Tony-winning Broadway dancer Gwen Verdon, who overcame polio to develop a unique style that made her a show-stopping star of Damn Yankees and Sweet Charity, died today, her manager said. She was 75 years old.
The flame-haired Verdon, who was the third wife and longtime collaborator of legendary choreographer and director Bob Fosse, apparently died in her sleep at her daughter’s home in Woodstock, Vt., manager Aaron Shapiro said.
Verdon became an overnight Broadway sensation in 1953 as a show-stopping featured dancer in Michael Kidd’s production of Cole Porter’s Can Can, a performance that earned the first of four Tony awards.
But it was under Fosse’s choreography and direction that Verdon created a series of memorable Broadway roles combining the sexual allure of a hardened vamp with the inner sweetness and vulnerability of an ingenue.
Played Sensual, Provocative Characters
She was the original seductress Lola in Damn Yankees, the taxi dancer Charity Hope Valentine in Sweet Charity and the murderous chorus girl Roxie in Chicago. She got to recreate her Tony-winning Lola role (“Whatever Lola wants, Lola Gets”) in the 1958 movie adaptation of Damn Yankees.
She also won back-to-back Tonys in 1958 and 1959, respectively, for the tough gal roles she originated in New Girl in Town and Redhead.
Although she played sensual characters on stage, and her dance routines were often provocative, Verdon was not regarded as having the striking beauty needed to become a leading lady in Hollywood.
“Sex in a dance is in the eyes of the beholder,” she once said. “I never thought my dances sexy. I suppose that’s because I see myself with my face washed, and to me I look like a rabbit.”
Known to Help Other Sex Symbols
If not a glamour queen herself, Verdon helped bring out the best in some of the biggest sex symbols in the business. As a backstage assistant on various Hollywood projects during the early ’50s, she coached such stars as Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell and Lana Turner in movement.
Her accomplishments as a performer were remarkable in light of the adversity she faced growing up. Verdon suffered a series of childhood illnesses, including a bout of polio that left her with steel braces on her legs as a youngster and influenced her dancing style, which was later copied by Fosse and others.
She developed a unique hip-swiveling movement that could be both smoldering and subtle at the same time. Both she and Fosse could use the smallest gesture — the flick of a wrist, the jut of the hip or a snap of the head — to convey a grand emotion.
Although she and Fosse eventually separated, Verdon continued to work with him as an assistant choreographer and dance supervisor on his 1978 production of Dancin’ and the 1987 revival of Sweet Charity. And she was at his side when he died during rehearsals for that show. More recently, she served as a consultant on the Broadway musical Fosse.
Her daughter, Nicole Fosse, is a dancer who appeared in the 1986 film A Chorus Line.
Verdon retired from Broadway in the mid-’70s but returned to movies in the 1980s and ’90s as a mature, spunky character in such films as The Cotton Club Cocoon, Woody Allen’s Alice (playing Mia Farrow’s mother) and Marvin’s Room (as the aunt of Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton).