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Merely Marvelous: The Dancing Genius of Gwen Verdon
by James Wilson

This has been a very good year for Gwen Verdon. Michelle Williams received critical acclaim (and an Emmy nomination) for her performance in Fosse/Verdon, the FX miniseries developed by Steven Levenson and Thomas Kail. Currently, Verdon is the subject of Merely Marvelous: The Dancing Genius of Gwen Verdon, a new documentary film written, directed and edited by Chris Johnson and Ken Bloom. More than four decades after her last Broadway appearance, this singular star is once again assuming her rightful place in the spotlight.

Whereas the miniseries focused on the personal and professional relationship of director and choreographer Bob Fosse and his muse, the documentary traces Verdon's life from her difficult beginnings to Broadway stardom and beyond. Incorporating rare footage from all of her major Broadway musicals (from Can-Can to Chicago), television and film clips, and interviews with people who knew her intimately and worked with her onstage, Merely Marvelous presents a fully rounded portrait of Verdon.

As Chris Johnson says, people may know her as a matchless dancer, but they may be surprised to hear about the remarkable story behind her impressive career. He says, "She was also an amazing person. She did so many wonderful things over the years for so many people and touched so many lives." Interviews include family members, such as her son James Henaghan, daughter Nicole Fosse, and nephew Paul Verdon. Also on the roster of interviewees are artists from stage and screen, including Chita Rivera, Tab Hunter, John Kander, Charlotte d'Amboise, Harvey Evans, and Lee Roy Reams.

While Verdon may seem to be an ideal subject for a film documentary, the project actually came about rather accidentally. At a party in Arizona, actress Penny Fuller was introduced to Dennis Fill, a self-described "ultimate fan" of Verdon. Fill had seen the star perform on Broadway in everything she had done, from Damn Yankees to Chicago. As evidence of his ultimate fandom, Fill was working in Hong Kong when Verdon appeared in Sweet Charity, but made a special trip to New York to see her performance. Fuller suggested Fill contact theatre historian, author and playwright Ken Bloom.

Gwen Verdon in Damn Yankees
Photo courtesy of Photofest
Bloom told Fill about a treasure trove of Verdon clips which had been culled by Miles Krueger, the president and founder of the Institute of the American Musical. The collection included color film shot by a Broadway enthusiast from Florida who recorded musical moments in the 1950s-1960s with a handheld, motorized movie camera. The material had "sat in boxes" for decades, so the images are pristine. In this film collection was rare footage from Damn Yankees, Can-Can, New Girl in Town and Redhead.

Fortuitously, Fill's wife was dabbling in documentary filmmaking at the time, and she assembled the footage into a short movie. When Bloom saw the result, he realized they had the basis for a full-length biography. "We should do this for real," he announced. With Fill serving as executive producer, the men tapped photographer and filmmaker Johnson, whose documentary A Better Life: An Exploitation of Joy and Meaning in a World without God had been screened internationally.

For Bloom the undertaking is much more than a labor of love; it is a crucial aspect of preserving the heritage of the Broadway musical. He explains, "Instead of just having a recording of Verdon on a soundtrack or on an original cast album, it's just so great to have something where you really see her doing her stuff." He adds, "So many of these older performers like Alfred Drake, John Raitt, and even Mary Martin, are pretty much forgotten. They were all great, and they contributed so much to what Broadway is now."

Dance historian Kevin Winkler, who appears in the film, agrees that Verdon's influences have left an indelible impression. He says, "In addition to her own accomplishments, she has served as a catalyst for the career achievements of others." Pointing to the lineage of dancers who have followed in her footsteps, he contends, "Several generations of dancing actresses have measured themselves against the standards that Verdon set. Shirley MacLaine, Liza Minnelli, Ann Reinking, Bebe Neuwirth, Juliet Prowse, Gretchen Wyler, Charlotte d'Amboise, Debbie Allen, Donna McKechnie, Sutton Foster, Christina Applegate, Renee Zellweger, and more have played roles she created."

One of her greatest achievements remains her contribution to dance in musical theatre. In the 1940s and 1950s she worked with choreographer Jack Cole, who was influenced by the Indian classical dance form, Bharatanatyam. According to Winkler, "The Bharatanatyam technique is built around isolations of the head, neck, and upper body, and a vocabulary of often minute gestures of the hands, face, and even the eyes." When she began working with Bob Fosse in the 1950s, Fosse incorporated many of these techniques into his choreography. Bloom says that her influence on Fosse truly "shows how important she was for the length of the history of musical theatre of her time."

Gwen Verdon
Photo courtesy of Photofest
Yet, as Merely Marvelous reveals, on-stage Verdon was more than just an excellent dancer; she was the consummate Broadway performer. Winkler says, "Verdon had a distinctive voice that matched her physical presentation: sparkly and crinkly, like crushed cellophane." He notes that her delivery of songs is "slightly undervalued" today. "Her singing," he explains, "like her speaking voice, carried a trace of saucy humor that could shade into seriousness. No one ever sang 'Whatever Lola Wants' with quite the delicious naughtiness of Verdon, and no one has acted the 'Roxie' monologue with the same sardonic humor or sudden poignancy that Verdon brought to it."

Musical theatre lovers will revel in the plethora of dance clips—some of which are presented for the first time—assembled in the film. As Winkler enthusiastically says, "You can never have too much Verdon, Fosse, or Jack Cole! Their work is a testament to dance at its highest level of accomplishment." As Johnson also explains, the documentary offers much more than a collage of dance numbers. "What I'm really proud of with the film is not only showing her amazing artistry, but showing her as a person. Despite all of the obstacles she overcame, she maintained her sense of humor, she maintained an integrity, a kindness, a love for others. She supported and helped other people—other artists, other dancers—which I hope comes across as well in the film."

In sum, Merely Marvelous promises an indispensable glimpse at the life of a one-of-a-kind performer, her legacy, and the musical theatre world in which she worked. As Bloom remarks, "You get a taste of what Gwen Verdon was like, what the choreography was like, and what Broadway of its time was like."

Merely Marvelous: The Dancing Genius of Gwen Verdon is now available on Amazon Prime. A DVD will follow.

=== Editor's note: A previously published version of this piece omitted the credit to Miles Krueger and the Institute of the American Musical. We apologize for this error.