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OPENING NIGHT: GWEN VERDON IN "CAN-CAN"

Stories of theatrical lore often slip into legend, and many come with an extra dollop of “un-truthiness” that make for a better tale. But the one that occurred at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre on the May 7, 1953 — the opening night of Abe Burrows and Cole Porter’s Can-Can, sixty-seven years ago this evening, was witnessed by not only the sold-out audience of approximately 1,500, but by the multitude of critics there as well (this in the days when it was mandatory for critics to attend opening nights only). What this means is that with so many jotting it down by pen, and then transferring their scribblings to their typewriters when writing their reviews, that there’s no question that this really happened.

Gwen Verdon as Claudine kicking up a leg in Can-Can (1953).

Can-Can was written and directed by Abe Burrows, who took on the rare duel assignment in those days of someone solely writing the book and directing their own musicals. Having prior performed this double-act two years before with the hit musical revue Two on the Aisle, Burrows went on to create a position of power he’d continue to wield over the next twenty-five years on Broadway. Composer Cole Porter was then coming off the biggest hit of his long and distinguished career with 1947’s Kiss Me, Kate. The dances were by Michael Kidd, who would go on to win the third of his eventual five Tony Awards as Best Choreographer for Can-Can. It was produced by the team of Cy Feuer and Ernest H. Martin, whose previous shows had been Frank Loesser’s first musical, Where’s Charley? and his masterwork, Guys and Dolls, were fast gaining a reputation as the savviest producing duo on Broadway, proven further by their next show, the British import The Boy Friend (the Broadway debut of Julie Andrews); then another Porter hit, Silk Stockings, followed by the Pulitzer Prize winning How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (the last two with Abe Burrows again). Feuer and Martin were said to have possessed the Midas Touch, and no one helped promote that image more than Feuer and Martin themselves.

So, as a creative team, this was pretty much as good as it gets for launching a new musical.

As for the cast, what with the nature of its Parisian setting, the starring role went to Lilo, a French chanteuse making her Broadway debut. An international sensation in French music halls in the early 1950s, the beautiful and leggy Lilo was a smart choice to portray La Mome Pistache, a nightclub owner in 1893 Paris. She had a striking and sexy voice (listenable on the original cast recording), and for her efforts, was well reviewed in the role.

Lilo as La Mome Pistache with perhaps some words of advice for her young co-star?

But on this opening night more than six decades ago, someone else from the cast of Can-Can managed to steal Lilo’s thunder (as the saying goes). Someone whose name didn’t even appear on the poster and was billed far below on the Playbill title page. And without any of the backstabbing bitchiness of an Eve Harrington in All About Eve, this young actress/dancer became a star on the strength of her talent alone, heralding to anyone who saw her on that opening night in her role as Claudine, that hers was a name that would have to be reckoned with from that time forward: someone whose name was Gwen Verdon.​

Though we have the stories of the way things transpired out front that night, it sure would be great to have the backstage stories of what went down the next night. Can you imagine being Lilo and arriving at the theatre in full knowledge the show had been stolen out from under you by a featured player? Sure, she could take some degree of joy in Brooks Atkinson proclaiming in the New York Times that “When Lilo takes charge of a song, the temperature in the theatre rises perceptibly. She has a good brass-band voice; she is a stunning blonde and she tosses herself into the middle of the show with gratifying abandon.” But it couldn’t come close to comparing with what Walter Kerr wrote in the New York Herald Tribune of the favor that choreographer Michael Kidd had done “by introducing a red-headed extrovert named Gwen Verdon. From the time she starts playing footsie with a tempting apple in that first act finish, she is the dance discovery of the season. Miss Verdon comes upon sex with a magnificent astonishment, rueful, dismayed, interested, and deeply pleased all at once. The abandon with which she takes over the later, ‘Apache’ business — sending chairs and males spinning with a flick of her ankle — is devastating. The audience held up the show for some minutes in Miss Verdon’s honor last evening, causing the actress to take a breathless bow in even greater déshabillé than the producers of Can-Can probably intended.”

For those unfamiliar with the term déshabillé (I wasn’t), it is defined as “a state of undress.” As the Tribune was a family newspaper, what Kerr was describing is how Verdon exited at the end of her number to an ovation so forceful that it forced her back onstage to acknowledge the tumultuous applause. According to Sam Wasson in his biography Fosse, the source of the recent Hulu mini-series Fosse/Verdon that aired last year, “Gwen’s Apache dance was so powerful, the ovation lasting for seven minutes and became a theatrical happening of its own. No one knew how to react.”

Verdon herself was totally unaware that the show couldn’t go on. She was in the middle of a quick-change. Wasson: “Thanks to a recalcitrant zipper, she was too busy fighting her pants to realize the roar from inside was all for her. Michael Kidd figured as much. A couple of minutes into the ovation, he dashed out of the Shubert Theater, through Shubert Alley, up to the stage door, and into Gwen’s dressing room. When the door opened, she heard them chanting from the house” ‘We want Verdon! We want Verdon!”

Kidd took her by the hand, and with only a towel covering her, she returned to the stage and took her extended bow in front of the drop curtain practically naked.

As William Hawkins wrote in the World-Telegram & Sun: “Lilo went into the show a star. And Gwen Verdon came out of it a star.”

Michelle Williams as Gwen Verdon recreating the bow in a towel

in Episode 3 of Fosse/Verdon (2019).

With praise heaped on Can-Can for Verdon (and Lilo), and three breakout Porter songs (“I Love Paris,” “C’est Magnifique” and “It’s All Right with Me”), the show ran for two years and 892 performances. When it closed on June 25, 1955, Gwen Verdon was happily employed in a new musical two blocks away at the 46th Street Theatre. She was packing them in at Damn Yankees, which had opened a month earlier, the first (and not the last) time Verdon would have her name above the title. Having won the Tony Award for Featured Actress in a Musical for Can-Can—her one and only time in that category— her Lola in Damn Yankees would be her second out of the four Tony’s she would win throughout her career (losing in only her last two times at bat for her iconic turns as Sweet Charity and Roxie Hart in Chicago). Careers like hers don’t grow on trees.

Gwen Verdon (as Lola in Damn Yankees) and on the cover of Time Magazine (June 13, 1955).

And Lilo? She returned to Broadway only once more in a musical called Pousse Café. Even with a score composed by Duke Ellington, it closed in three performances. Poor Lilo. Someone who learned the hard way that all that glitters is not gold. As for Gwen Verdon: more than gold… platinum.

If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here, and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org

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