By Andrea Chambers
September 22, 1980 12:00 PM

It should have been the brightest day in Wanda Richert’s young life. For three months the 22-year-old former chorus girl had been rehearsing for her Broadway debut in 42nd Street, producer David Merrick’s remake of the 1933 movie hit. She had not only won the coveted Ruby Keeler starring role but had fallen in love with the show’s famed director, Gower Champion, 59. In the final weeks of rehearsal, however, Champion had fallen mysteriously ill, then was suddenly hospitalized. The night before the opening Wanda visited him. “He opened his eyes when I was there,” she recalls. “He did get out, ‘I love you.’ ” The next morning she was barred from Champion’s room. “Gower’s assistant said he was sedated because he was anxious over opening night,” Wanda recalls. “That made me feel better.” What she did not know was that Champion was dying.

The rest of that day, August 25, has become showbiz cliché and Broadway legend. Champion died at 1 p.m., six hours before the curtain rose. Ostensibly to protect the cast (some say it was to milk the inevitable publicity), Merrick kept the news secret. He called an early rehearsal and instructed the performers not to leave the theater. “I needed eyelashes, so I ran out,” remembers Richert. “Thank God no one saw me.”

The performance went flawlessly. But after the 12th curtain call, Merrick walked onstage and melodramatically announced to the shocked audience and cast (and to TV cameramen who had been invited in) that Champion was dead. He then turned and embraced his new star. Wanda smiled bravely through the tears, champagne and glowing reviews at the opening-night party. “As a performer and as a person, I feel good I got through it,” she says now. “Knowing it was for Gower helped a lot. I felt his strength.”

She needed it. From the start Wanda had to face backstage gossip of opportunism. One cast member recalls “a lot of catty comments that Wanda’s role was enlarged because she was seeing Gower.” Merrick reportedly tried to dump her from the show at one point. He denies it.

Her love affair with Champion began as a casual friendship. “I felt an attraction immediately, but I thought, ‘Oh, with the age difference and all, it’s impossible.’ ” But on opening night during the show’s pre-Broadway run at the Kennedy Center in Washington, Gower came to her dressing room. “We stood there looking at each other and he kissed me and I knew,” she says. “But then they called, ‘Places.’ ” They quickly became inseparable. “I kept pinching myself,” Richert marvels. “I thought, ‘This is someone my mom used to watch on TV.’ ” She tried to conceal their affair, “but Gower said, ‘Why keep it secret?’ ” At the time, Richert claims, she did not realize Champion was still married to his second wife, Carla, from whom he had separated. (Gower and Marge Champion, his famous dancing partner, were divorced in 1973.) “In rehearsals, he always talked about his two ex-wives,” Wanda says. “If I had known any differently, I wouldn’t have gotten involved. I wouldn’t want my husband to do that.” Wanda eventually met Champion’s wife in his hospital room. “I didn’t know who Carla was at first, but she knew me,” Wanda recalls. “I felt sympathy for her.”

Wanda first learned of Champion’s illness (diagnosed as a rare blood disorder called Waldenstrom’s disease) when he casually said, “Oh, I’ve got this crazy thing wrong with my blood.” “But later,” Richert says, “when we knew each other better, he said: ‘This damn thing could kill me.’ ” Wanda quotes a doctor telling Champion that if he was lucky, he had 10 years left. A melancholy Gower once said to her, “Our relationship is bittersweet, isn’t it? I’ll be dead by the time you’re 40.” Richert’s response: “Let’s enjoy it while we can.”

They did so with quiet postrehearsal dinners at Champion’s Manhattan apartment. They ate leftovers cooked up by his houseman, and Gower mixed his favorite cocktail: milk, ginger ale and Bosco. Richert had her own apartment nearby. “We talked about living together, but decided not to. A part of each of us had to have privacy.” In their last days, she remembers, “He was as handsome lying in that hospital bed as ever. We’d talk about the show and how things were going.” After the visits Richert would often go to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. “I’d have a good cry there. I felt uplifted.”

For all her gentle manner, Broadway’s Cinderella is a determined young woman who’s known what she wanted since she began tap and ballet lessons as a 5-year-old in Miami. Her mother, Lola, an executive secretary, encouraged her; her father, George, a retired chief petty officer with the Coast Guard, paid little mind to his only child’s talents. “He was never there. I don’t give him credit for anything I have done,” she says bitterly. Her parents divorced when Wanda was 17.

The peripatetic life of a serviceman’s family was difficult. By the time Wanda was a high school sophomore in Western Springs, Ill., she was dancing at a Chicago dinner theater—and letting her straight A grades slip. “I wasn’t a pom-pom girl or in a clique,” she explains. “When the girls found out I was a dancer, they hit me and threw me into lockers.” She quit school, worked full-time on the regional theater circuit and once did a nightclub turn in a Greek restaurant. “We changed downstairs, surrounded by olives.”

During one bleak period in her 18th year, Wanda went to beautician’s school “to have something to fall back on.” Her break finally came: an offer to join the national company of A Chorus Line. In two and a half years Richert played several roles, including Cassie, the lead. But, plagued by allergies and pulled rib muscles, she began missing performances. Last March director Michael Bennett fired her. “I practically had a nervous breakdown,” she says. A few weeks later Richert auditioned for 42nd Street at a Chicago casting call. Determined to pursue the role, she canceled an appointment to have a breast enlargement operation and flew to New York to audition for Champion. With Merrick’s approval, he hired her within the week. “She read marvelously, sang and danced well,” remembers Merrick, who signed her to a two-year contract.

When that time is up, Richert hopes to record “mellow” rock albums and work in films. Meanwhile, she is sharing a Manhattan duplex with Karen Prunczik, who plays Annie in the show (the Ginger Rogers role). Now that the heavy rehearsal schedule is over, Richert plans to take up tennis and photography and furnish the apartment.

She is still trying to deal both with Champion’s death and her own instant success. Has it affected her performance? “Not for one second,” answers co-star Tammy Grimes. “This lady has behaved quite remarkably.” Wanda herself, with little time to contemplate the ironies, takes comfort in familiar showbiz stoicism. “Life,” she shrugs, “just goes on.”