Albums

The Girl I Left Home For

The Girl I Left Home For

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Synopsis

This album by Gwen Verdon puts me in mind of the truism that Max Bialystock proclaims to Leo Bloom: “There’s more to you than you.” Likewise there’s more to beauty than having an attractive face, and there’s more to great singing than having an outstanding voice. Gwen Verdon was one of the greatest dancing leading ladies in the history of the American stage, yet it wasn’t purely her terpsichoric technique that elevated her out of the chorus, it was her personality; Verdon also realized very early on that there’s more to dancing than just dancing. There was something special about her that no one else had. You could surround Verdon with 12 Playboy bunnies or Swedish bathing beauties and hers would still be the face and body that you would look at first. She’s irresistible, you fool. Give in. Verdon illustrates the difference between merely singing a song and selling it – putting it over – communicating the message and the story that the songwriter had in mind, even if she didn’t have a voice like Barbara Cook. What Irving Berlin once said about the other greatest dancer, Fred Astaire, applies equally to Verdon: that her heart was in a song long before her feet got involved. The details that she puts into every track – singing virtually all the verses of every song, and getting everything exactly right – not just the words but the nuances, shows how much the act of singing meant to her. She works just as hard at putting over the twelve songs in this album as she would have at perfecting her numbers in any of her full-fledged Broadway productions. During the period in which Verdon recorded The Girl I Left Home For, it’s fair to say that she was the reigning Queen of Broadway. No musical actress was more decorated by the Antoinette Perry (Tony®) Awards: she won Tony’s four out of the six years between 1954 and 1959, for Can Can, Damn Yankees, New Girl in Town, and Redhead, and in all the latter three she was directed or choreographed by her future husband, the most celebrated of all post-war dance directors, Bob Fosse. Even though Verdon was not primarily a singer, RCA Victor had good reason for recording her, and for more than the celebrity of the Tony awards. When the 12” LP arrived in the mid-50s, record labels instantly discovered the advantages of placing good-looking women in snug clothing (or, in some cases, very little clothing) on the covers; in many cases, buxom models even turned up on the covers of instrumental albums by male artists (a tradition that should be revived). The company apparently reasoned that Verdon’s Broadway accolades plus her vivacious looks and ability to put a song over added up to at least one album. Regrettably, she didn’t make any more, but this was a funny period, in which even Barbara Cook, Julie Andrews, Judy Holliday, or even The Mighty Merman herself didn’t record nearly as much as they should have (and the same thing went for the great singing leading men, like John Raitt and Alfred Drake). Verdon’s one album, The Girl I Left Home For, remains a truly under-appreciated gem. Verdon came from a family on the fringes of show-business. Verdon’s mother, Gertrude, had been a dancer and disciple of the famous modern dancer Ruth St. Denis (immortalized in Johnny mercer’s classic song, “Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry”: “If I ‘ain’t a menace to Ruth St. Denis”). After Gertrude’s performing career was over, she ran a Denishawn dance studio in Culver City. Her daughter Gwyneth Evelyn Verdon, was born in that southern California town on January 13, 1925. As a toddler, Gwyneth suffered from rickets; for a few of her earliest years, she could barely stand up and walked only with the aid of orthopedic devices. Her mother put Gwyneth through a relentless regimen of dance classes, not only because it was her life, but it was the best way she knew to strengthen the little girl’s legs. It worked: by the age of six, Gwen was performing regularly in dance recitals, and was also studying a variety of forms beyond ballet. Gwen’s father, Joseph William Verdon, was an electrician, and when Gwen was two, he got a job at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in Culver City. Twenty-nine years later, when The Girl I Left Home For was recorded, he was still at MGM. Verdon’s connections undoubtedly helped his daughter, but, as it happened, her first job in motion pictures was in the 1936 Columbia film The King Steps Out, doing a solo ballerina spot, when Gwen was 11. While in high school, she studied under the famous dance master Ernest Belcher (whose daughter, Marge Belcher, was soon to become one of the most famous dancers in the movies, as Marge Champion). Verdon’s studies and her career were interrupted when she eloped with her first husband, and, soon after, had her first child, at the age of 17 in 1943. By 1945, Verdon was working again, and appeared in her second film, an uncredited appearance as a girl in a nightclub scene in The Blonde from Brooklyn, a Columbia B-musical. According to the original liner notes on her RCA album, in the mid-‘40s, Verdon was also working as a journalist, covering films and night clubs for The Hollywood Reporter. It was in this capacity that she encountered Jack Cole, who, like her mother, was a veteran of the St. Denis troupe and was soon to emerge as one of the most influential choreographers in the history of Broadway and Hollywood. Verdon first worked with Cole as a student, and eventually as dancing partner and assistant. It was through Cole that Verdon was hired for anonymous dancing spots in several more films, including On The Riviera, Meet Me After The Show, and David and Bathsheba, three 1951 Twentieth Century Fox releases. Cole also shepherded Verdon through her first Broadway credits, the 1948 musical Magdalena (in which she was billed as “assistant choreographer”) and the 1950 revue Alive and Kicking, in which she had several featured numbers. In 1953, Verdon came to the attention of another legendary choreographer, Michael Kidd, who gave Verdon her first notable acting and singing role as the second female lead in the hit Cole Porter show, Can Can, which led to her first Tony® Award. After Belcher, Cole, and Kidd, Verdon would then attain the upper brackets of Broadway greatness with still another choreographer, the most famous of them all, Bob Fosse. Between 1955 and 1959, she and Fosse would strike it rich with three hit shows and three Tony® awards in a row for Damn Yankees, New Girl In Town, and Redhead (the cast album of the latter production would also win a Grammy®). Given their runaway victory together, it seemed only natural that, in 1960, Fosse would become Verdon’s second husband and, despite many trials and tribulations that they would still be together at the time of his death 27 years later. Of the First of the original three Fosse-Verdon hits, Damn Yankees (1955) was by far the biggest blockbuster: it ran two years, won six out of eight Tony® awards that it was nominated for (including Best Musical and best actor and actress awards for all three leading players), and did so much business that Hollywood was moved to make it into a musical, which also was a hit and gave Verdon her only major leading role in a film. Verdon made Yankees and vice-versa: playing the Devil’s temptress, “Lola” (a name inspired by the 19th Century dancer and courtesan Lola Montez, as well as “Lola Lola,” Marlene Dietrich’s seductress in The Blue Angel), Verdon created one of the most recognizable icons of the Golden Years of Broadway. The show was allegedly about baseball (not to mention Satanism), but the cover of both the cast album and the original movie soundtrack showed neither a ballplayer nor Beelzebub but rather Vernon as Lola, looking stacked and sexy in a merry widow corset and high heels, defiant and, as contemporary feminists would say, empowered. It was after the triumph of Yankees that RCA, who would do both of the Yankees albums (as well as New Girl and Redhead), came a callin’: here was a Broadway leading lady with sex appeal, and the cover of The Girl I Left Home For, which shows Vernon reclining on a table, giving the camera her most enticing Lola-Lola-like look. Virtually every song is something of a Lola variation, with Verdon continuing to play the femme fatale with varying degrees of seriousness and self-parody. RCA might well have titled the album, Lola Sings For You (She’s Irresistible, You Fool!). I’ve heard plenty of people sing Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” before, in fact, the big string arrangement (credited to RCA conductor Joe Reisman) is reminiscent of the one recorded that same year by Nat King Cole and Gordon Jenkins, however, I’ve never heard anyone quite sing it like Verdon, from the position of a sex-kitten-ish tease, as if to say, “I ain’t misbehaving… or am I?” The appeal of “Daddy” (written by Bobby Troup a decade before he became husband and producer for Julie London) is obvious, with Verdon starting with the verse (sung by the band as a male chorus in the original Sammy Kaye hit single) and doing it not strictly for campy laughs. Likewise, “The Lady Is a Tramp,” Find Me a Primitive Man,” and “Jenny” (aka “The Saga Of Jenny”) are equally applicable; on the first she gets the verse right (many singers change “grifted to drifted”) although she truncates part of the Gershwin lyric to the latter. “It’s A Hot Night In Alaska,” “Bettin’ On A man” and “No-Talent Joe,” all by Jule Styne and Leo Robin, come from Verdon’s own past by way of the 1951 movie musical Meet Me After the Show. Verdon was an uncredited dancer in that film, in which all three were sung by star Betty Grable (although Verdon was prominent in the third number). And all three, appropriately, concern themselves with male-female interactions: “Hot Night In Alaska” is a Robert Service-inspired romp with a Lady-That’s-Known-As-Lou type melting the Yukon snow, while, “Bettin’ On A Man” compares a woman’s odds at winning at love with those of winning on a horse race, and finds men wanting in terms of their fidelity in contrast with their equestrian counterparts. “No Talent Joe” is a witty parody of a long-running line of lascivious laments regarding Latino Lotharios such as “Cuban Pete” and “South American Joe,” and is a good showpiece for the lyrical skills of Mr. Robin, with lines like “the rhumba-seekin’ ladies weaken / For that senor.” The album is divided between a large string section backing, as on “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Why Can’t I?,” Sand In My Shoes,” a brassy big band, as on “Jenny” and “Find Me A Primitive Man” and a hot combo, a five-piece rhythm section such as the one that Peggy Lee was then using, with piano, vibes, guitar, bass, drums and Latin percussion, as on “No Talent Joe” and “The Lady Is A Tramp.” Cole Porter, who was undoubtedly overjoyed that Verdon had done so much to make Can Can a hit, was probably delighted with Verdon’s treatment of two of his funniest and sexiest numbers, “Find Me A Primitive Man,” which juxtaposes muted trumpets over something like a stripper’s bump-and-grind beat, and the comic narrative “Mister and Missus Fitch.” There are only three tracks that fall completely out of the Lola-sphere, and all of them are gems, “Why Can’t I?” a Rodgers & Hart classic heard in Billy Rose’s Jumbo and a rare Verdon contemplation about the state of being, for once, man-less; “I’ve Got The World On A String,” with the verse (famously not sung by Sinatra) and rendered in a restlessly sultry fashion; my personal favorite track on the album is the Victor Schertzinger-Johnny Mercer (and Bobby Short perennial) “Sand In My Shoes,” which Verdon sings with the full ensemble plus percussion, not to mention sand, from Havana, giving it just the right mixture of exotica and erotica. After the whirlwind of activity in the late ‘50s, Verdon appears to have taken it easy in the early years of her marriage, during which her daughter, Nicole Fosse, was born in 1963. Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse would do only two more productions together, Sweet Charity (1966) and Chicago (1975), but they both were all-time milestones of the musical theater. Regrettably, Verdon died on October 18, 2000 at the age of 75, never to have done another album of her own; The Girl I Left Home For would be her one major solo statement as a recording artist. Fifty years later, it still serves as a marvelous reminder of the years when Gwen Verdon was the most celebrated performer in the theater and, quite literally, had the world on a string. She’s irresistible, you fool. Give in. –Will Friedwald, June 4, 2007

Credits

Produced for reissue by Hugh Fordin Associate Producer: Jim Kelly Production Assistant: Anaida Garcia Creative Director: Paul Grosso Art Direction and Design: Elizabeth Yoon Mastering: Alan Silverman at ARF! Digital