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.
When you're talking about a style as distinct as Fosse, a flick of the wrist or a roll of the hip is never just that. It takes intention, finesse, exactness and, of course, that characteristically smoldering sex appeal.
Now that the finale of "Fosse/Verdon" has aired, FX is taking viewers behind the scenes to reveal how the dancing came together—and it wasn't just a quick reconstruction.
You can see them in "Fosse/Verdon" episode one. Michelle Williams, playing Gwen Verdon, wears them with a cool, retro, forest-green jumpsuit. Tucked beneath a mop top of tousled Gwen Verdon locks, Williams sports a pair of discreet and tasteful onyx drop-earrings—the dancer's favorites. Verdon wore them all her adult life, according to her daughter Nicole Fosse, a co-executive producer of the FX series that puts a spotlight on a great woman of American dance.
"I have very little memory of my mother wearing other earrings. They were her Gwen Verdon earrings," says Fosse, speaking by phone from her home in Vermont. "She's wearing them in 99 percent of the pictures of her performing."
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
To say that we're excited about "Fosse/Verdon" might be understating things a bit. The new limited series charting the romantic and creative partnership of Bob Fosse (played by Sam Rockwell) and Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams) was announced last summer. And, with Bob and Gwen's daughter Nicole Fosse on board as co-executive producer and creative consultant, alongside most of the Hamilton dream team (with Andy Blankenbuehler on choreography), we've had high hopes for its verisimilitude.
In the February 1969 issue of Dance Magazine, we talked to Bob Fosse about taking Sweet Charity from stage to screen. Though he already had a string of Tony Awards for Best Choreography and had spent plenty of time on film sets as a choreographer, this adaptation marked his first time sitting in the director's chair for a motion picture.
"When I started out, I wanted to be a Fred Astaire," he told us, "and after that a Jerome Robbins. But then I realized there was always somebody a dancer or choreographer had to take orders from. So I decided I wanted to become a director, namely a George Abbott. But as I got older I dropped the hero-worship thing. I didn't want to emulate anyone. Just wanted to do the things I was capable of doing—and have some fun doing them. By this time I'm glad I didn't turn out to be an Astaire, a Robbins or an Abbott." He would go on to become an Academy Award–winning director, indelibly changing musical theater in the process.
Get Dance Magazine in your inbox
In Paramodernities, Netta Yerushalmy deconstructs dance masterworks and presents their movement alongside scholarly essays that contextualize them. Yerushalmy has had a sterling dance career, working with Doug Varone's company and freelancing with notables like Joanna Kotze, as well as making her own dances. This particular project is in demand in such places as Jacob's Pillow this month, and later at venues across the country, including multiple New York City sites.
The news that Lin-Manuel Miranda, Andy Blankenbuehler and Thomas Kail are working together on a new project is almost too wonderful to handle. But the creative team behind Hamilton isn't reuniting for just any old thing: They're teaming up for a dance-centric television series about Broadway legends Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, and we cannot contain our excitement.
Broadway musicals have been on my mind for more than half a century. I discovered them in grade school, not in a theater but electronically. On the radio, every weeknight an otherwise boring local station would play a cast album in its entirety; on television, periodically Ed Sullivan's Sunday night variety show would feature an excerpt from the latest hit—numbers from Bye Bye Birdie, West Side Story, Camelot, Flower Drum Song.
But theater lives in the here and now, and I was in middle school when I attended my first Broadway musical, Gypsy—based, of all things, on the early life of the famed burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee. I didn't know who Jerome Robbins was, but I recognized genius when I saw it—kids morphing into adults as a dance number progresses, hilarious stripping routines, a pas de deux giving concrete shape to the romantic yearnings of an ugly duckling. It proved the birth of a lifelong habit, indulged for the last 18 years in the pages of this magazine. But all long runs eventually end, and it's time to say good-bye to the "On Broadway" column. It's not the last of our Broadway coverage—there's too much great work being created and performed, and you can count on hearing from me in print and online.
Conscientious theatergoers may be familiar with The School for Scandal, The School for Wives and School of Rock. But how many are also aware of the school of Fosse?
The 1999 musical, a posthumous exploration of the choreographic career of Bob Fosse, ran for 1,093 performances, winning four Tonys and 10 nominations; employing 32 dancers; and, completely unintentionally, nurturing a generation of Broadway choreographers. You may have heard of them: Andy Blankenbuehler and Sergio Trujillo danced in the original cast, Josh Rhodes was a swing, and Christopher Gattelli replaced Trujillo when he landed choreography jobs in Massachusetts and Canada. Blankenbuehler remembers that when Trujillo left, "It was as if he was graduating."
"It's hard not to get too hurt in this profession."
Ann Reinking got real earlier this month at New York City Dance Alliance Foundation's Bright Lights Shining Stars gala. She was being honored as a 2017 NYCDA Foundation Ambassador for the Arts, and her speech was so moving that we had to share the entire thing with you.
Our favorite part?
"It is as Bob [Fosse] said: Our profession is as important as saving a human life. Because for two hours we get the privilege of taking someone's mind off their problems, of making them laugh, making them cry, if that's what the story is about. But to flush their emotion through their own inner spirit so that they can go out and face the world again and solve yet another problem."
I have always been extremely dramatic. I think "extremely" might even be an understatement. As a child, I was constantly in costume. Never clothes. Always a costume.
When I was 8 we moved into a new house, and took a home video to send to my dad's family. My siblings were performing a song for the camera. I desperately wanted to join them, but they got annoyed and said no. In the video I run out of the room crying hysterically, and you can hear my dad saying, "It's okay, Sam, you can dance for the camera later."
This is followed by about 45 minutes of me dancing. Music changes, style changes, costume changes, the works. Dance was, and still is, the best way I know how to express myself.
I first got hooked on Broadway musicals as a preteen at Gypsy, with its tapping moppets, gyrating burlesque queens and Tulsa, the dancing heartthrob. I've been going ever since, but Dance Magazine has been at it even longer.
The 1926-27 Broadway season was just ending when DM began publication, and of its 200-plus shows, dozens were new musicals. One, a Ziegfeld revue called No Foolin', listed more than 80 performers. Such huge ensembles of dancers and singers were common, whether in revues, operettas or musical comedies.
And why not? The '20s were roaring, and Broadway was flush. But that wasn't the only difference between then and now. Dance in the theater was only tangentially related to a show's content. It was window dressing—however extravagant, it remained mere entertainment.
It's a big week in dance. From ballet to Broadway, there's a lot to keep up with, but we've got you covered. Here are the five danciest happenings that you should know about today.
1. "Wherefore art thou Romeo?" Alessandra Ferri reprises her famous Juliet tonight with Herman Cornejo at American Ballet Theatre. At 53, she's still got it.
2. Also this evening, the Rockettes kick off their new summer show, New York Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes. Now through August 7, you can check out Mia Michaels' take on their signature kicklines. Before you go, watch a sneak peek of Michaels' choreography, and read about her vision for the production.
3. While this happening is more song than dance, it'll definitely get you grooving. If you haven't already, you'll want to download this track from Broadway for Orlando. The cover of "What the World Needs Now Is Love," which dropped on iTunes on Monday, features vocals by a smattering of Broadway stars, including Lin-Manuel Miranda, Audra McDonald, Idina Menzel, and many, many more. It's a new take on an old tune for a great cause. All proceeds will benefit the GLBT Community Center of Central Florida.
4. Today is day 9 of Keone and Mari's "Preface"—their series of 15 dance videos rolled out over 15 days. From clips of Mari's solo freestyle to Keone's smooth choreo for the guys, it's like Christmas for dancers! You can watch all the installments on their YouTube channel.
5. Last but not least, today is Bob Fosse's birthday. The jazz legend known for his notoriously technical, always inventive saucy choreography would have turned 89 today. Celebrate with some sensual shimmies, a few jazz hands or a movie marathon of his flicks, like Sweet Charity (seen below), Cabaret and All That Jazz.
Training in Fosse-style jazz can help deepen performances.
A still of Fosse’s “Rich Man’s Frug,” from the 1969 film Sweet Charity. DM Archives.
Like George Balanchine and Martha Graham, Bob Fosse is one of the rare choreographers who not only created a large body of spectacular work, but also engendered an entire stylistic cannon. His slinky, sinewy movement is sensual and quirky, and his pieces are always grounded by emotional depth, whether it be Velma and Roxie’s burst of bittersweet celebration in Chicago’s “Hot Honey Rag” or “Big Spender,” the ode of the tired dancehall hostesses in Sweet Charity.
Though he died 26 years ago, Fosse’s contributions spanning the stage and silver screen haven’t lost relevance. “His work is copied repeatedly by recording artists, choreographers, and performance artists in homage to him,” says Lloyd Culbreath, who performed in original Fosse productions including Dancin’ and Big Deal. “People continue to clamor to it because it’s so singular and beautiful.” The revival of Chicago, choreographed by Fosse devotee Ann Reinking, is still running on Broadway; Pippin (with Fosse-inspired choreography by Chet Walker) is back on the scene; and many choreographers leading the field today cut their teeth in Fosse or Fosse-style productions: Graciela Daniele, Andy Blankenbuehler, and Sergio Trujillo, to name a few.
Fosse didn’t codify a technique to train future dancers, yet his style can serve as an essential underpinning for students of all disciplines. And, in a contemporary dance-scape that often focuses on athleticism and wow-factor steps, Fosse’s smooth style and attention to detail are invaluable.
Telling a Story
Fosse is known to have called his dancers “actors,” emphasizing that their primary job is to communicate a story—whether through dialogue, song, or dance. “Everything he did had an emotional, mental, physical, political, and ethical turn to it,” says Diane Laurenson, a Fosse master teacher at Steps on Broadway in New York City. “Nowadays, tricks are a dime a dozen. But a dancer who can make you sit forward in your seat is precious. Bob taught us to be complete entertainers.”
Taking a Fosse class can help dancers work on their acting chops, says Broadway veteran Valarie Pettiford, who earned a Tony nomination for her work in the revue Fosse. “Each step has an intent behind it and you have to bring out every aspect of your character to convey it.”
For Dana Moore, who teaches both at Steps and Marymount Manhattan College, students are in dire need of Fosse work—instead of screen time. “Young dancers are used to sitting with a computer,” she says. “There’s often a disconnect as far as being expressive. Fosse style encourages dancers to engage emotionally.” Moore, who performed in Dancin’ and Sweet Charity on Broadway, says it also helps develop ensemble skills. “In Fosse group numbers, each dancer is a real character and individual, while still contributing to the ensemble picture,” she says. “It helps students learn the joy of working together to create a piece.”
Valarie Pettiford and Lloyd Culbreath at American Dance Machine for the 21st Century's reconstruction rehearsal of "Beat Me Daddy Eight to the Bar," from Big Deal.
Photo by Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Verdon Fosse Estate.
Attention to Detail
Due to the intricate nature of Fosse’s choreography (a single finger wag in “All That Jazz” or a sideways glance in “Who’s Got the Pain”), patience, subtlety, and a respect for the process are honed.
“The style requires an incredible work ethic,” says Nicole Fosse, the daughter of Fosse and Gwen Verdon, and director of the Verdon Fosse Estate. “I have seen dancers work on the same four counts for three hours.” Because much of the work is based on intricate isolations, dancers develop a heightened body awareness and laser focus.
Kathryn Doby, Bob Fosse’s trusted assistant for Pippin, Chicago, and Dancin’, says the Manson Trio from Pippin is a perfect example of the patience required for this precision. “When you first watch it, it looks easy,” she says. “But really there are a million nuances, like the first step that looks like a figure eight with your toes: The movement actually starts from the hips! You have to work endlessly. You can’t look for instant gratification.”
While this process is intense, both Culbreath and Pettiford, who teach professional-level Fosse workshops for the Estate, say there are two huge payoffs in auditions and onstage. “You must be able to watch and replicate in a detailed and multilayered way,” says Culbreath. “That hyper focus in auditions can separate you from the others.” Pettiford adds that a diligent rehearsal process ensures a steady confidence in performance. “If you worked on something in Bob’s way, there was not one tiny second that was alien when you hit the stage,” she says. “You were so prepared. You could just relax and perform.”
In an often hyper-sexualized commercial dance world, Fosse’s work challenges students to be sexy without being vulgar. “Bob’s work was always sensual and subtle, not in-your-face sex,” explains Doby. “That was never his intention.”
For Nicole Fosse, the tendency to misconstrue the work’s sensuality is due to the lack of attention to acting intention. “Often, dancers are trying to reconstruct from what a finished product looks like,” she says. “But the process he used has been forgotten, changed, or skewed.” For example, the performers in “Big Spender” appear extremely sexy—but they were never told to be alluring. “They were directed to be bored, tired, and uninvolved.”
To avoid the “telephone game” that can unravel choreography as the years pass, Fosse advises dancers to stay as close as possible to the source. (As director of the Verdon Fosse Estate, she oversees the licensing of all of her father’s work, and vets master classes and workshops.) Books and videos—like the original movies Sweet Charity, Cabaret, and Damn Yankees—are a helpful secondary resource, but a direct link to the Fosse legacy will offer the most benefit. “Have the veterans come to your studios or take master classes when you can,” she says. “Go back to the original seed and you’ll see: Fosse is timeless.”
Lauren Kay is a dancer and writer in NYC.