By Peter Filichia
Had life been kinder to all of us, Gwen Verdon would still be here to celebrate her 90th birthday on January 13. Alas, we lost her 14 years ago, but at least we still have her recordings as well as a film in which she recreated her first starring role in a Broadway musical.
That film, of course, is Damn Yankees, the 1958 version of the 1956 Tony-winning hit. It gave her the first of three consecutive Best Actress in a Musical Tonys, which is impressive considering that Verdon didn’t make her entrance until Act One, Scene Six — on page sixty-one of a 161-page script. There can’t be many Tony-winning Best Musical Actresses who had to wait until four songs were sung before they even set foot on stage.
When Verdon finally made her entrance, she was Lola, who’d been transformed by Mr. Applegate (read: The Devil) from “the ugliest woman in Providence, Rhode Island” to the va-va-va-voom temptress who seduced men thanks to “A Little Brains, A Little Talent.”
That song was added during the Boston tryout – so hastily, in fact, that Verdon once told me that the first time she sang the song, she was in front of a scrim that shielded an assistant stage manager who would feed her the lyrics if she’d faltered. Thus, should her memory fail, Verdon would be required, unlike Dorothy Gale, to pay great attention to that man behind the curtain.
In retrospect, Verdon might have been better off if she hadn’t delivered one lyric – when she mentioned “George Washington once slept here,” before adding, “Guess who was beside him.” She told me she’d received a lot of hate mail from theatergoers who were incensed that she should say such a thing about the married Father of Our Country.
Many others preferred to be dazzled by the song, although her biggest moment was yet to come: “Whatever Lola Wants (Lola Gets),” her blatant attempt to seduce baseball star Joe Hardy. It was such a hit, in fact, that when the Damn Yankees film opened in London, the movie itself was rechristened Whatever Lola Wants. Of course, there was another reason for that: Damn Yankees meant something different in a country where awareness of American baseball is as low as Mark Teixeira’s anemic batting average (.216) for those damned 2014 Yankees.
Verdon’s second Best Actress in a Musical Tony came in 1958, for New Girl in Town (albeit in a tie with her co-star Thelma Ritter). Here she sang a Bob Merrill score that enhanced Eugene O’Neill’s 1922 Pulitzer Prize-winner Anna Christie, which told the tale of a prostitute who hoped to reform. Verdon made Anna bitterly sing of her unfortunate background in “On the Farm” but rallied when she believed she’d found true love in “It’s Good to Be Alive.” Alas, Anna eventually came to the conclusion that “If That Was Love,” it certainly was a profound disappointment.
The following year, Verdon won unopposed with Redhead (which also won a Tony as Best Musical). For the first time – and this includes the Bohemian she’d played in Can-Can (for which she won the 1954 Tony for Best Featured Musical Actress) – she’d portray someone respectable: Essie Whimple, a middle-aged woman who still had a good deal of waif in her but seemed to be on the fast track to becoming a so-called “old maid.” How she mourned that “The Right Finger of My Left Hand” was unadorned, although Essie would come to have bigger problems as the show wore on, for she became embroiled in a murder mystery.
This was Verdon’s toughest assignment thus far; she was heard in six of the first nine songs, although she was then found in just one of the last seven. One, however, was “Dream Dance” and Verdon — most famous for her abilities to hop, skip, sway, gambol, twirl and pirouette — was certainly part of that one.
Contrary to even the most fervent musical theater enthusiast’s belief, the titular redhead was not Verdon herself, although her hair did qualify her. The redhead in question was actually the murderer. But an even bigger surprise is that Redhead tied with another original cast album for the 1960 Grammy: Gypsy. Not bad for a musical that many said was simply a dance show.
That was Verdon’s last Tony, although she did get nominations for her final two musicals. For Sweet Charity in 1966, she lost to Angela Lansbury (Mame); in 1976, her Roxie Hart in Chicago succumbed to Donna McKechnie’s Cassie in A Chorus Line.
No question that Lansbury was thrilling and that she had plenty to do, but Verdon arguably had more: she was involved in seven songs, four of which required substantial dancing. Helen Gallagher told me that after playing Charity for a week during Verdon’s vacation, she told the star “You can have this part! It’s too much work!”
Verdon doesn’t sound as if it’s too much work on the original cast album. She easily maneuvered the trickiness of Cy Coleman’s jazz waltz “You Should See Yourself,” the razz-ma-tazz song-‘n’-dancer “If My Friends Could See Me Now” before breaking our hearts with “Where Am I Going?”
For Kander and Ebb’s Chicago, she had almost as much to do. In “Funny Honey,” she went from an adulterous wife who was sure of her husband’s devotion to a furious one who couldn’t understand why he “betrayed” her. Her delicious laugh was the perfect way to start “Roxie,” and her silky delivery was equally divine in “Nowadays.”
Before Verdon found her niche on Broadway, she tried her luck in Hollywood, where she didn’t succeed as mightily. Nevertheless, her love for movie musicals can be proved by The Girl I Left Home For, her only solo album.Just as many of the twelve selections came from Hollywood as from Broadway: six each.
(That’s easy to discern, for the name of each song on the back cover is accompanied by “from” and the name of the vehicle from which it originated. Yeah, the album was produced in the era when songs loved to proudly proclaim any affinity with Broadway or Hollywood.)
Three songs – “Bettin’ on a Man,” “It’s a Hot Night in Alaska” and “No-Talent Joe” – came from the 1951 film Meet Me after the Show. This was the first collaboration for composer Jule Styne and lyricist Leo Robin after they’d penned their smash Broadway hit Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Although Meet Me after the Show is a rather obscure film, there’s no mystery in how Verdon discovered these songs; she’d appeared in the movie and in “No-Talent Joe” had danced side-to-side with star Betty Grable.
Verdon’s voice may have been modest, but she knew how to underline a potent lyric. Witness how she worked the tricky Cole Porter lyrics in “Mister and Missus Fitch” and “Find Me a Primitive Man.” She managed to make “The Saga of Jenny” sound almost autobiographical. In “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” when she proclaimed that she was “savin’ all my love for you,” you believe her. And yet, when she sang Bobby Troup’s delectable “Daddy,” you knew the one she called her daddy wasn’t her paw.
But the real question: did Gwen Verdon sound so secure on “I’ve Got the World on a String” because in the mid-‘50s she seemingly did when she recorded The Girl I Left Home For?
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com. His upcoming book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-to-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available for pre-order at www.amazon.com.