Gwen Verdon (1925-2000)

What does news of a great dancer’s death bring to mind? In Gwen Verdon’s case, her voice and her eyes, proving that hers was a greatness of spirit, not just of technical facility and leg muscles. Verdon’s voice was piquant and unique, a throaty, fuzz-coated warble with unexpected flavors in it, indomitably cheery but never cloying. And those two eyes—bright buttons of indeterminate color, full of an openness that conveyed not vulnerability but curiosity: When Verdon was onstage, the world seemed full of wonders, and she its irrepressible Alice. Characters she played could be trapped in a closet, as in Sweet Charity, and not make you feel indignant on her behalf, or could steal their best friend’s act, as in Chicago, and not make you resent her. She was having too much fun; her big, spontaneous, Halloween grin (so big it almost looked painted on) couldn’t help but put one on your face too.

And then there was the body, and the spectacular things it could do: its speed and floatiness, the elongation that made her seem incredibly tall. In my mind, I always see her at the opening of Charity’s “I’m a Brass Band” number, alone on a bare stage, shoulders high, back elegantly arched, legs kicking in a march step. Who wouldn’t follow? This was her true seduction ritual: Can-Can’s “Garden of Eden” ballet and Damn Yankees’ “Whatever Lola Wants” were burlesques of sexual allure, but Verdon the androgyne imp, drum-majoring an imaginary parade, or doing a music-hall turn in a bowler hat, lured a whole generation to fall in love with the musical theater. Half Puck and half Ariel, she was the embodiment of joy, a creature all flesh and blood and feeling, yet at the same time all graceful motion, and surely lighter than air.

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