Gwen Verdon was that rarest of endangered species, a Broadway star. Oh, she made movies — Damn Yankees, Cocoon, The
But the Broadway stage was her natural habitat. She first drew attention on one in 1953, stopping the show in Cole Porter's
Can-Can. Won a Tony Award for it.
Two years later, she originated the role of the seductive Lola in the baseball musical, Damn Yankees. Won a Tony award for that,
too. She'd win two more before she was done — an astounding record.
Funny thing about Damn Yankees. It opened to great reviews but somehow, playgoers just didn't start queuing up at the box
office. The producers had a show that everyone said was fabulous but, after a few weeks, it was in clear and present danger of closing.
At the time, the picture used in advertising and on billboards was a shot of Gwen wearing a bulky baseball jersey. Someone
finally suggested that it didn't properly exploit her fabulous legs and shape.
So they changed it. At the end of Act One, Lola — in league with The Devil — does a locker room strip-tease in a vain
attempt to lure the heroic Joe Hardy into sin and degradation. The new ads showed Gwen Verdon in her bustier from that scene.
End result: Damn Yankees ran 1,019 performances. When they made the movie, guess what they put on the posters.
Damn Yankees brought her stardom...and a husband. In 1960, she married the man who'd staged the show's dances, a
fascinating gent named Bob Fosse. Many suggested it was the union of the best choreographer in the business and the best dancer. Many
also suggested there was zero chance that the best choreographer would remain faithful to the best dancer.
Fosse would later become a superstar director — the only person to win an Emmy, an Oscar and a Tony award in one year. He
helmed four other Broadway shows in which she starred — New Girl in Town, Redhead, Sweet Charity and Chicago. Her four Tonys are
especially impressive when one considers how few shows she appeared in...and she was even nominated for the two she didn't win for.
So there was no paucity of awards in that marriage even if, as predicted, there was a lack of fidelity. Fosse's unfaithfulness
was about as big a secret as Bill Clinton's and, just on the off-chance someone hadn't heard, Bob went out and made a movie about it.
All That Jazz is the story of a brilliant, irresponsible and ultimately self-destructive director-choreographer not named Bob
Fosse. Some reviewers called it a roman à clef, which is a misnomer. In a roman à clef, the real people on
whom the characters are based are supposed to be at least thinly-disguised.
In All That Jazz, director Joe Gideon suffers a heart attack while attempting to simultaneously stage a new Broadway musical and
edit his most recent movie. Gideon, played by Roy Scheider, sports a beard like Fosse, dresses all in black like Fosse and employs many of his
mannerisms. When he pops Dexedrine, a close-up shows us Gideon's address on the prescription label: 58 W. 58th St..
That was Bob Fosse's address.
The show Gideon is directing when he has his heart attack is called NY2LA. The show Fosse was directing when he had his
was called Chicago. Gideon says he is doing NY2LA because his wife, played by Leland Palmer, wants to prove she is still young
enough to play a woman in her twenties. Fosse's wife Gwen Verdon was then just shy of fifty when, in Chicago, she played a woman in her
Concurrently, Gideon is editing a movie called The Stand-Up, which deals with a comedian not unlike Lenny Bruce. The
corresponding film Fosse was editing was Lenny, which was about Lenny Bruce. And the comic in Gideon's film is played by Cliff Gorman
who starred in Lenny on stage.
Ben Vereen plays Sammy Davis, Jr. John Lithgow plays an amalgam of Michael Bennett and Hal Prince. And, just to be
imaginative, Ann Reinking plays Fosse's live-in girl friend, Ann Reinking.
So is All That Jazz autobiographical? Well, not exactly; that's the problem. One must stand behind one's
autobiography and accept responsibility for its veracity, or lack thereof. When you do what Fosse did, you get to disseminate your version but,
if someone challenges it or is hurt, you can hide behind the excuse, "Oh, no...this is fiction."
What is maddening about All That Jazz — and mesmerizing, the way a high-speed chase is mesmerizing — is that it is
in some ways, a great film. It is certainly brilliantly-made in terms of imagery and impact. Against that, there's that decided-ugliness
in its attempts to put a knavish spin on its director's less-appealing traits, and the way it, like Fosse and Gideon, uses the people in their
I've seen this film at least two dozen times. Someday, I hope to decide if I like it. All I can say for now is that Fosse
etched his fame in celluloid, if not stone. At the same time, he invited the world into his life (or a version of his life) and Gwen Verdon's,
as well. I have no idea if she resented him for doing this but I think I do.
Now, I happen to have a story about Ms. Verdon. It's also a personal, perhaps self-serving one, though one of next-to-no
importance in her grand and glorious life and career. But I'm going to tell it to you, anyway...
Around eight years ago, the Motion Picture Academy had a showing of the movie of Damn Yankees and invited all the
surviving/available cast members to participate in a panel discussion afterwards. The Moderator was my old buddy Leonard Maltin, who invited me
to accompany him. This meant I got to attend a little pre-screening reception for the guests, who included Tab Hunter, Ray Walston, Jean
Stapleton, Jimmie Komack...and Gwen Verdon.
Most of it, I spent chatting with my old employer, Jimmie Komack and he, in turn, introduced me to the lovely — and she was
lovely, even in her sixties — Gwen Verdon. I, of course, told her how much I'd always loved her. She acted genuinely surprised and
flattered, even though I was about the eleventh person to say something like that to her there and, no doubt, about the seventy-thousandth to say it
to her anywhere.
I told her that my partner's wife spoke highly of her. (The partner is Sergio Aragonés; his spouse, Charlene Ryan, was the
one of the best dancers on Broadway, appearing in a couple of Fosse/Verdon shows.) At the mention of Charlene's name, Ms. Verdon lit up...and
believe me, no one could light up like Gwen Verdon. She told me to — "please, please" — give her love to Charlene.
About then, we were all led down to the auditorium to a roped-off V.I.P. seating area. I wound up right across the aisle from
As movies go, Damn Yankees is good but not great. Having never seen the original Broadway production, I have to take the
word of those who did. They say that a lot of the "magic" was lost, even though the film used most of the Broadway cast and crew.
It almost didn't. In 1958, Warner Brothers bought the film rights for Tab Hunter, an up-and-coming star they had under contract.
The fact that Mr. Hunter could neither sing nor dance did not seem to disqualify him from starring in a musical — or, at about the same
time, having a hit rock-'n'-roll record.
As also too often happens in Hollywood, the studio's first impulse was to completely reinvent what they had purchased. They set
out to sign Cyd Charisse to play Lola and Cary Grant for Applegate, aka The Devil. (Jack L. Warner had a burning ambition to miscast
Cary Grant in a musical. Seven years later, he acquired My Fair Lady and tried unsuccessfully to get Grant to displace Rex
Ms. Charisse and Mr. Grant were either unavailable or made themselves unavailable for Damn Yankees. With a musicians'
strike looming, Warner was in a rush to get the film made. They finally decided the best way to make that happen was to hire people who already
knew the show.
George Abbott, who had directed the Broadway version, was engaged to co-direct with Stanley Donen. With the exception of the gent
who'd played Joe Hardy — the role Tab Hunter would fill — all of the major players came from Broadway, as well: Gwen Verdon as Lola, Ray
Walston as The Devil, etc. Bob Fosse was engaged to re-create his dance numbers.
Unfortunately, production did not get under way before the strike hit. The studio found themselves having to make a musical,
sans musicians. The solution they came up with caused the movie to hew even closer to the original New York stage production.
During the filming, the actors lip-synched and danced to the Broadway cast album. This meant that the musical numbers could not
vary much from what had been done on stage. Later, the film was rescored by an orchestra in London. Then the actors were called back to
re-sing their songs — matching the lip movements already filmed — to the new soundtrack.
Two tunes were dropped — one of them, replaced by a new, not-as-good number. It's interesting that they did not omit a
rather non-sequitur song-and-dance spot for Gwen and one male dancer called "Who's Got the Pain?" On Broadway, one of the chorus boys
had danced it with Gwen. For the movie, Fosse stepped into the role.
Several of those involved argued for its deletion, as it has absolutely nothing to do with the plot. It's even somewhat out of
character for Lola. Fosse, in admitted self-interest, argued for its inclusion and won.
It stayed in...but the producers came to view that as an error. Reviewers called it unnecessary and later, when the film hit TV
screens, it was often excised to make more room for commercials. As the legend of Bob Fosse has grown, however, it has become to many, the
highlight of the film. It was one of the few times Fosse and Verdon performed together before a camera...and the only sample readily available
to most students of dance.
Damn Yankees was one of the first movies I purchased on Laserdisc. At the time, I was dating a lady who danced on a TV
series and she couldn't have been happier if I'd brought home a couple of free Porsches. She sat in front of the set, watching that number over
and over, imitating the moves, freeze-framing or putting certain steps into slow-motion.
Then she called her dancer friends and they all came over and ran it over and over, mimicking the motions. For a few days, it
looked like a really cheap road company of Riverdance in my den. I've since heard that, among choreographers and dancers, it's one of
the most-studied pieces of film ever.
Not bad for a scene they wanted to cut.
As the film unspooled at the screening, there were many applause points. The stars in attendance had been introduced beforehand
so, as their names came up in the credits, a packed house clapped itself silly.
They also applauded long and loud when Bob Fosse's credit appeared. I happened to look over at Ms. Verdon and she was beaming
— happier for the love being shown for the memory of her late husband than for the warm hands she'd received.
Then, each time one of the cast members who was present was first seen on the screen, the audience applauded.
Now, this next part is a little tricky to explain...
Bob Fosse's only real scene is the "Who's Got the Pain?" number, which comes about two-thirds of the way through the movie — but
that isn't the first time he's on the screen. To establish the presence of his character, he's in a few shots that precede that number.
Everyone who attended the Damn Yankees screening would have known it was Fosse when he and Gwen began that now-famous dance...but he's not
particularly recognizable when his face is first seen in the movie.
So when that moment arrived, I started to applaud. And then Leonard, sitting next to me, started to applaud. And suddenly,
everyone in the place realized: That's Bob Fosse!
It was the most amazing ripple-effect ovation I've ever been a part of. You could hear people throughout the huge theater gasp
and point and whisper. It was like a chant: Fosse, Fosse, Fosse...
We missed about a minute's worth of dialogue because the audience was cheering and clapping — not Fosse's name, as they had
during the credits — but the image of the man himself.
I glanced over at Gwen Verdon and she was crying. She was happy but she was crying. Later, she made a point of thanking
Leonard and me for starting the ovation.
One of my pet peeves is when someone attempts to analyze a relationship which he or she is not a part of. We have recently seen
hundreds of books, articles and TV segments about the bonds, whatever they may be, between William Jefferson Clinton and Hillary Rodham
Clinton. I consider these assessments as around three notches below Worthless.
It isn't that their authors are necessarily wrong; it's that they're pretending they have sufficient data to yield an opinion of value,
when they clearly do not. But, as they say at the tabloids, gossip needn't be true to sell papers.
So I have winced when books and articles and many a group of theater buffs have discussed, as if they really knew, the innermost nature
of the Verdon-Fosse marriage. (They separated but never divorced, and remained close. In fact, when Fosse suffered his final, fatal heart
attack, he was with Ms. Verdon, who had been assisting him with a revival of Sweet Charity, the show he once staged with her as its star.)
I can't really blame those who natter endlessly about Bob and Gwen, Gwen and Bob, how they felt about each other and why she put up
with all that she put up with. I can't upbraid the gossips because All That Jazz overtly invites such talk...but I refuse to join in on
the speculation. I have no idea what really went on in that relationship and it's none of my business.
I only know what I see. What I saw that night at the screening was Gwen Verdon, crying with joy that Bob Fosse was loved and
remembered. She will be, as well.