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From The 'Fresh Air' Archives: Dancer Gwen Verdon


And now, as promised, Gwen Verdon herself. She was a four-time Tony Award winner and the standard against which many Broadway dancers were measured. A 1959 Time Magazine review of the musical "Redhead," directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse, described Verdon like this - quote, "her articulate hands, toes and torso are parts of speech. Her body is an erotic spoof, spelling sex in quotes as she over-tilts a wayward hip or dislocates an amorous shoulder." Terry Gross spoke with Gwen Verdon in 1993. First, let's hear her sing one of the numbers from "Sweet Charity."


GWEN VERDON: (Singing) If they could see me now, that little gang of mine. I'm eating fancy chow and drinking fancy wine. I'd like those stumble bums to see for a fact the kind of top drawer, first-rate chums I attract. All I can say is, wowee (ph), look at where I am. Tonight I landed, pow, right in a pot of jam. What a setup, holy cow. They'd never believe it if my friends could see me now.


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Now, I read about you that you had rickets when you were very young.


GROSS: And that damaged your legs.

VERDON: You're born that way. I guess it's from some kind of malnutrition. But it - with corrective exercise, not surgery, which they wanted to do - and my mother wouldn't allow it. But the orthopedic surgeon explained to her that one muscle was too long on the outside of the leg. And the inner muscle on the leg - no, that one was too long, and the outside one was too short. So what a lousy knee joint to swing out so my legs made an X, if you can picture that. Anyway, she decided to, through exercise, shorten the inner muscle and stretch the outside one.

GROSS: And did that work?

VERDON: It sure did, that and corrective boots. They never operated.

GROSS: What did the corrective boots look like?

VERDON: Oh, God. They were just dreadful. They were big, high-top brown things and the heel was very crooked. It would make me walk on the outsides of my feet so that the inner muscle would stay short. I must say it worked because within, oh, I would say two to four years, my legs looked straight. Though, I had to wear these shoes - corrective shoes, whenever I was home or in school.

GROSS: I don't understand how you were able to dance with your knee - with your legs in such bad shape and having to wear these corrective boots all the time.

VERDON: Oh, no, I didn't dance with them on. And I did all kinds of the exercises. My mother kept saying, yes, you're doing ballet. But instead of my heels being together in a turned-out position, I was always doing everything with my toes as much together as possible, which would keep stretching that outside muscle.

GROSS: So you did almost corrective dance?

VERDON: Oh, absolutely.

GROSS: I guess - I'm wondering if you were ever self-conscious when you started to dance on stage since you grew up so self-conscious about your legs.

VERDON: You know, I was so young when I began performing that I don't remember being self-conscious. I do remember in 1959, I think it was - again, it was "Redhead". And it was the first time I ever read reviews. And I never read reviews on any of the other shows. And in "Redhead," they kept calling me a great beauty - an Arlene Dahl type, who is a great beauty. And I - then I became very embarrassed, very - well, I did develop a stage fright.

GROSS: After that review, you developed stage fright?


GROSS: Why did that review lead to stage - it's such a flattering review. Why did it lead to stage fright?

VERDON: It's very flattering, but I've never thought - and I still don't, and I know it's the truth. I am not a great beauty. I feel like one on stage, but I felt like an absolute fool being compared to Arlene Dahl. And I thought those critics must be sitting in the back row of the third balcony.

GROSS: (Laughter) So that made you feel like a fraud?


GROSS: Well, when you started getting stage fright, what were the symptoms, and how did you deal with it?

VERDON: I would shake. My mouth would go dry, and I was afraid to be on stage.

GROSS: Who - would somebody have to talk you onto stage?

VERDON: I'd get out there and then panic.

GROSS: What's a time when you actually panicked on stage?

VERDON: It, again, was during "Redhead." And I would be out there with the entire cast, and everyone would leave. And I would have to sing a song. And sometimes I would just walk off and get my aunt, with whom I had to play the next scene. And I just skipped the song. I couldn't sing it.

GROSS: What would the director say when you did that?

VERDON: He was my husband.


VERDON: He understood. He sent me to an excellent doctor, and I was fine. But then I was also given an article to read about Laurence Olivier, who also had stage fright and would turn his back. Everyone thought, what a unique way of playing - being an actor, to be able to turn your back on the audience and play a scene. So whenever I would get this feeling - because by that time, I'd be afraid of being afraid. And when that would happen, I would turn my back and sing the song. And it worked.

GROSS: Did people in the audience assume that this was innovative stage direction?

VERDON: Well, if it worked for Laurence Olivier, it was going to certainly have to work for me.

BIANCULLI: Terry Gross speaking with Gwen Verdon in 1993. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.



Let's get back to Terry's 1993 interview with Gwen Verdon. The new FX series "Fosse/Verdon," premiering next Tuesday, is about Verdon and her collaborator and former husband, choreographer Bob Fosse. Here is

Gwen Verdon in a show stopping number from "Damn Yankees."


VERDON: (As Lola, singing) Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets. And little man, little Lola wants you. Make up your mind to have no regrets. Recline yourself. Resign yourself. You're through. I always get what I aim for, and your heart and soul is what I came for. Whatever Lola wants...


GROSS: I think "Damn Yankees" was the first Broadway show that you worked on with Bob Fosse who later became your husband.


GROSS: What was it like the first time you worked with him and danced to his choreography? What was different about his choreography and direction from what you had experienced before?

VERDON: The first thing that I noticed was it was so amusing. I know - I know it was sensuous. I know it was all of those things, but it was done with such a sense of humor and also done with the innocence of a child. So you weren't acting sexy. It just came out that way. And I was amazed at the training because I had excellent training in many disciplines of dance, and I was amazed at how disciplined and what was required with Bob's work.

GROSS: What was required of you that you...

VERDON: Ballet, tap, isolation, which I had learned from East Indian dancing. And, I mean, there was his humor. I had worked with Jack Cole, who always did very sensuous women. He did Gilda for that number - Gilda - from the movie "Gilda" for Rita Hayworth. I think he's probably more famous for that number, but it's not funny. And Bob would do the same kind of thing - not the same steps. But his point of view was the flip side of that. It was just making fun of being sexy, which comes out much more sexy.

GROSS: Do you feel that you played Lola, the devilish seductress, as funny?

VERDON: I played it as a child. Have you seen little girls all dressed up in their mothers' clothes...

GROSS: Mmm hmm.

VERDON: ...You know, and lipstick smeared all over their face? I did it like that.

GROSS: When you said that there was isolation required for Bob Fosse's choreography, do you mean, like, just moving one shoulder or an elbow or just, like, one part of the body?

VERDON: Yes. And it was extremely musical. That was up to Bob. I mean, the music is the groundwater, but he would catch every little thing. If you moved your little finger, there would be a ting on a triangle. So - and there was an economy to the movement. You didn't just sort of blast out and dance. It was isolation and discipline. That's the only thing I could think of.

GROSS: Would he do the moves to show you what he wanted?

VERDON: Yes. And they were hysterical. And I went and said, I don't think I can do that in high heels. So Bob put on high heels and did it, so...

GROSS: Oh, no (laughter)

VERDON: Oh, absolutely.

GROSS: (Laughter) So...

VERDON: Well, he believed me, but he had to find out for himself.

GROSS: Well, could he do it in high heels?

VERDON: Sure. He could.

GROSS: So then you were forced to do it.

VERDON: Not forced - I thought, oh, as soon as I could see how he did it in heels.

GROSS: What was the trick?

VERDON: It was not a trick. It was a certain step in "Lola" where you keep twisting. And I kept (ph) thinking the heels are - one heel is going to scrape by my other foot.

GROSS: So what was the solution he came up with?

VERDON: Just do it. You know...

GROSS: Just do it.

VERDON: And if you're turned in enough - you had to be very turned in, which worked just great for me because that's how I studied dance. That's how my mother taught me when I was 2.

GROSS: Because of your muscle problem.


GROSS: You worked with Bob Fosse on several musicals - "New Girl In Town," "Redhead," "Chicago," "Sweet Charity" as well as "Damn Yankees." Were there particular things that he liked to use you for that he thought of as being Gwen Verdon moves, you know, that were just saved for you?

VERDON: No. You know, because you couldn't do the same movement on somebody else, and because they're built differently and have a different point of view, it does not look the same. And Bob was very good about, I guess, using what the person had. I don't know what I've got. But I know when Annie Reinking replaced me in the show, she has great legs, and she can jump even in high-heel shoes. I was never a jumper, even barefoot. And so Bob would use this extension that Annie had and the fact that she could leap like that - great grand jete. And so he would change the steps.

GROSS: Once you and Bob Fosse were married, was it any harder or easier to work together?

VERDON: No, because I never thought of him, when we were working, as my husband. In fact, Judy Garland came backstage one time, and she said, oh, your husband's done a fabulous job. And I actually said, who?

GROSS: (Laughter).

VERDON: I don't associate that at all.

GROSS: Why was it easier to not think of him as your husband?

VERDON: I - it was not that I just did not think of him. He was the director. He was the choreographer. He wasn't my husband when we were working.

BIANCULLI: Actress and dancer Gwen Verdon speaking to Terry Gross in 1993. Her story and her complicated relationship with Bob Fosse will be dramatized beginning next week in a new FX miniseries called "Fosse/Verdon." After a break, we'll hear from another major figure in the world of dance, choreographer Merce Cunningham. And film critic Justin Chang will review the new sci-fi movie "High Life." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Stop the presses.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) We both reached for the gun, says Roxie.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Dancing feet lead to sorrow, says beautiful jazz slayer.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Roxie sobs, I'd give anything to bring him back.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Jazz and liquor - Roxie's downfall.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As Roxie, laughter) I always wanted my name in the papers. Before Amos, I used to date this well-to-do ugly bootlegger. He used to like to take me out and show me off. Ugly guys like to do that. Once it said in the paper, gangland's Al Capelli seen with cute redheaded chorine. That was me (laughter). I clipped it out and saved it. Look; I'm going to tell you the truth, not that the truth really matters. But I'm going to tell you anyway. The thing is, see; I'm older than I ever...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.