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Show Stopper

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Rehearsing “Big Spender” for the 1985 revival of choreographer Bob Fosse’s hit Sweet Charity, the cast was having trouble capturing the number’s mix of sexy allure and weary contempt. So the show’s coach, Gwen Verdon—the Broadway stage legend who was Fosse’s wife for 27 years and his muse for even longer—offered her charges some advice: “Put it in neutral,” cast member Bebe Neuwirth recalls Verdon saying, “and rev.”

Shifting gears among singing, acting and especially dancing, Verdon—who died in her sleep on Oct. 18 at her daughter’s home in Vermont at the age of 75—was the engine that powered some of Broadway’s finest musicals from the 1950s through the ’70s. “She was absolutely magic onstage,” says Ray Walston, 86, who costarred with Verdon on Broadway in 1955’s Damn Yankees. “I would glance into the first five or six rows, and all eyes were glued on Gwen.”

It was while strutting to Fosse’s detailed dance steps in Yankees (“Bob choreographs down to the second joint of your little finger,” she once said) that Verdon, by then a veteran 30-year-old hoofer, caught the fiery, physical 28-year-old’s amorous attention. “You could see it happening—she liked him and he liked her,” Walston remembers. The fizzy redhead—who as a child wore orthopedic braces to strengthen legs weakened by disease—also gave the relatively green Fosse some needed professional seasoning. “At the time, Gwen knew more than he did,” remembers Yankees costar Jean Stapleton, 77. Years later, Fosse remarked to the Los Angeles Times, “People ask if I created Gwen and I say, ‘She was hot when I met her. That alabaster skin, those eyes, that bantam-rooster walk. Her in the leotard I will never forget.”

Together they got hotter. Giving life and limb to her lover’s kinetic choreography in shows like Redhead and New Girl in Town, Verdon won four Tony awards between 1953 and 1959 and starred in the movie version of Yankees. After they married in 1960, Verdon retired, giving birth to their only child, Nicole, in 1963. In 1966 she returned to the stage in the role of a dancer in Sweet Charity, a show Fosse wrote expressly for her with hit numbers like “If My Friends Could See Me Now.” “When I saw her, I almost had my breath taken away,” remembers actress Chita Rivera. “It was perfect.”

By then Verdon had been a pro for more than 30 years. Playmates had taunted her, calling her Gimpy, while she was growing up in Culver City, Calif., but that didn’t stop her mother, Gertrude, a dancer herself (dad Joseph was an electrician at MGM Studios), from enrolling her in ballet and tap classes. By age 6, Verdon was billed as the “fastest little tapper in the world.”

Finishing high school at 17, she eloped with Hollywood trade journalist James Henaghan; they had a son, James Jr., but divorced five years later. “She strived to keep a sense of normalcy in our lives,” says James Jr., now 57, who grew up splitting his time between his maternal grandparents, a Connecticut boarding school and his mother’s New York City apartment. “It was different from a normal childhood. But it was normal for me.”

Verdon’s marriage, however, was anything but normal. Fosse’s numerous affairs sparked their separation in 1971. The final straw came when he flaunted one during the making of the movie version of Cabaret, which made Liza Minnelli a star and on which Verdon worked tirelessly. But they never divorced, and Verdon starred in the original production of Fosse’s Chicago in 1975. (She later gave up the role to Ann Reinking, by then Fosse’s lover.) Fosse and Verdon continued to work together literally until his death in 1987: Minutes after the opening of the revival of Sweet Charity in Washington, D.C., Fosse suffered a fatal heart attack and collapsed into her arms on the sidewalk outside the theater.

Before moving to Vermont in August to help Nicole, the mother of three, cope with her husband’s death in a collision with a drunk driver, Verdon was still teaching and performing. She starred in the two Cocoon films from the ’80s as well as in Marvin’s Room in 1996. But her legacy will always be on the stage. “She was always like one of the chorus kids, always a gypsy,” says Chicago costar Jerry Orbach. “She never lost that.”

Nick Charles

Lucia Greene in New York City and Lorenzo Benet in Los Angeles