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Say Gwen

Say Gwen

By Peter Filichia —

This month’s Friday the 13th can be considered both lucky and unlucky for Broadway. It would have marked the 87th birthday of Gwen Verdon, and we’re all pretty sad that we don’t have the lady around to celebrate both her and her achievements. But, oh, aren’t we lucky that her parents gave birth to her on this date in 1925 in Culver City, California?

Alas, Verdon, who appeared in seven Broadway musicals — and got six Tony nominations and four awards for her troubles – died at 75 in 2000. But since 1993, when I interviewed the star, I’ve reserved a day in early January to re-listen to the cassette tape (yeah, cassette tape!) I made that heavenly May day.

Here are some excerpts I’d like to share with you.

On her early life: “When I fell in love with Fred Astaire as a little girl, I went to school and started writing my name as Ginger on test papers. I even fell in love at 14 with a boy because he looked like Fred Astaire. I guess Bob (Fosse) did, too. That’s my type!”

On childhood: “Everyone else was having fun doing so many things, but the only thing that was fun for me was dancing and being on stage.”

On being a Jack Cole dancer: “It didn’t bother me that I wasn’t getting my name on the marquee. It is still a thrill to have been a Jack Cole dancer, and any Jack Cole dancer will brag about it. Even people who say, ‘I studied with Buzz Miller, or Matt Mattox’ will add, ‘who was a Jack Cole dancer.’”

On Bonanza Bound: “When they told us we were closing in Philadelphia, all I could think of is, I guess I’ll go back home to Culver City.” (Thank the Lord that she didn’t.)

On Magdalena: “The dancing was truly extraordinary, and the sets were so glorious. I felt terrible when I saw them dumped into the East River. The score was so difficult, though. One song was in 11/4. John Raitt had one that went 5/4, 3/4, 2/4, really. How we danced to it, I’ll never know.”

On Can-Can: “I remember this woman who was standby for Lilo kept saying to me, ‘You’re going to make theatrical history.’ They say I did, but it seemed to have greater effect on other people than it did on me. I never thought of ‘my career’ as something I planned. I just did show after show. I feel like I backed into everything I’ve ever done.”

On Damn Yankees: “In Boston, they gave me the song ‘A Little Brains, a Little Talent,’ and told me that it would have to go in that very night. Well, I told them I didn’t think I could learn it that fast, so, because it was going to be done as an in-one, they put the stage manager behind me, singing each line just a second ahead of when I’d have to sing it. This was the song for which I eventually got hate mail, because Lola mentioned that she slept with George Washington. ‘How dare you say that about the father of our country?!’ It wouldn’t be the last time I got in a censorship scandal.” (See New Girl in Town. )

On New Girl in Town: “These days, nothing is censored, but back then, we had a big ballet which was cut. People think that was because Mr. Abbott was prudish, but it all started because a crossing guard came with her 16-year old daughter and complained. So Mr. Abbott took it out. Once we were in New York — I still remember it was on June 23” (the show had opened on May 14) “Bob and I sneakily put the ballet back in.”

On Redhead: “We were a murder musical long before Sweeney Todd. Richard Kiley and I played two dummies that bumped together in the night. I actually got the script by accident, after Bea Lillie and Mary Martin had turned it down. Though it was called The Wax Works before I got involved, it was called Redhead before I got in it, not because of my hair, but because redheaded people were part of the plot. We even had stage managers who had red hair, and even Bobby Fryer, the producer, had red hair. So it wasn’t named after me as a lot of people thought. It was also the most rigorous one of all the shows I did.”

On Sweet Charity: “I inhaled a feather one night, and I had to go into a big medical procedure — don’t ask me the name of it — to take it out. They did a good enough job that time, but they wouldn’t later.” (See Chicago).

On Chicago: “This time, a piece of confetti landed on my vocal cord. They removed the confetti, but strangely enough, they paralyzed my larynx and vocal cord while operating. I had to learn to speak all over again, but pronouncing a ‘p’ was too tough. So when I got back into the show and reached the lyric in ‘Funny Honey,’ ‘He’s a whole lot greater than the sum of his parts,’ I had to substitute ‘parts’ with ‘barts.’ I didn’t know what else to do.”

On television appearances: “Once, when I appeared as Lola on TV, they never showed my entire body on the screen. They’d cut away every time, because they were worried about what I’d look like when I stripped off some of the costume. Today, people walk down Broadway in less.”

On Hollywood: “It’s fine – if you’re working. If you’re not, they make you feel like you’re a failure. I can go months without working in New York, just watching the flowers grow in the country, feeding the birds, reading a book, and being with friends, and I never once feel like a failure.”

On later roles: “I like that I’ve been Tom Selleck’s mother, and Richard Gere’s mother, and Karen Valentine’s mother, but best of all was being Mia Farrow’s mother; that made me Mamma Mia.”

On Bob Fosse: “We lived together for five years before we got married. I didn’t particularly care about getting married, but for all Bob’s eroticism, he didn’t want to have children out of wedlock.”

On daughter Nicole Fosse’s telling her that she wanted to become a dancer: “I said, ‘Okay, but you cannot just goof off. When it comes to dance, motherhood goes out the window. I’m going to make sure you do it right, or not at all.’”

On the 1986 Sweet Charity revival: “They dropped ‘Charity’s Soliloquy,’ which I loved, but I’m the only one who ever wanted to do it. Juliet Prowse dropped it in Las Vegas, and they dropped it in the movie. But I think it’s brilliant and the greatest bossa nova ever.”

On her legacy: “It seems so strange to me when people refer to me in the past. I know I’m not on stage anymore by choice, but I don’t feel like I’m in the past. I’m still so involved in living.”

And that, Ms. Verdon, is what I still want to believe, too.

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at;. His books on musicals are available at