When Gwen Verdon died in 2000, the four-time Tony-winning performer was eulogized as “arguably the best dancer ever to brighten the Broadway stage.” The New York Times wrote that Verdons “high-kicking artistry, flaming red hair, and head-turning figure made her an unforgettable presence in musicals like Can-Can, Damn Yankees, and Chicago.” Nearly 20 years later, Verdons artistry and accomplishments may be less familiar to the average American than those of her husband, Bob Fosse. But as FXs Fosse/Verdon attests, Fosse and Verdon were an incredible, untraditional team, onstage and off—and their legacies remain enmeshed. In Tuesdays premiere episode, Sam Rockwell plays Fosse, the drug-and-depression addled choreographer and director, and Michelle Williams portrays Verdon, the effervescent star who could help save her husbands productions but not his tortured soul. Ahead, a deep dive into this mythical Broadway relationship: the demons, drugs, and philandering that dismantled it, and the mutual love and masterpieces that endured.
The Meet Cute(s)
One note about Fosse, made clear in Sam Wassons biography, on which Fosse/Verdon is closely based: the choreographer and director was not great at closing the curtain on his real-life romances. Wasson traced his complex relationship with women back to an incident said to have occurred when Fosse was a 13-year-old dancer, and was molested by strippers in a burlesque club where he was working. (A similar episode was included, in flashback, in Fosses autobiographical masterpiece All That Jazz.) “He revered [women],” Rockwell told the New York Times about Fosse. “His style certainly shows that. Hes not so much sexual as he is sensual. He celebrates womens sensuality. He doesnt demean it in his dance style. But at the same time, he had a lot of anger towards women.”
When Fosse discovered supremely talented women—which was not difficult later in his career as a director who routinely auditioned actresses and dancers—he homed in on them. And once he found a new muse, well, onto the next, and never mind the overlap. His first two marriages, to Mary Ann Niles and Joan McCracken, both dancers and more famous than Fosse when they married, are testaments to that messy romantic pattern. So, when Verdon and Fosse first worked together in 1955, it did not so much matter that Fosse was still married to McCracken. Verdon had just won her first Tony—for Cole Porters Can-Can—and was a new Broadway sensation. Like Fosse, Verdon had been dancing since childhood—and was exacting about technique. In addition to performing, Verdon had also worked as a junior choreographer and been called to help teach stars like Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe how to dance.
When Verdon was cast in Damn Yankees, which Fosse was choreographing, the sparks were immediate. “She saw a crumpled, soft-talking dance tramp,” Wasson wrote of this professional introduction, at a rehearsal space in mid-Manhattan. “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.” (Rachel Syme recently offered a more nuanced translation of Verdons “difficult” reputation: “Both [Verdon and Fosse] sashayed into the room with high standards. . . .Because she was a woman, and it was 1955, this made her difficult. Fosse was stubborn, picky, and precise. Because he was a man, and it was 1955, this made him a rising star. ”)
Verdon was cast in Damn Yankees as Lola, and the seduction number that she and Fosse rehearsed that first night together would go on to arguably become her most memorable performance. Rather than make small talk, Verdon has said that she and Fosse immediately leapt into rehearsing the routine he had been dreaming up. The sexy number first rehearsed that night would go on to electrify audiences, earn Verdon and Fosse Tony Awards, and launch a fruitful collaborative relationship that spanned three decades.
Though she already had one Tony before working with Fosse, Verdon would credit her future husband for her career: “I was a great dancer when he got hold of me, but he developed me, he created me.” As for Lola, Verdon said that the character was entirely Fosses creation, too: “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. Ive always said Bob did it better than me.”
The Verdon-Fosse Family
Verdon and Fosse began living together shortly after Damn Yankees—and Verdon became the living embodiment of Fosses choreography. Though Fosse still performed—he appeared alongside Verdon in the mambo duet, “Whos Got the Pain,” in the Damn Yankees movie adaptation (below)—he was a shy dancer who pulled himself inwards. Verdon was the performer he wished he could be—the guileless, uninhibited extension of himself.
The couples white-hot collaborations continued: Verdon starred in and Fosse choreographed 1957s New Girl in Town, for which Verdon won her third Tony. A few years later, when Verdon was asked to star in 1959s murder-mystery musical Redhead—the same year Fosse divorced McCracken—Verdon reportedly told producers shed only take the lead if Fosse could direct as well as choreograph. The gamble paid off: Redhead went on to win six Tony Awards, including Verdons fourth, plus the “Best Musical” and “Best Choreography” awards for Fosse.
On a Sunday in 1960, while Redhead was on tour in Chicago, Verdon and Fosse cemented their relationship by getting married. It was her second marriage and his third. “We wanted to have children,” Verdon later explained. “And I didnt 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 okay with me.”
The production-value of the wedding paled in comparison to their shows—the nuptials were only witnessed by the ministers wife and his nine-year-old son. “The minister pulled him aside to ask if he wanted music,” Verdon said later. “They put money in a juke box and Mario Lanza started singing Be My Love at the top of his lungs.”
During Verdons first marriage, she had a son—but, not even 18 at the time, Verdon let the baby be raised by her parents. And this time around, Verdon was determined to be the devoted mother. In 1963, Verdon and Fosse welcomed a baby girl, Nicole Fosse, and Verdon happily played the role of stay-at-home wife and mother for over three years. She returned to the stage in 1966, to play the title character in Sweet Charity. But when Shirley MacLaine was cast as the lead in the movie adaptation—reportedly before Fosse was hired to direct—the casting did not matter to Verdon. She had found a better role at home.
Dark and Light
“My mother was always bringing the joy and the fun,” Nicole Fosse, who is an executive producer on Fosse/Verdon, recently said in an interview about her family home life. Verdon “was very nurturing to my father in a sense,” Nicole told the Washington Post. “He had a lot of fun and mischief in him as well, but I think he could lose sight of that sometimes.”
Bob Fosse suffered from depression—and he turned to familiar vices like drugs, alcohol, and women during his marriage.
“I drank Scotch,” Fosse admitted to Rolling Stone in 1984. “I did cocaine and a lot of Dexedrine. Id wake up in the morning, pop a pill. After lunch, when I couldnt get going, Id pop another one, and if I wanted to work all night, still another one. There was a certain romanticism about that stuff. There was Bob drinking and smoking and turning out good work. Still popping and screwing around with the girls. Isnt it terrific macho behavior, they said. I probably thought I was indestructible.”
Fosse loved his daughter, but he would also admit, “I was always happiest working. Speaking to Rolling Stone, he said, “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 wed never left it, wed stilRead More – Source