Who Was Gwen Verdon? Michelle Williams Plays the Real-Life Broadway Star in ‘Fosse/Verdon’

Bob Fosse was a film and Broadway legend, a choreographer and director famous for bringing musicals like Chicago and Cabaret to life on stage and screen. Gwen Verdon was a Tony-winning star “widely regarded as the best dancer ever to brighten the Broadway stage,” according to her New York Times obituary. FX’s new show Fosse/Verdon explores their professional and romantic partnership. It stars Sam Rockwell as Fosse and Michelle Williams as Verdon.

Verdon started dancing at a young age

Gwen Verdon
Gwen Verdon in Damn Yankees | Warner Brothers/Getty Images

Given Verdon’s background, it’s hardly surprising she ended up with a career in show business. Born in 1925, her mother was a member of the famous Denishawn dance troupe, and her father was an electrician at MGM. She started dancing as a child, and by the time she was 6, she was performing professionally as “the fastest little tapper in the world.”

Verdon married at 17, had a son named Jimmy, and quit dancing. But the marriage ended in divorce after five years, and Verdon started performing again. She worked in Hollywood, working with choreographer Jack Cole and appearing in small parts in movies like The Merry Widow and On the Riviera.

In 1953, she made a splash on Broadway as a featured dancer in Can-Can. Audiences loved her performance, but the show’s star wasn’t thrilled that she’d stolen the spotlight. Verdon almost quit, but she ended up sticking it out, winning her first Tony Award for her work in the show.

She met Fosse in 1955

After Verdon’s first experience on Broadway, she returned to California. But when she was offered a part in a new musical called Damn Yankees, she agreed to give it a try. The show’s choreographer was Fosse, and the two soon embarked on a romantic relationship, though Fosse was still married to his second wife.

Damn Yankees won Verdon her second Tony. The pair followed that success with the musicals New Girl in Town and Redhead, for which she won two more Tony Awards. She and Fosse married in 1960, and Verdon stepped away from the stage for five years. In 1963, she gave birth to a daughter named Nicole.

Return to dancing and Chicago

After several years away from the spotlight, Verdon returned to performing in 1966 with a starring role in Sweet Charity. Her performance earned her a fifth Tony nomination.

While Fosse and Verdon’s creative partnership was fruitful, their marriage was rocky. Fosse had numerous affairs and also struggled with drug and alcohol abuse. The couple eventually separated in 1971, but they remained close and never divorced.

Professionally, Fosse continued to rely on Verdon, particularly with the troubled production of the film version of Cabaret, which he directed in 1972. (He won a Best Director Oscar for the movie.)

As she approached her 50s, Verdon’s career as a dancer was nearing its end. But she wowed audiences for one final time when she originated the role of Roxie Hart in the musical Chicago, a project that had long been close to her heart.

Keeping Fosse’s legacy alive

After Chicago, Verdon continued to work in film and television, appearing in movies like Cocoon and shows like Homicide: Life on the Street. Following Fosse’s death in 1987, she was instrumental in keeping her former husband’s legacy alive, including helping to create the 1999 musical Fosse. She died in 2000.

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