If "Fosse/Verdon" whet your appetite for the impeccable Gwen Verdon, then Merely Marvelous: The Dancing Genius of Gwen Verdon is the three-course meal you've been craving. The new documentary—available now on Amazon for rental or purchase—dives into the life of the Tony-winning performer and silver-screen star lauded for her charismatic dancing.
Though she's perhaps most well-known today as Bob Fosse's wife and muse, that's not even half of her story. For starters, she'd already won four Tonys before they wed, making her far more famous in the public eye than he was at that point in his career. That's just one of many surprising details we learned during last night's U.S. premiere of Merely Marvelous. Believe us: You're gonna love her even more once you get to know her. Here are eight lesser-known tidbits to get you started.
1. As a child, Verdon had rickets.
The young dancer had to wear special shoes and leg braces because she developed rickets as a toddler. Though the disease causes softened bones and bowlegs, her ballet training helped her build considerable strength. Even as she took on a few dance roles in Hollywood movies as a teen, she still had to wear braces in her downtime.
2. She became a teen mother, and sold horse meat to support her son.
At 17, Verdon became pregnant by a tabloid reporter and family friend, James Henaghan, who was much older than she was. Though they were married for about four years, he was an alcoholic, and the relationship ended in divorce. When her son was young, Verdon supported him by selling horse meat at a pet store—the country was in the midst of World War II, so jobs were scarce. And because she was under 18 at the time, she didn't think she'd be able to get a more reliable job as a chorus dancer for Hollywood films.
3. Though uncredited, she worked with Gene Kelly on Singin' in the Rain.
For Singin' in the Rain, Verdon and Carol Haney served as Gene Kelly's uncredited choreography assistants. Back then, tap sounds were recorded separately and added in postproduction. That crisp tapping you hear in the movie's iconic titular number? Merely Marvelous reports that it belongs to Verdon and Haney, who danced with their feet submerged in water. (This claim, however, is disputed by Kelly's family, who says Kelly recorded his own sounds.)
4. Verdon was Broadway royalty before she and Fosse married.
When the paid wed in 1960, she'd already won four Tonys: one for Best Featured Actress in a Musical in 1954's Can-Can and three Best Actress awards for Damn Yankees, New Girl in Town and Redhead. In other words, he didn't "make" her.
5. Verdon, who's known for her sexiness, admits she never "tried" to be sexy.
One of her most famous roles is the smoldering temptress Lola in the Broadway and film versions of Damn Yankees. Yet Verdon says she never aimed to make the character sexy. Instead, she drew on her young niece's cutesiness and translated that to an adult woman when shaping the role. In Merely Marvelous, she says that actively trying to be sexy in the role would have made her feel uncomfortable and bashful.
6. She adored Charlie Chaplin.
Verdon grew up watching silent film star Charlie Chaplin, a lifelong idol. In the documentary, when Nicole Fosse (Verdon and Fosse's daughter) reflects on why her mother connected with Chaplin so much, she points to their shared nonverbal mediums. Silent film and dancing required them each to express so much through body language and subtle movement.
"Erbie Fitch's Twitch," a number in 1959's Redhead, nods to Chaplin's vaudevillian, comedic style, and he even came to see her in the show. Afterwards backstage, he gave her one of his canes.
7. A freak vocal accident gave Verdon's voice its signature raspy quality.
While performing in Sweet Charity on Broadway, she accidentally inhaled a feather from a coat, and it got wrapped around her vocal chords, damaging them. Though she had the feather removed, Verdon says her voice was never the same after that.
8. That little ole musical called Chicago was her idea.
With the political corruption of the Watergate scandal at the forefront of Americans' minds in the 1970s, Verdon was moved to realize a longtime dream: making the 1926 play Chicago into a musical. Though Fosse was the show's director and choreographer, the whole shebang wouldn't have happened had it not been for Verdon. In the original cast, she starred opposite Chita Rivera, who idolized Verdon.