Sweeter Charity

I’ve been going through old YouTube videos of classic performances, as I do from time to time, comparing different performers in the same role.

Recently I’ve been watching old videos of one of the greatest of them all — Gwen Verdon — who lit up the musical theater stage for much of the twentieth century. Alas, she never quite had the same impact in Hollywood (with the notable exception of her performance as Lola in “Damn Yankees”), and some of her greatest song and dance performances have gone unrecorded.

Gwen (as some of you know) was married to the great choreographer Bob Fosse, and some of his best work was made specifically for her brilliant performance style. One of the great dance scenes in all of filmdom was their outrageous comic duet in Who’s Got the Pain from “Damn Yankees”.

Although Fosse built the entire show of “Sweet Charity” as a showcase Gwen’s astonishing talent, but when the show went from Broadway to Hollywood, she didn’t go with it, even with Fosse directing. The film simply wouldn’t have been green-lighted without a major movie star, and in this case that star was Shirley MacLaine.

If you compare their performances, Verdon is the vastly better dancer, but MacLaine is far more effective as an adorable waif. That was, after all, her specialty.

It’s a shame that millions of people never got to see Gwen Verdon in such a great role that was written specifically for her. One day perhaps, as new technologies evolve, a version of “Sweet Charity” might appear that merges the best qualities of these two actresses into a single performance — the incomparable dancing of Verdon and the unique vulnerability of MacLaine. Would such a thing be a gift to humankind, or an abomination? And would they need to call it “Sweeter Charity”?

Meanwhile I will leave you with this inspiring little clip, which shows the sort of dancing that Gwen Verdon was capable of at the age of fifty.

Leave a Reply