"Chicago" continues the reinvention of the musical that started with "Moulin Rouge." Although modern audiences don't like to see stories interrupted by songs, apparently they like songs interrupted by stories. The movie is a dazzling song and dance extravaganza, with just enough words to support the music and allow everyone to catch their breath between songs. You can watch it like you listen to an album, over and over; the same phenomenon explains why "Moulin Rouge" was a bigger hit on DVD than in theaters.
The movie stars sweet-faced Renee Zellweger as Roxie Hart, who kills her lover and convinces her husband to pay for her defense; and Catherine Zeta-Jones as Velma Kelly, who broke up her vaudeville sister act by murdering her husband and her sister while they were engaged in a sport not licensed for in-laws. Richard Gere is Billy Flynn, the slick, high-priced attorney who boasts he can beat any rap, for a $5,000 fee. "If Jesus Christ had lived in Chicago," he explains, "and if he'd had $5,000, and had come to me--things would have turned out differently." This story, lightweight but cheerfully lurid, fueled Bob Fosse, John Kander and Fred Ebb's original stage production of "Chicago," which opened in 1975 and has been playing somewhere or other ever after--since 1997 again on Broadway. Fosse, who grew up in Chicago in the 1930s and 1940s, lived in a city where the daily papers roared with the kinds of headlines the movie loves. Killers were romanticized or vilified, cops and lawyers and reporters lived in each other's pockets, and newspapers read like pulp fiction. There's an inspired scene of ventriloquism and puppetry at a press conference, with all of the characters dangling from strings. For Fosse, the Chicago of Roxie Hart supplied the perfect peg to hang his famous hat.
The movie doesn't update the musical so much as bring it to a high electric streamlined gloss. The director Rob Marshall, a stage veteran making his big screen debut, paces the film with gusto. It's not all breakneck production numbers, but it's never far from one. And the choreography doesn't copy Fosse's inimitable style, but it's not far from it, either; the movie sideswipes imitation on its way to homage.
The decision to use non-singers and non-dancers is always controversial in musicals, especially in these days when big stars are needed to headline expensive productions. Of Zellweger and Gere, it can be said that they are persuasive in their musical roles and well cast as their characters. Zeta-Jones was, in fact, a professional dancer in London before she decided to leave the chorus line and take her chances with acting, and her dancing in the movie is a reminder of the golden days; the film opens with her "All that Jazz" number, which plays like a promise "Chicago" will have to deliver on. And what a good idea to cast Queen Latifah in the role of Mama, the prison matron; she belts out "When You're Good to Mama" with the superb assurance of a performer who knows what good is and what Mama likes.
The story is inspired by the screaming headlines of the Front Page era and the decade after. We meet Roxie Hart, married early and unwisely, to Amos Hart (John C. Reilly), a credulous lunkhead. She has a lover named Fred Casely (Dominic West), who sweet-talks her with promises of stardom. When she finds out he's a two-timing liar, she guns him down, and gets a one-way ticket to Death Row, already inhabited by Velma and overseen by Mama.
Can she get off? Only Billy Flynn (Gere) can pull off a trick like that, although his price is high and he sings a song in praise of his strategy ("Give 'em the old razzle-dazzle"). Velma has already captured the attention of newspaper readers, but after the poor sap Amos pays Billy his fee, a process begins to transform Roxie into a misunderstood heroine. She herself shows a certain genius in the process, as when she dramatically reveals she is pregnant with Amos' child, a claim that works only if nobody in the courtroom can count to nine.
Instead of interrupting the drama with songs, Marshall and screenwriter Bill Condon stage the songs more or less within Roxie's imagination, where everything is a little more supercharged than life, and even lawyers can tap-dance. (To be sure, Gere's own tap dancing is on the level of performers in the Chicago Bar Association's annual revue). There are a few moments of straight pathos, including Amos Hart's pathetic disbelief that his Roxie could have cheated on him; he sings "Mr. Cellophane" about how people see right through him. But for the most part the film runs on solid-gold cynicism.
Reilly brings a kind of pathetic sincere naivete to the role--the same tone, indeed, he brings to a similar husband in "The Hours," where it is also needed. It's surprising to see the confidence in his singing and dancing, until you find out he was in musicals all through school. Zellweger is not a born hoofer, but then again Roxie Hart isn't supposed to be a star; the whole point is that she isn't, and what Zellweger invaluably contributes to the role is Roxie's dreamy infatuation with herself, and her quickly growing mastery of publicity. Velma is supposed to be a singing and dancing star, and Zeta-Jones delivers with glamor, high style and the delicious confidence the world forces on you when you are one of its most beautiful inhabitants. As for Queen Latifah, she's too young to remember Sophie Tucker, but not to channel her.
"Chicago" is a musical that might have seemed unfilmable, but that was because it was assumed it had to be transformed into more conventional terms. By filming it in its own spirit, by making it frankly a stagy song-and-dance revue, by kidding the stories instead of lingering over them, the movie is big, brassy fun.
an analysis by Scott Miller
Bob Fosse assembled his cast for Chicago in 1975, and during the very first week of rehearsals he was rushed to the hospital for pains in his chest. They found he had almost had a heart attack and needed open heart surgery, which was not as common then as it now. The producers decided they'd have to postpone the show. Miraculously, they managed to keep the cast together until Fosse could go back to work. But though his taste had always tended toward the dark side – lyricist Fred Ebb referred to him as the Prince of Darkness – it had now gotten darker. Before the open heart surgery, the darkness had been a kind of caricature; now it was real. Fosse had seen death and it had changed him. And it changed Chicago.
Like Oliver Stone's 1994 film Natural Born Killers, Chicago takes the form of that which it criticizes. A scathing satire of the how show business and the media make celebrities out of criminals – and thereby make crime attractive – the story is told through a succession of vaudeville acts. Fosse was saying, okay you've been lied to long enough – we're gonna pull back the curtain and let you see what's really going on. Like much of Fosse's other, later work, Chicago is a show overflowing with raw sexuality, creating a world that is shocking, frightening, dangerous. When Chicago opened in 1975, there had not been a musical of such savage satire since Brecht and Weill's Threepenny Opera. Fosse made theatre pieces about the decadence of our world, the lies and conceits and compromises, the deals with the devil we all make, and as in Sweet Charity, Pippin, and Fosse's film version of Cabaret, Chicago is a show which makes the audience uncomfortable. This was the third time Fosse would use the false glamour of show business – the lie at its core – as a metaphor for life. He did it first with the film of Cabaret (1971), then with Pippin (1972), and he'd return to this idea pushing it to its furthest extreme with the autobiographical film All That Jazz (1980). He attacked hypocrisy wherever he saw it, even in his own work. He knew the world of Chicago, in which killers are made into stars, isn't far at all from the real world.
The primary premise of Chicago is that the world of crooked lawyers and a public who craves violence is as frightening in its own way as the crimes themselves. Fosse, composer John Kander, and Fred Ebb created a show with an attitude that never softened. Unlike other musicals about show business, this one never tempers its cynicism with compassion. Like the works of German writer/director Bertolt Brecht, this show breaks the fourth wall and directly addresses the audience; indeed, because the entire show is written as vaudeville acts, the audience actually becomes a part of the show (as they were with Pippin and Cabaret). In fact, the more we enjoy the show, the more we like Velma, Roxie, and the other “Merry Murderesses” in the Cook County Jail, the more we prove the show's point. We find decadence entertaining, seductive, tantalizing. Throughout the show, we laugh at the jokes, we cheer the dance numbers, we join in the ridicule of Amos, the one moral character, and then at the end, the show stops and says (though more subtly), “Do you understand what you've been cheering all night? Murderers!” The audience is actually a character in the show. Like Assassins and Sweeney Todd, this show points the finger of blame at us, and some of us may having too much fun to notice.
When Maurine Watkins’ non-musical play (upon which Chicago is based) premiered in 1926, Brooks Atkinson, in The New York Times, called it “a satirical comedy on the administration of justice through the fetid channels of newspaper publicity – of photographers, of ‘sob sisters,’ feature stunts, standardized prevarication, and generalized vulgarity.” At that time, one study estimated that fully sixty percent of the news stories in major American papers were provided by paid publicity agents.
Though Fosse always said Chicago was his reaction to Watergate, it is perhaps more relevant now than ever before. In 1996, Newsday called the show’s revival “so prescient about '90s justice, the press and celebrity that it's almost eerie.” The media continues to make celebrities of criminals, while the public rebels against attempts at legislating morality. It was alcohol in the 1920s, but today it's sexuality, prayer in school, drugs, and marriage. And with the advent of the Court TV cable network, and the media circuses surrounding the trials of O.J. Simpson, Lorena Bobbitt, the Menendez brothers, Susan Smith, Andrea Yates, and others, we've seen the media make a mockery of our judicial system. With the right lawyer, enough money, the right clothes, and a modicum of acting ability, anyone can be acquitted in our society today. At the end of Chicago, the two murderesses thank the American people – the audience – for our belief in their innocence as they throw flowers to us. We know they're not innocent, but by enjoying their performances, we acquit them. Fosse goes for the jugular. Velma says, “You know, a lot of people have lost faith in America . . . But we are living examples of what a wonderful country this is.” Ouch.
The Road To Chicago
The original non-musical play, Chicago, was written in 1926 by Chicago Tribune reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins, based on two actual 1924 murder cases. The case against Beulah May Annan, the model for Roxie, was very close to her story in Chicago. Beulah was a jazz singer, whose husband Albert worked in a garage. She was having an affair and when her lover threatened to leave her, she shot him dead. She then played some jazz on her victrola before phoning her husband to tell him. As in the show, her story of the shooting kept changing. She had three stories at various times: that her lover was dumping her and she killed him out of anger; that she dumped him, he tried to rape her and she had to defend herself; and that they quarreled, things got out of control, and they both reached for the gun laying (inexplicably) on the bed. At one point early on, Albert claimed to have killed him upon discovering him attacking Beulah, but that story was soon forgotten. Many of the things Roxie says in Chicago’s courtroom scene come directly from Beulah’s trial, including a sudden revelation of a pregnancy which mysterious disappeared after her acquittal. After she was set free, she left her husband, married a garage owner, and moved to Indiana. There she found her new husband was already married, so she divorced him, had a nervous breakdown, and died a year later.
The case against Belva Gaertner, the model for Velma, is less like Velma’s story in Chicago. Belva killed her lover while he sat in her car, down the street from her apartment. Like Velma, Belva and her victim were both drunk, and Belva claimed she couldn’t remember a thing about the murder. Belva was a cabaret singer rather than a vaudeville performer like Velma, though her fellow inmates said she was a great dancer. In Watkins’ articles about Beulah and Belva, other murderesses in the Cook County jail are mentioned that have some relation to the “Cell Block Tango” girls in Chicago. There is a foreigner, Sabella Nitti (who Belva paid to make her bed and do her laundry), who is hanged for chopping up her husband, and a woman who had poisoned her husband. In the clear inspiration for Chicago’s song “Class,” when Belva was acquitted and released, the other inmates were quoted as saying that the Cook County Jail would be losing a lot of class, that Belva was “the most stylish” of the women on Murderess’ Row. When Watkins’ play Chicago came to the Windy City after its Broadway run, Belva attended with her former lawyer (the model for Billy Flynn), W.W. O’Brien. Both of them loved the play and were delighted to see themselves onstage. O’Brien reportedly called it “the finest piece of stage satire ever written by an American.”
In 1942, a film version was made called Roxie Hart with Ginger Rogers in the title role, a greatly revised plot, and some hilariously inappropriate tap dance sequences. Sometime in the 1950s, actress and dancer Gwen Verdon saw the movie on television and thought it would make a great musical. But Watkins would not release the rights to the play. It wasn't until Watkins died in 1969, that Verdon finally got the rights from the playwright's estate.
Verdon convinced Fosse to do the show, and they brought it to the song writing team of Fred Ebb and John Kander, who Fosse had worked with on the film version of Cabaret. It was Ebb's idea to tell the story in the language of vaudeville, not only to establish period but also create the metaphor of show business as life, a metaphor Fosse had become obsessed with. (In fact the show's title has a double meaning because there was an actual vaudeville theatre called The Chicago.) With Verdon playing Roxie, they cast Chita Rivera as Velma Kelly, Jerry Orbach as Billy Flynn, and Barney Martin as Amos Hart.
Though Fosse had always had a very dark side that expressed itself in his work (see the movie of Cabaret or a good production of Pippin), that dark side was now getting significantly darker because of his operation. During the song “Razzle Dazzle” Fosse initially staged couples simulating sex on both sides of the stage while the lawyer Billy Flynn sang about flimflamming the court and the public – in other words, we're getting screwed. Eventually, Fosse was convinced by Kander and Ebb that that was too dark and he re-staged the song. Despite some minor out-of-town troubles the show came to New York in good shape, and it opened in 1975. The show garnered eleven Tony nominations but lost all of them to A Chorus Line.
Fosse's dancer girlfriend and sometime muse, Ann Reinking, stepped into Chicago late in its Broadway run, before going on in 1978 to wow Broadway in Fosse's anti-musical Dancin'. She also appeared, pretty much playing herself in Fosse's All That Jazz (in which you can see a fictionalized account of all the events surrounding Chicago and the bypass operation).
In 1992, Reinking choreographed Chicago for the Civic Light Opera of Long Beach with Juliet Prowse and Bebe Neuwirth. A few years later, the Encores! Series in New York asked Reinking and director/performer Walter Bobbie to stage a concert reading of Chicago. It was so well received that it was transferred in 1996, with virtually no changes, into a Broadway house for a regular run. Reinking used Fosse's dance vocabulary for the choreography but took a different, much lighter approach to the material. The cast included Bebe Neuwirth, Reinking, James Naughton, and Joel Grey. But in this newer version, the show was taken out of its period context and much of Fosse's nastiness and brutal but legitimate cynicism was rejected in favor of a more light-hearted feel. The show suffered for it.
“Concept musical” is a term used too much and with too little precision. It has as many definitions as there are people using it. Shows as diverse as Company, Hair, and Pacific Overtures have all been called concept musicals. Most shows people call concept musicals are either musicals built on a central concept or issue instead of a linear story, musicals that have a story but whose central concept is more important than the story, musical character studies with no linear plot (like A Chorus Line), or musicals that just don't fit into any other category.
The concept musical's development, from Love Life in 1948 to Wise Guys in 2000, has been a complicated one, and its evolution has taken a very meandering route. Kurt Weill and Alan Jay Lerner (on the shoulders of Bertolt Brecht) took a giant step in 1948 by discarding every device of linear storytelling with Love Life, and provided the model for the commentary songs to come in Cabaret, Company, Pippin, and Assassins. Eighteen years later, Cabaret (1966) with a score by Kander and Ebb, and direction by Hal Prince, partially followed the lead Love Life had set, providing the model for the narrator/devil figure in Pippin and the use of limbo in Follies and Assassins. Two years later, Hair (1968) set the precedent for the (mostly) plotless musicals like A Chorus Line and Working. Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince's Company (1970) did not follow Hair but instead followed closely the model created by Love Life and greatly refined it, solving many of its problems, and becoming a commercial and critical success. The next year, Follies (1971), with Michael Bennett joining the Sondheim-Prince team, followed Company's lead but focused on deeper character development and provided a genuine resolution at the end of the show. In 1972, Bob Fosse began his experiments with high concept design and staging with the film version of Cabaret and the Broadway production of Pippin, which took the narrator/host figure in Cabaret, and further integrated him into the story. In 1975, A Chorus Line added a unifying dramatic situation (an audition), while Chicago continued Fosse's experiments with plot-driven concept musicals. As he had done with Pippin and the film of Cabaret, Fosse escaped the problem of balancing form and content; with Pippin, Cabaret, and Chicago, form became content. Show business was a metaphor for life, and so the show as a whole, the very fact that an audience was in a theatre watching a performance, became a self-referential metaphor in and of itself.
After Chicago, Sondheim and Prince continued the form's evolution with the Kabuki-inspired Pacific Overtures in 1976, this time with book writer John Weidman. Two years later, Stephen Schwartz's Working tried to imitate A Chorus Line but failed. In 1990, Sondheim and Weidman (without Prince) created the ultimate concept musical Assassins. In 1992, Kander, Ebb, and Prince came back together for Kiss of the Spider Woman, which continued Fosse's work with form as content.
Chicago is set in the middle 1920s, a time of public rebellion (mostly against prohibition, but against other legislated morality as well) and tremendous lawlessness. The 1996 Broadway revival of Chicago jettisoned the period setting, but when it did, it lost the irony of how much America today is like America in the 20s, and it lost the show's central metaphor of the story being told through the language of vaudeville, which was at its peak at that time. In 1920, the U.S. Constitution was amended to make alcohol illegal. Throughout the 1920s a significant portion of the public defied the law at every opportunity. The “speakeasies” of that time period were secret clubs hidden behind innocent-looking storefronts, through false walls, and with the right card, knock or password, you could enter and buy alcohol and sex. In 1929, it was estimated that there were between 35,000 and 100,000 speakeasies in New York City alone. And some legitimate restaurants and night clubs might, if you knew the right person, slip some bootleg liquor into your tea or coffee.
In Manhattan, a divorcée named Texas Guinan ran one of the most notorious and outrageous speakeasies. By 1928, she had had four out of five of her roving clubs raided and closed, but a fifth was still going strong. Perched atop a piano, Guinan entertained her patrons with dirty jokes and emceed performances by singers and dancers from 11:00 p.m. until 7:00 a.m. She became famous for her battle cry, “Curfew shall not ring tonight!” as she greeted her customers with a police whistle and a derisive, “Hello, Suckers!” (just like Velma does at the top of Act II of Chicago). And she wasn't kidding – at Guinan's club a bottle of bootleg scotch or champagne cost twenty-five dollars or more, equivalent to a week's salary for many people. Cover charges ranged from $5 to $25, and even plain water was two dollars a pitcher. (A film about Texas Guinan called Hello Suckers! is currently in pre-production, to star rocker Courtney Love.)
Liquor for the speakeasies was smuggled into the country from Canada and from the open seas. Ships carrying illegal liquor would anchor just outside the U.S. in international waters, and “rum runners” in speedboats would carry the cargo to the mainland under the cover of night. (Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. was one such rum runner.) Unfortunately, by the late 1920s, organized crime had taken control of the highly profitable liquor trade (approximately two billion dollars in sales per year) and in many major cities, murder and other crime skyrocketed. Finally in 1933, prohibition was repealed.
The story of Chicago is told in the language of vaudeville, with almost every song in the style of a specific vaudeville performer or tradition. Chicago's central premise, that crime and lawlessness are glamorized by our culture and can too easily become popular entertainment, is communicated through the most popular entertainment form of the time: vaudeville. In 1919, there were about nine hundred operating vaudeville houses in America, but by 1931, there was only one left – the Palace in New York City. Chicago is set in 1924, during vaudeville’s heyday. The idea of Roxie and Velma becoming vaudeville stars because of their crimes was only a slight exaggeration of reality. Anyone who was famous – for any reason – could be a vaudeville star. Charles Lindbergh turned down an offer of $100,000 a week to appear in vaudeville. Evangelist Amy Semple McPherson accepted $5,000 a week to appear in vaudeville and she bombed. Temperance crusader Cary Nation appeared in vaudeville in sketches showing her destroying saloons, and she handed out souvenir axes to the audience. Both Babe Ruth and Helen Keller appeared in vaudeville.
Vaudeville had emerged at the end of the nineteenth century from beer gardens, honky-tonks, variety shows and British style music halls. People forever argue over the genesis of the name vaudeville, but it most likely comes from the French phrase voix de villes, or voice of the cities, and that certainly applies to Chicago. Vaudeville perfectly captured the wide variety of cultures and traditions in 1920s America. The specialty and novelty acts that populated the vaudeville stage evolved from minstrel shows, burlesque, and the feature specialties of the hippodrome (the largest theatre in New York). Vaudeville took everything from every corner of popular entertainment and crammed it all into one brand new entertainment form. Some of the stars of this new form included Emma Trentini, Rosa Ponselle, and Schumann-Heink from grand opera; Sarah Bernhardt, Mrs. Patrick Campbell and Lillian Langtry from serious drama; acrobats, aerialists, wire walkers and animal acts from the circus; musicians from the legitimate music community; physical comedians from the European pantomimes; and banjo players and blackface comics from minstrel shows. There were also hundreds of specialty acts, including trick cyclists, magicians, rope spinners and whip snappers, jugglers and equilibrists, dancers, monologists, ventriloquists, novelty musical acts, sister teams, dialect comedians, piano teams, and comedy sketch artists.
This form was just called “variety” until the 1890s, when producer George Lederer first used the label “vaudeville.” Then B. F. Keith built a chain of palatial theatres designed especially for vaudeville shows. The new form was developed by impresarios like Tony Pastor, F. F. Proctor, Percy Williams, Oscar Hammerstein (the famous lyricist's grandfather), Harry Davis, and William Morris. And vaudeville thrived from 1900 to 1930, when radio, talking pictures, and the depression destroyed it.
Chicago as Vaudeville
Fosse knew vaudeville. Though he wasn't born until 1927, when he came of age as a performer in his teens, the people he learned from were all vaudeville veterans, and many of the performers he shared the stage with in the sleazy burlesque theatres he worked were old washed-up vaudevillians. He danced old vaudeville numbers himself. He knew this world. And perhaps it's his teen years in those burlesque houses that created in him a profound distrust of show business, even though it was his chosen profession. He hated it even as he worshipped at its shrines. Before the song “Razzle Dazzle” in Act II, Billy Flynn says to Roxie, “These trials – the whole world – all show business.” And he's right, after all. The trials, his and Roxie's whole world, is all a musical called Chicago, and they're all vaudeville acts. They are literally just show business. And yet, they're also far too real.
Almost every song in the show is modeled on an actual vaudeville act or star. In “All That Jazz,” Velma is playing Texas Guinan, inviting the audience in to drink and have a good time. She is our host for the evening. “Funny Honey” starts out being an homage to torch song queen Helen Morgan's song “Bill” from Show Boat, a song about an ordinary man, who's nothing special, but she loves him anyway. Roxie even sits atop a piano, like Helen Morgan often did. But then Kander & Ebb turn “Bill” on its ear, as Amos finds out just who the murder victim is and rats Roxie out. As Roxie gets drunker and drunker, as Amos finally tells the cop how it really happened, the lyric changes its tone and it ends with her calling Amos “That scummy, crummy dummy hubby of mine.” A perfectly cynical Fosse moment. And if that isn’t cynical enough, we find out in the courtroom scene later that Roxie has cheated on her husband and murdered her lover on Valentine’s Day!
“Cell Block Tango” is a tribute to the ethnic numbers that were sprinkled throughout a vaudeville bill. When Matron Mama Morton enters, with a big ring and a fur, she's playing one of the biggest stars of vaudeville, Sophie Tucker, and she sings “When You're Good to Mama,” a conscious parody of Sophie Tucker's equally racy “You've Got to See Mama Every Night.” In scene 6, as Roxie metaphorically tap dances around Amos, lying through her teeth, trying to get him to pay for her lawyer, male dancers enter and do a literal tap dance throughout the scene, in tribute to the hundreds of tap dance specialty vaudeville numbers.
Billy's “All I Care About is Love” is in imitation of band leader Ted Lewis, who would begin his act by saying “Is everybody here? Is everybody ready?” But when the chorus girls appear to dance around him with giant feathered fans, the song also becomes a tribute to the famous fan dancer Sally Rand.
Mary Sunshine, played by a man in drag in the original 175 production, and her terribly optimistic “A Little Bit of Good in Everyone” was (in that production) an imitation of Julian Eltinge, a famous turn-of-the-century drag queen and vaudeville star, and Bert Savoy, his less classy successor.
Interestingly, many recent productions have completely discarded the idea of Mary Sunshine being played in drag. Perhaps this “joke” has seen its day, and can be retired. Many people seeing the show already know the surprise long before it happens and it often becomes a distraction throughout the show. And it's only barely connected to the central themes of the show (i.e., things not always being what they appear, people “performing” their lives, etc.). Perhaps the drag was funny and naughty to Fosse in 1975, but in this day and age when cross-dressing is far less “shocking,” when transgendered folks are fighting quite seriously for legal rights, the moment loses what impact it once had, even for the folks who don't know the surprise. Also, in a way, it equates cross-dressing with lying and immorality, which seems pretty silly in the new millennium. Just because she’s a cross-dresser, Mary Sunshine becomes grouped with the liars and murderers who populate the rest of the show? Perhaps it’s enough that she parodies the many “sob sister” reporters of the 1920s. And even without the drag, Mary Sunshine still has her models in vaudeville. Legitimate opera singers like Rosa Ponselle frequently appeared on vaudeville stages singing arias from famous operas and operettas, in an attempt to lend some class to the proceedings. “A Little Bit of Good” is a parody of over-wrought operatic singing.
“We Both Reached for the Gun” recalls vaudeville's requisite ventriloquist specialty acts. “I Can't Do It Alone” recalls sister acts (in which the performers were rarely actual sisters) and acrobatic specialty acts.
Velma continues her role as Texas Guinan as she opens the second act with Guinan's famous line, “Hello Suckers!” Roxie’s “Me and My Baby” is sung in the style of an Eddie Cantor, banjo-and-tambourine cakewalk. “Mr. Cellophane” is an imitation of Bert Williams, the well-known Black vaudeville and Ziegfeld Follies star, and his famous song “Nobody,” right down to Williams' famous costume of oversized clothes and white gloves, and consciously imitating the musical style of “Nobody,” alternating, freely moving verses, with slow ragtime refrains.
“When Velma Takes the Stand” and the entire courtroom scene is an imitation of the many courtroom comedy sketches, a staple of vaudeville and burlesque. “When Velma Takes the Stand” is also modeled on the many vaudeville acts that showcased the latest dance crazes, in this case, the Charleston. Denounced by moralists as the devil’s dance, the dance from hell, and other similar names, the Charleston found its roots in African dance and became popular in the American South around the turn of the century. Some “Christian” groups tried to have it outlawed, but it soon swept the nation, becoming one of the most popular dances of the twentieth century, and tunes dedicated to the Charleston were popping up everywhere. Fosse’s use of the Charleston in “Velma Takes the Stand” and in other numbers in Chicago is not just a tribute to period dance but also a reminder of the moral climate in America in the middle 1920s – a climate in which anything popular and fun was denounced as immoral and dangerous. That Velma would express herself and her “innocence” in terms of the Charleston only further underlines her position as moral subversive. It also provides a kind of shorthand when Fred Casely appears during the trial, dancing the Charleston as he talks to Roxie, underlining his (false) role as “corrupter.”
“Nowadays” and Velma and Roxie's dance number “Hot Honey Rag” are tributes to Ted Lewis and his band. Lewis was a jazz clarinet player and band leader, known for his battered top hat and his cheerily forlorn songs.
Vaudeville as Life
Velma is the link in Chicago among the plot, the structure of the show, and its central theme of people performing their lives. She is a former vaudeville performer in the story as well as acting as a kind of host. She takes on the role of host at the beginning of each act by quoting famous lines from Texas Guinan. She killed her own vaudeville act by killing her sister, paralleling the death of vaudeville itself in the late 1920s. She's the only one who performs a vaudeville style song, “I Can't Do It Alone,” while knowing that that's what she's doing. None of the other characters know that they're doing vaudeville acts; that's merely the style of storytelling the authors chose. Her song “When Velma Takes the Stand,” is also a song about performing. Roxie is a housewife, Billy Flynn is a lawyer, Mary Sunshine is a reporter, but Velma is a vaudeville performer. And by positioning her as our hostess, starting out each act not only quoting Texas Guinan but also singing the first song of each act, Fosse eases us into the convention of all the songs being full-front, “performed” vaudeville-style numbers. In the non-musical play Chicago, Velma is only a minor character.
But Velma also links us to the central theme of the show – that everyone in Chicago, except Amos, “performs” their lives. No one – except Amos – is genuine. Fosse loved this theme (and perhaps was obsessed with it), and it showed up in most of his work. In Sweet Charity, Charity tries (unsuccessfully) to “perform” respectability. In Damn Yankees, Lola “performs” the role of seductress and, later, friend to Joe. In the film version of Cabaret, Sally “performs” the role of exotic femme fatale, and later, she and Brian “perform” the roles of domesticated straight couple. In Pippin, Fosse took his favorite metaphor to the furthest extreme yet – everyone in Pippin’s life is actually a traveling player performing the roles of Pippin’s father, stepmother, stepbrother, grandmother, and lover in a play just for Pippin. And as part of their literal performance, Pippin plays the parts (unsuccessfully) of soldier, lover, politician, assassin, monk, artist, husband, farmer, and father. In Chicago, Velma, Roxie, and the other Merry Murderesses play the role of Innocence. In the courtroom, Billy plays the role of The Common Man Fighting for Justice. Mama Morton plays the role of dedicated public servant. Mary Sunshine and the other reporters play the role of Objective Reporter. Everyone’s life is a performance. Only Amos really is what he seems. But unlike Fosse’s earlier shows, in Chicago, everyone gets away with it. Only Amos, who isn’t performing his life, gets screwed. Fosse’s cynicism was growing.
Roxie Hart is one of the most interesting characters Fosse ever fashioned. Though she retains much of the character created by Maurine Watkins, Fosse gives her greater moral (or amoral) and emotional heft than her model. We see, through all the shallowness of “Funny Honey” and in the monologue before “Roxie,” that she does actually love Amos. Perhaps it’s only platonic love, and maybe it was never more than that, but he represents safety to her. He may be the first person who has ever shown her unconditional love. At the end of the show, when she reveals to him that she is not actually pregnant, he tells her he still loves her and wants her back. Unfortunately, by that time, her ambition has outpaced her love for Amos. Throughout the show, no matter what she and Billy do to Amos, his love for Roxie remains. As Roxie says, “You could love a guy like that.” Will Roxie return to Amos after the events of the show? Probably not. She and Velma get their vaudeville tour and Roxie will at last have financial security. Amos won’t be able to compete with the world of show business. We can wonder if Roxie returns to him once her vaudeville career ends (after all, vaudeville only has another six years or so left), but we hope that Amos has found someone else by then.
Roxie is a child-woman, terribly innocent and naïve in some ways, too worldly in others. She is not very bright and never thinks about the consequences of her actions before she says or does things. She operates exactly like a child of five or six, perceiving the world only as to how it affects her. Every move is selfish, every idea foolish and ill-considered, and yet she remains strangely sympathetic because we know her selfishness is not malicious; it’s childish. And that somehow seems more forgivable.
Chicago is largely absent any kind of genuine emotion. After Fosse’s heart attack, his darkness was growing, and his aversion to real emotion was becoming almost comic. Amos is the only character in the show who demonstrates real love and he’s the only one who acts absolutely selflessly. But Roxie is redeemed at the end because she does learn something about herself – and she’s the only one who does. “Nowadays” is her Eleven O'clock Number, that song in many musicals right before the finale in which the central character finally understands/realizes/learns something about herself. Roxie finally understand the absurdity of all she's been through, how stupid and how phony it all was, and it's not until she can learn her lesson that the Universe will give her the prize, her dream of performing in vaudeville. Unlike her real life model, Roxie has finally learned her lesson, and has (for the first time in her life) learned something about herself as well. For the first time, she can step back from the circus and see it for what it really is. And in a way, she returns to her original world view. She is finally able to enjoy her life again on a very simple, basic level, just as she did at the beginning of the story.
She starts out the show a simple, straightforward (though amoral) woman who wants nothing more than to have fun. As she gets swept up in the events surrounding her crime, she learns to scheme, manipulate, lie, cheat, and steal. She becomes a tiger, scratching and clawing her way to the top (well, the top as she sees it, anyway) – she becomes Velma, stealing from Velma not only Mama’s attentions, her lawyer, her trial date, and her rhinestone shoes, but also her ruthlessness, her celebrity and her ambition. Finally, at the end, stripped of everything and everyone, Roxie returns to the simple life she had before, once again interested in nothing more than having a good time. She has hit rock bottom and is finally able to step back and look rationally at where she’s been and what she’s done. And “Nowadays” becomes her new anthem of Life’s Simple Joys – booze, men, sex, and fun. Balance is restored to her universe, whatever we may think of that universe.
Interestingly, in the film Roxie Hart, the screenwriter Nunnally Johnson went to great lengths to make sure we understood that Roxie didn’t actually kill Fred Casely (Amos did), and Johnson added in some idiotic tap dancing and a handsome young love interest for Roxie to end up with. The movie – and Roxie – lost all the grit and edgy humor of the original. But along the way, it also lost Roxie’s humanity.
Amos is the only character in Chicago whose motives are entirely pure, never selfish. He's the only character who really loses ultimately. Perhaps he can be seen as the show's moral center, but we can see what Fosse thinks of the rewards for morality. Amos represents us, the American people, who keep losing while O.J. and the Menendez Brothers win – because we let them, because, when all is said and done, we're really the suckers. We allow them, even encourage them, to get away with their crimes, and yet who knows which of us will be the next victim of a murderer who hires a high profile lawyer and goes free?
Amos is an average guy, not very good looking, not very smart. Roxie says about him “that whole is a whole lot greater than the sum of his parts.” In other words, he's rotten in bed; his “parts” don't work all that well. But we see Roxie's real feelings for Amos in “Roxie” – she does care about him (“you could love a guy like that”). But does she love him? She obviously isn't attracted to him, but is she in love with him? What was their earlier married life like? After years of dating bootleggers and gangsters, Amos was “safe” and “sweet,” but for a girl like Roxie, who dreams of fame and fortune, safe and sweet only last so long. She got bored so she started screwing around with Fred Casely. And yet even though Amos is hurt and humiliated, he still comes up with the money for her defense. When he thinks she's having a baby, he immediately agrees to take her back. He just wants an ordinary, happy, domestic life. But that's not what Roxie wants, and once she gets her freedom, it's doubtful she'll ever return to Amos. (In real life, she divorced him.) He really is “Mr. Cellophane,” a guy so ordinary, no one – not even Roxie – notices him. And Fosse is telling us that nice guys don't win in the real world; sometimes nice guys get dumped on, and the Billy Flynns of the world get it all.
Crime and Punishment as Entertainment
The lyric to “Nowadays” shows us Fosse's conflicting feelings about show biz – it's dirty and sleazy, and yet it's exciting (“there's life everywhere...”). Notice that in “Nowadays” the announcer says his theatre is the home of “family entertainment” as he introduces “Chicago's killer dillers”... Here we find yet another commentary on today's entertainment industry, as dozens of special interest groups complain that movies and television are corrupting our youth. The show's “family entertainment,” the presentation of two murderesses as stars, is the equivalent of the ultra violent movies and TV shows, of shows like “When Animals Attack” and “World's Worst Police Chases.”
Fosse's message is that publicity subverts justice. Courtrooms have become circuses, as cameras in courtrooms have created a whole new breed of celebrity lawyers who perform for the television audience while they're presenting their case. Roxie is acquitted because of the media, the right clothes, good acting on the stand, a crooked lawyer, and a fake pregnancy, not because she's innocent. Fosse feels no sympathy for this heroine. As Roxie and Velma thank the American people “who made it all possible by believing in our innocence,” they throw flowers to the audience. Chicago is about the blurred line between good and evil in America, even more prevalent today than in 1975, and the show biz in everything (especially the judicial system). Fosse told one Pippin cast member that the show was an analogy for the Manson murders. Today, Chicago is an even more biting commentary on other, equally grisly cases, mothers who kill their children, young men who kill their parents, wives who mutilate their husbands, men who stab their ex-wives to death. Falseness and lies thrive in America. In the song “Roxie,” she says “not that the truth really matters...” Americans have a talent for shifting the blame. Roxie says it's “because none of us got enough love in our childhood.” If it were only that simple.
Cleaning Up Chicago
When a director “cleans up” this show in order to make it more palatable to audiences, he or she loses one of the primary premises of the show – that the world of crooked lawyers and a public who loves violence is as frightening in its own way as the crimes themselves. Fosse, Kander, and Ebb created a show with a brilliantly funny, often subtle, cynically hard-boiled, show biz attitude.
Despite the commercial success of the 1996 revival, stripping the show of its 1920s period, of it's references to vaudeville stars, also robs it of its soul. What's funny – and important – about the show is that it pretends it's about the 1920s and yet it's really about today. If you ignore the period, as the revival did, the show becomes only about today, and you lose the important message that things haven't changed, that America hasn't cleaned up its act, that this time of lawlessness and gangsters in the 20s looks pretty tame compared to today's world. And that's one of the show's main themes. It would be like taking Cabaret out of 1930s Berlin. Chicago is set in 1924, but unless America changes drastically, it will always also be set in whatever year it’s being produced. It’s about real life murderers Beulah May Annan and Belva Gaertner, but also about O.J. Simpson, Robert Blake, Lorena Bobbitt, Jeffrey Dahmer, the Menendez brothers, Susan Smith, and Andrea Yates.
And just as important is the central metaphor of vaudeville. Chicago the musical wouldn’t exist without an audience. Vaudeville wouldn’t have either. And neither would the gavel-to-gavel TV coverage of the O.J. trial, or the endless cable news stories about the missing intern Chandra Levy, or the gruesome details of Andrea Yates drowning her five children, told over and over again on TV in excruciating detail. We ask for it, Chicago suggests. We are to blame. How else can we explain why we sat transfixed watching those planes crash into the World Trade Center over and over and over, or repeatedly watched screaming kids running out of Columbine High School? It’s something we needed. Is it a primordial bloodlust that just hasn’t been civilized out of us yet? Is it a violent streak burned into our species millions of years ago that we should just accept as innately human? Or is it something to fight, to overcome, to rise above? Or could our delight at watching and hearing about excessive violence be our collective way of working out that bloodlust so we won’t want to commit excessive violence against each other?
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on America in September 2001, as Arab Americans are being routinely beaten up and threatened on American streets, we have to ask if September 11th unleashed a new patriotism in America or if it unleashed our only barely contained bloodlust, always simmering just under the surface, ready to boil over. Is Bush’s “War on Terror” really about making America safe again, or is it about finding the bastards who did that to us and tearing them limb from bloody limb? Maybe it’s about both.
Because Chicago is very much about our world today but takes place in 1924 – and is told entirely in the language of vaudeville acts – one of the greatest challenges for any director and choreographer is in finding a contemporary physical and visual language that is equivalent to 1920s vaudeville. In other words, to make the point that this story lives both in 1924 and today, each production has to find a language that lives not just then, but in both times. What would vaudeville look like today if it had survived and had more successfully competed with movies and TV? Probably a lot like it did then, but morphed a bit – more sexual, more aggressive, more attention grabbing. After all American musical comedy hasn’t changed much in a hundred and fifty years. American television hasn’t changed much in the last sixty years.
And thinking about all that raises another side issue. Vaudeville was one of America’s most popular cultural forms for almost sixty years (which is why it’s the perfect metaphor for Chicago’s murder-as-entertainment), but then it died. And here we sit today, in the fifty-ninth year of the Rodgers & Hammerstein model, the basis for our modern American musicals. And we have to ask if the Rodgers & Hammerstein-style musical is going to survive in this age of personal computers, high-tech special effects, interactive media, wireless web, and the MTV attention span. We’re already seeing rumblings of new musical theatre forms in many of the shows New Line Theatre has produced – Songs for a New World, Floyd Collins, A New Brain, Assassins, March of the Falsettos – and many of the shows on and off Broadway, like Urinetown, Bat Boy, The Last Five Years, and others. When we think about vaudeville, we sometimes forget it lasted that long and yet disappeared that fast. Could that happen to Carousel and Hello Dolly! and Phantom of the Opera?
You can buy copies of the script through Samuel French, Inc., who licenses the show, or through theatre bookstores, like the Drama Book Shop in New York. Vocal selections are available commercially, but the full score is only available when you produce the show. The original 1975 cast album is available on CD. The 1996 revival cast album is passable and contains two tracks and lots of dance music not on the original, but it just doesn't have the bite or fun of the original. There are three books about Bob Fosse that discuss Chicago, Martin Gottfried's All His Jazz: The Life and Death of Bob Fosse (Bantam Books, New York, 1990), Kevin Boyd Grubb's Razzle Dazzle (St. Martin's Press, New York, 1989), and Margery Beddow's Bob Fosse's Broadway (Heinemann Publ., Portsmouth, NH, 1996). There are also three great documentaries, if you can find them, a PBS Great Performances episode called Kander & Ebb, a documentary called Steam Heat, and an episode of E! True Hollywood Stories about Fosse, all three of which include footage from the original production of Chicago. There's also an A&E Biography about Fosse, which is interesting but doesn't contain much dance footage. A film version of Chicago, once rumored to be in the works with Madonna in the lead, will finally be released in December 2002 starring Catherine Zeta-Jones (as Velma), Renee Zellweger (as Roxie), Richard Gere (Billy), Queen Latifah (Mama Morton), Christine Baranski (Mary Sunshine), and John C. Reilly (Amos).
Excerpt (expanded and revised) from Deconstructing Harold Hill by Scott Miller (Heinemann Publishing, 1999). All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre, Rebels with Applause, Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR, From Assassins to West Side Story, and Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals.