Michelle Williams Goes From Marilyn to Gwen

My Week With Marilyn, the 2011 movie about her time in England, returns to Netflix today. Michelle Williams, who won a Golden Globe for her performance as Marilyn, is currently starring choreographer Gwen Verdon in the HBO series, Fosse/Verdon. Born in Culver City, California in 1925, she married journalist James Henaghan in 1942, but left him after the birth of their son Jimmy. (Henaghan later interviewed Marilyn on several occasions, and wrote a tribute to her for Parade magazine in 1971, which you can read here.)

Verdon later worked as an assistant to choreographer Jack Cole, coaching stars like Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth, Betty Grable, and Marilyn (seen above with Jane Russell on the set of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and rehearsing for There’s No Business Like Show Business.) In 1953, Verdon starred in the Broadway production of Can-Can, winning her first Tony award. (Marilyn would later be offered the lead in Fox’s big-screen adaptation, but the role was ultimately played by Shirley MacLaine.)

“From the people that I’ve spoken to, the thing I kept hearing over and over again was that [Gwen Verdon] was like the sunshine in the room,” Michelle Williams said during a panel interview with the Television Critics Association (as reported here.) “The way that I’ve come to think of her is someone who is always trying their hardest and will occasionally be backed up against a wall where she’s cornered and things aren’t in her control anymore. But as much as she possibly could, she was constantly trying to rise above and be her best self at all times.”

“I remember also this thing that Marilyn Monroe said about her,” Williams added. “Marilyn said, ‘If Gwen Verdon can’t teach you how to dance, you’re rhythm bankrupt with two left feet.'”

In June 1955, Marilyn saw Gwen performing in her latest hit musical, Damn Yankees, at the 46th Street Theatre. Gwen returned to Hollywood in 1958 to film the movie version. She married choreographer Bob Fosse in 1960, and returned to Broadway in Sweet Charity (1966.) Although she and Fosse separated in 1971, they never divorced and continued working together on Chicago (1975), and the 1979 movie, All That Jazz. She also appeared in films like The Cotton Club (1984) Cocoon (1985) Alice (1990), and Marvin’s Room (1996.)

In 1999, Gwen was the artistic consultant on Fosse, a Broadway musical tribute to her former partner, who had died in 1987. Gwen Verdon passed away in her sleep at the home of their daughter Nicole Fosse in Woodstock, Vermont in October 18, 2000. That night at 8 pm, Broadway dimmed its lights in her honour.

‘Goodbye Norma Jeane’, Reviewed

Goodbye Norma Jeane, the new play about ‘dance director’ Jack Cole and the movie goddesses he coached – set in the aftermath of Marilyn Monroe’s death  in 1962 – has opened at the Above The Stag studio theatre in Vauxhall, South London, and will be playing there until April 7.

“When Marilyn Monroe died, not just Hollywood but the whole world cried the loss of a bright star and famously seductive beauty. For some, though, down with the blonde bombshell went an entire career and a lifelong source of inspiration … It’s particularly interesting how the script manages to reproduce a nostalgic, yet not too sentimental, aura of the ‘baby doll’ culture, through the dialogues and profiles of other notable females in show business.” – Cristiana Ferrauti, The Upcoming

Marilyn Monroe has been endlessly mythologised and it’s difficult to approach her story afresh without it feeling cliched. The linking metaphor – Cole can’t own his dance steps just as Monroe’s image ceased to be her own – is affecting, though. But it could have been integrated into a more detailed exploration of Cole’s own life and his place in the history of dance.” – Julia Rank, The Stage

“Liam Burke’s play is about authority over women’s bodies, yet the story is told from the perspective of a man claiming a woman’s glory. Referred to throughout by her birth name, Norma Jeane, or – patronisingly – as ‘babydoll’, Monroe is a peripheral figure, put down and shoved aside for Cole to remind us repeatedly that she would be nothing without him … His monologue is interrupted by visits from former muses, with Rachel Stanley kept busy multi-rolling them all. These women are brightly painted in clothes rather than character; each silly, frilly, posturing visitor is quickly shooed behind a curtain, simply a catalyst for Cole’s next anecdote.” – Kate Wyver, The Guardian

Rachel Stanley is an absolute wonder playing seven Hollywood icons – Lana Turner, Norma Jeane Mortenson, Ann Miller, Gwen Verdon, Jane Russell, Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth – and bringing each back to life in looks and mannerisms is fine style. And here, please raise your glasses in salute to Giada Speranza and Ryan Walklett for the amazing costumes and wigs that helped Rachel create each character so well.” – Terry Eastham, London Theatre 1

“As much as Stanley brings, charm, wit and energy aplenty, she isn’t afforded enough on-stage time or gritty dialogue for a nuanced portrayal of these groundbreaking stars. Still, her exaggerated flourishes and vocal inflexions are a welcome relief from Cole’s decidedly more one-note monologues, which at times feel a little preachy … the breaks into song and dance are well executed and ripe with nostalgia, while Stanley’s repeated quick changes are a marvel in and of themselves – a stark contrast to the otherwise sluggish pace of act one.” – Jack Pusey, Daily Star

Goodbye Norma Jeane, Hello Jack (and Marilyn)

Goodbye Norma Jeane, a new play opening in the Studio Theatre at Above the Stag in Vauxhall, South London tomorrow, is seemingly not about Marilyn per se (despite the title – well, at least her name’s spelt correctly), but a tribute to her favourite choreographer, Jack Cole – starring Tim English, with Rachel Stanley playing Monroe and other screen goddesses.

“Jack Cole taught Hollywood to dance.

Now he’s writing a weekly column for Dance Magazine. Or trying to. Young men splash and yell in his swimming pool outside, and as the afternoon wears on a parade of his former muses arrives at his front door – Betty Grable, Jane Russell and Rita Hayworth among them. And each is determined to have the last word.

Liam Burke’s fascinating and inventive play shines a spotlight on one of Hollywood and Broadway’s most influential gay heroes, and the actresses he helped transform into cinema’s brightest stars.”

Marilyn’s ‘Diamond’ Dance to Glory

In an article for the Washington Post, Sarah L. Kaufman names ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’, Marilyn’s signature number from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, as one of the greatest dance scenes in movie history.

“That hot-pink dress, that cherry-red backdrop, those long, long gloves. Marilyn Monroe is glamorous perfection in this scene, choreographed by the great Jack Cole. He brilliantly played up her strengths, focusing on those beautiful bare shoulders with a shimmy here, an arm extension there, a lot of shaking and — whoopee! — a well-timed gesture to her back porch. Restrained in vocabulary and uninhibited in style and spirit, this witty dance is an exuberant celebration of the female assets, performed by one of the most vibrant bodies in cinematic history.”

‘Heat Wave: The Jack Cole Project’

Heat Wave: The Jack Cole Project – a musical tribute to Marilyn’s choreographer, Jack Cole – will receive its world premiere from May 3-20 at the Queen’s Theatre, Corona Park, NYC, Playbill reports today.

‘Produced by Queens Theatre, Heat Wave is “an all-singing, all-dancing tribute to the work of Jack Cole, featuring recreations of more than two dozen Cole numbers from such films as ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business,’ ‘Kismet,’ ‘Les Girls’ and ‘On the Riviera,’ as well as new pieces choreographed in Cole’s inimitable style,” according to Queens Theatre notes.’

George Chakiris Remembers ‘Blondes’

‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ (with George Chakiris at Marilyn’s right)

George Chakiris, who danced alongside Marilyn in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, appeared at this week’s TCM Classic Film Festival in Los Angeles, and recalled his work with choreographer Jack Cole.

“Jack Cole and Robert Alton were the two everyone wanted to dance for. I remember during rehearsal Cole was sitting in his chair and he got up to demonstrate. It was an explosion of dance.

I’m so glad I got to work once for him in that incredible number. He made Jane Russell look so good too.

I loved that time in my life. I was part of the last generation. You would come to work, everyone’s in rehearsal clothes. For filming, you’re all in costume and make up. And there’s that lovely shiny floor…

You’ve been rehearsing to a piano. When they play the orchestra music on the set, it gives you energy you didn’t have. It gives you adrenaline.”

‘West Side Story’ (1963)

Chakiris is best known for his role as Bernardo, leader of The Sharks, in West Side Story (1963.) In the dance number, ‘America’, a peeling billboard for The Misfits, with a painting of Marilyn’s face, can be glimpsed. It was filmed in New York in 1962, where the Metropolitan Opera now stands.

He had also danced with Marilyn, and Cole, in There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954). In 2007, Chakiris spoke to Michelle Morgan, author of Marilyn Monroe: Private and Undisclosed:

“When Marilyn died, I was in Japan making a movie, and I remember being so sad because it seemed to be our loss … She was so gifted.”

Celebrating Jack Cole

Jack Cole coaches Marilyn for ‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy’, from ‘Let’s Make Love’ (1960)

“The Jazz/Musical Theatre Dance Program of the School at Jacob’s Pillow (Becket, MA) is presenting works that Chet Walker has created in the Jack Cole tradition in two final performances: a free presentation on the Inside/Out Stage on Saturday, Aug. 21, at 6:15 and a sold-out benefit concert in the Ted Shawn Theatre on Sunday, Aug. 22, at 8pm.”

Jack Cole was Marilyn’s choreographer and trusted friend, working with her on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and throughout her dazzling career.

Among their most memorable collaborations are Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend and My Heart Belongs to Daddy.

Debra Levine profiles Cole in today’s Huffington Post

Read her Los Angeles Times article from 2009, examining Cole’s fruitful partnership with Marilyn.