writes in the book that screenwriter Steven Levenson (Dear Evan Hansen) used as source material, Verdon’s absence wasn’t due to a sore throat. Instead, she’d boycotted the show because producers wanted to cut one of Fosse’s numbers, which was set in a brothel and so scandalous that local police had locked up the theater. The couple ultimately triumphed; by the time the show made it to Broadway, the “Red Light Ballet” had almost entirely been restored.
“A Fourth of July celebration coupled with a fresh eruption of Mt. Vesuvius couldn’t make you take your eyes off her,” wrote critic Walter Kerr of Verdon’s performance in 1959’s Redhead, neglecting to praise Fosse’s choreography until the penultimate sentence. Both picked up Tonys, Verdon’s fourth in six years.
Kerr wasn’t the only reviewer to use fiery metaphors to describe Verdon; 1950s coverage of Verdon focused not only on her onstage dynamism but her sex appeal. “Maybe you think that was a heat wave that hit town yesterday. We prefer to think it was Gwen Verdon making her debut hereabouts as a star in a film,” wrote Bosley Crowther of The New York Times on the film version of Damn Yankees, in which Verdon reprised her stage role. The next year, a NYT profile read: “Now in her thirties—she admits to 33 and doesn’t look more than half an hour older—Miss Verdon has buttermilk skin, eyes that change from the color of honey-flecked avocado to cornflower blue, and fine-spun hair the hue of geraniums in sunshine.”
The ’60s saw the duo collaborate on Sweet Charity, which received middling reviews but accolades for its “irresistibly attractive star” (Verdon, natch, such a celebrity that she gave interview clad in a mink coat and mink jumper and capped the look off with a badger cap and cigarette smoke) as well as its dance numbers. The NYT review begins with a hat-tip to the director-choreographer: “It is Bob Fosse’s evening in the Palace [Theatre].” The critical and commercial failure of the movie adaption, so notably lacking Verdon’s star power, closed out the decade.
Then Fosse’s banner year, 1973, dawned: He won an Oscar, multiple Emmys, and a Tony. It began with the movie-musical Cabaret, set in a Berlin nightclub at the dawn of the Nazi regime. The LAT deemed it “a Yardstick for Future Musicals.” “‘Cabaret,’” wrote critic Charles Champlin, “becomes an all-star vehicle, whose principal star is Fosse.”
The Charlemagne-meets-hippies musical Pippin, for which Fosse scored Tonys for his directing and his choreography, “proves that the innovative spirit yet lives in American musical theater,” wrote the Washington Post’s Richard L. Coe, noting that the musical included “a number everyone will say Fosse created for his wife, Gwen Verdon.” But by this point, amidst Fosse’s routine philandering, the power couple had separated romantically, if not professionally.
Verdon, meanwhile, took the leading role in Children! Children!, a play so disastrous, it closed immediately after opening night. “The acting of the entire cast—including, I fear, Miss Verdon—was so indescribably bad that I do not intend to attempt to describe it,” lambasted Clive Barnes in the NYT. While she continued to perform in musicals (a revival of Damn Yankees, for instance), the latter half of Verdon’s career involved more supporting roles in television and film.
The still-legally married couple reunited in 1975 for the John Kander and Fred Ebb musical Chicago, with Verdon co-starring as murderess Roxie Hart. “She’s the greatest musical talent on the stage,” her estranged husband told the LAT. The reviews praised the “stars who glitter like gold dust” and Fosse’s “deft virtuosity.”
In the wake of two heart attacks, Fosse staged his own memorial in the 1979 film All That Jazz, which won four Oscars but met mixed reviews. David Denby, writing for New York Magazine, called it “a monstrous ego trip” that appeared to have “been put together by an editing machine free-associating wildly on a psychoanalyst’s couch.” Fosse might have laid bare some of his personal demons on film, but his self-made mythology, like the news coverage, largely missed the extent to which his romantic partnerships helped fuel his career. That $100-a-week first Broadway choreography credit for Pajama Game? According to Wasson, Fosse’s second wife, Joan McCracken, had lobbied a producer to get him the job. When it came to Redhead, Wasson writes that the producers were so eager to sweeten the negotiations for Verdon that they gave Fosse his first directing gig on top of their initial choreography offer. “Fosse/Verdon” shows her abetting Fosse’s work (smoothing out his abrasiveness in rehearsal, offering deft suggestions) in unbilled but crucial ways.
Gennaro directs the musical theater program at Manhattan School of Music and teaches at Princeton, and Verdon is “not the name that’s on the tip of students’ tongues.” Part of the reason her star has faded, Gennaro points out, comes down to the distinction between performing and choreographing, not to mention the you-had-to-be-there ephemerality of live performance. “Of course, if you’re a dancer, you can’t keep dancing forever,” Verdon herself remarked in a 1965 interview, when she was just 40. Fosse could keep choreographing (itself a field dominated by white men), but the dancer’s body can only keep straining into improbable geometry for so long. Of course, Gennaro adds, gender shades this picture: “The disregard of older women is no secret in this society.”
Fosse’s influence lives on in Beyoncé music videos (“Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” mirrors a Fosse number) and the blank faces of models strutting the Fashion Week catwalk, Gennaro says. An isolated movement of a particular body part, like a wrist twirling into a single snap; elbows thrust behind a dancer’s body; knocked-in knees: all still-potent, instantly recognizable Fosse. “Bob Fosse’s movement style really overtook Broadway for many years,” says Gennaro. The “highly sexualized” and “objectifying” way he presented women—splayed legs, pelvic thrusts—pushed boundaries and then, once the culture was ready, became widely adopted. His choreography, Gennaro says, also broke from Great White Way tradition by creating movement that doesn’t necessarily match the time period it is supposed to belong to, a narrative-bucking choice that’s since appeared in Spring Awakening or even Hamilton.
In interviews, the creative team behind “Fosse/Verdon”—an all-star roster that includes the musical theater minds behind Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen—have made clear that they intend the bring Verdon’s story into the spotlight, joining Fosse, and his complicated legacy, on center stage. “Gwen has really not been given her due as one of the greatest dancers of the 20th century,” says Gennaro. She finishes the thought, “…Everybody knows who he is.”