For me, the history of CHICAGO has always been inextricably linked with that of A Chorus Line. CHICAGO premiered on Broadway June 3rd; 1975; A Chorus Line, six weeks later, on July 25th. CHICAGO opened to mixed reviews and struggled at the boxoffice; A Chorus Line was met with raves, won the Pulitzer Prize, and was nothing short of a cultural event. CHICAGO was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, won 0; A Chorus Line was nominated for 12, won 9.
CHICAGO and A Chorus Line also happen to be linked together in my memory. Certainly my memories of that day in August of 1975 when I went to The Grammophone, a gay-owned and operated record store on San Francisco's Polk Street, and purchased the Original Broadway Cast Recording LPs of both shows at the same time. Although I hadn't yet heard a single note from either score, I was so fired-up from consuming all the After Dark Magazine-fed hype surrounding the opening of each production (that invaluable, homoerotic, national entertainment magazine being my sole West Coast pipeline to what was happening on Broadway), that I was almost smug in my confidence that my two blind purchases were far from being a gamble.
|August 5, 1975 - $4.88 each|
Both were single LPs in glossy gatefold jackets loaded with photos & liner notes
Unlike movies, new Broadway musicals don't pop up every Wednesday and Friday, so when one appeared on the horizon that interested me, it was a big event. The last Broadway cast recording I'd purchased was Sondheim's A Little Night Music, a musical meal I'd been dining out on since 1973. Having committed every note and melody of the splendid score to memory by then, I could scarcely believe my good fortune that 1975 held forth the promise of TWO major Broadway musical releases I could submerge myself in.
At the time, all the smart money was on CHICAGO. The only familiar names to me from A Chorus Line were composer Marvin Hamlish, who then was all but unavoidable after his Oscar win for The Sting (1973), and director-choreographer Michael Bennett, who I came to know from reading the backs of the library-borrowed cast albums of Company and Follies. CHICAGO distinguished itself as the one with the Broadway heavy hitters and showbiz pedigree. It marked the Broadway musical return of Gwen Verdon (last seen in 1966’s Sweet Charity)! The professional reunion of husband & wife team Verdon & Fosse! The reteaming of Fosse with his Cabaret and Liza with a Z collaborators, the composer-lyricist-writing duo of John Kander and Fred Ebb! And it was the first-time pairing of two genuine Broadway legends…Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera!
|Illustration by Sam Norkin -1975|
Wanting to start off with the “sure thing,” I listened to the CHICAGO album first, which turned into one of those rarer-than-rare occurrences where one’s extraordinarily high expectations are not only met, but exceeded. Hearing that incredible score for the first time...every single song a showstopper...not a clunker in the bunch...was such a thrill. The songs and their often hilarious lyrics set my imagination on fire... I could practically see the entire production in my head. I was instantly attracted to the storyline--the phoniness of show biz reflecting the phoniness of the American legal system. And if the cynicism at CHICAGO's core struck me as caustic and pessimistic, consider that I was just 17 at the time (sarcasm and snark are like crack to a teenager) and that it was the summer of '75. The summer that saw the dynamic downer duo of Nashville and The Day of the Locust released to movie theaters just weeks before. The timing couldn't have been more perfect. CHICAGO was simply riding the crest of the zeitgeist.
|May 6, 1976|
That's Jane Fonda speaking at a Tom Hayden rally in Sacramento and 18-year-old me in this, the only photo I have of my beloved official CHICAGO T-shirt, which I wore for years until it disintegrated. A photo captured mere moments before Ms. Fonda graciously signed the Barbarella photo I've got secreted away in the Busby Berkeley Book tucked under my arm. The memo is an affirmative reply to a written request by yours truly to NY's 46th St. Theater inquiring as to the possibility of purchasing a CHICAGO T-shirt (mail order Broadway merchandise wasn't yet a thing). It cost a whopping $5 plus $1 shipping.
I next listened to A Chorus Line, optimistically resigned to the certainty that it couldn’t possibly match my CHICAGO experience. Jump ahead several hours. Me on the floor in front of the family stereo, headphones on, in a theater geek's state of transcendence, eyes red and nose runny from listening to A Chorus Line three times in a row and bawling my eyes out.
And there you have what was then, and continues to be, my essential relationship with CHICAGO and A Chorus Line. They're culturally joined at the hip. Iconic templates of a particular time and place in my life--I'd graduated high school in June, I'd been "out" to myself for about two years (4 more years to go for family), it was the summer of Jaws, it was the summer of my independence. And these two shows, listened to as routinely and relentlessly as though they were on a loop, were the soundtrack of my adult-adjacent freedom.
|June 7, 1976|
I saw A Chorus Line when the National Company came to San Francisco's
Curran Theater in May. Ever the autograph hound, my friend and I became
stage-door johnnies for the show's entire run
But CHICAGO was always the diamond…sharp, dazzling, and cold; while A Chorus Line was always the heart (a vision of Lauren Bacall singing "Hearts, Not Diamonds" in The Fan just popped into my head). To me, A Chorus Line was a dark, almost melancholy show... a Follies for theater gypsies...but unlike CHICAGO, it was humane. And that made listening to it a poignant and exhilarating experience—all goosebumps and waterworks. Each musical, reflecting as they did, opposite yet equally true faces of our culture (post-Watergate disillusionment & "Me" generation introspection), also appealed to the contrasting sides of my own nature. CHICAGO and A Chorus Line complemented one another.
It wasn't until 1992 that I got the opportunity to see CHICAGO on stage for the first time. The Long Beach Civic Light Opera put on a fabulous, faithful-to-the-original production starring Juliet Prowse and Bebe Newerth, utilizing Tony Walton's original set designs, Patricia Zipprodt's costuming, and featuring two members of the original 1975 cast. It was astoundingly good. This perhaps accounts for why I was never very never fond of the pared-down, anachronistically Vegas-y look of CHICAGO’s phenomenally successful 1996 Broadway revival. An antipathy reinforced when I saw a 2012 production starring Christie Brinkley (by this point, stunt-casting was the only teeth the show had left).
Since 1975, A Chorus Line’s cultural grip has weakened a bit. Thanks to a monumentally mishandled 1985 movie adaptation, and the musical’s once-innovative confessional format feeling almost quaint in today’s climate of social media oversharing. Meanwhile, CHICAGO, a show once criticized for its relentlessly downcast gaze into life’s sewers, has hung around long enough for its down-in-the-gutter perspective (I hear Candy Darling in Women in Revolt "Too low for the dogs to bite!") to be exactly eye-level with what mainstream American culture has come to normalize, make viral, and elect.
And something I thought for the longest time would never happen... after decades of false starts and rumors (Liza and Goldie! Goldie and Madonna!) and against impossible odds (non-animated movie musicals were believed to be a dead genre), CHICAGO, at last, made it to the big screen. Twenty-seven years after its debut on Broadway.
|Renee Zellweger as Roxie Hart|
|Catherine Zeta-Jones as Velma Kelly|
|Richard Gere as Billy Flynn|
|Queen Latifah as Matron Mama Morton|
|John C. Reilly as Amos Hart|
CHICAGO, the Bob Fosse/Fred Ebb/John Kander musical vaudeville about two amoral, overaged, gin-soaked jazz babies on murderers’ row desperate to parlay their 15-minutes of criminal infamy into show biz careers, was made into a $45 million major motion picture. The director making his feature film debut? None other than Rob Marshall, the Tony Award-nominated choreographer-director of that 1992 Juliet Prowse/Bebe Neuwirth Long Beach production that knocked my socks off.
It's impossible to overstate how excited I was that Friday morning in December of 2002 when my partner and I, returning home from a Christmas trip, stopped off at our place just long enough to drop off our luggage so we could hightail it to Century City and be among the first audience to see CHICAGO on its December 27th opening day in LA. By the time the film was over and anxious-looking marketing folks began handing out audience evaluation cards and pencils (the film wouldn’t open wide until the following month), I thought I had died and gone to stage-to-screen heaven. We were both so euphoric over what we’d just seen, after exiting the theater we swiftly got right back in line to see it again
|Chita Rivera as Nickie|
Broadway's original Velma Kelly makes a cameo appearance as a Cook County Jail inmate.
Her name is a nod to the character she played in Fosse's 1969 film, Sweet Charity.
Rob Marshall and screenwriter Bill Condon avoided several pitfalls from the outset by not trying to reimagine the show for the screen. Instead, they came up with a device (the musical numbers erupt out of Roxie’s fevered fantasies) that made the highly-stylized, stage-bound show more cinematic. Boasting spectacular cinematography, a sensational cast, and dazzling choreography, they succeeded in bringing the CHICAGO I loved to the screen. (It had been my gravest fear that the “Victoria’s Secret meets International Male” Broadway revival version of CHICAGO was going to be the only surviving template for future generations.)
The film went on to be a major boxoffice and critical hit, garnering a whopping 13 Oscar nominations that year, winning 6, among them Best Picture. CHICAGO revitalised the movie musical.
|Taye Diggs as The Bandleader|
|Christine Baranski as Mary Sunshine|
But writing this now in 2022, it's clear my once all-encompassing ardor for CHICAGO has cooled a bit over the years. After the dust of anticipation settled and I was able to breathe a sigh of relief that the screen adaptation wasn't a botch job like A Chorus Line: The Movie, only then did I notice that somewhere along its 27-year path to the screen, CHICAGO had become harmless.
When I look at CHICAGO today, the film's black comedy subtext targeting the institutional corruption of the media, penal system, politics, and law, doesn't hit nearly as hard as how sympathetically Roxi and Velma are portrayed.
Gwen Verdon & Chita Rivera gave us a Roxie and Velma who were genuinely "...older than I ever intended to be." Their hunger for vaudeville fame was a last-gasp act of desperation after a lifetime of failure and rejection. The Roxie and Velma of the film are both so young and beautiful, that one is left with the impression that life has been unduly unfair to them. Throughout the film, each suffers so many humiliations, setbacks, and exploitations that by the finale, we truly forget (or have long stopped caring) that they are remorseless murderers. Instead of being made to feel complicit participants in this depravity, we're simply relieved and happy these women get to have their dreams come true.
|Bianca Marroquin and Michelle Williams|
CHICAGO rehearsals 1975
Bob Fosse: “And I’m saying that it would be better for the show if the…”
Gwen Verdon: “Better for the show? Oh, really? Better for the show… Is that really what you think? I’ll tell you what would have been better for the show; opening four months ago with a director who wasn’t hellbent on turning it into two hours of misery for the audience.”
The above exchange may be fictional (from the splendid miniseries Fosse/Verdon). Still, it reflects a genuine issue that plagued the original production from the getgo...many felt that Fosse had simply made the show too bitter and misanthropic.
Hollywood had no such concerns. When the time came for the film adaptation, far too much Hollywood money was riding on CHICAGO for the studio to even consider taking a chance on having another Pennies from Heaven on its hands (1981's mega-depressing megaflop about another amoral character who uses musical fantasy to escape reality). Miramax insured its $45 million investment by making sure that with this CHICAGO, a good time was going to be had by all. Even if it was a musical about murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery, and treachery--all those things we all hold near and dear to our hearts.
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS MOVIE
No one can say Rob Marshall didn’t understand the assignment. He was hired to deliver a hit movie musical and he did. Brilliantly. It really wasn't his fault that the CHICAGO he (and I) fell in love with back in 1975—labeled by many critics at the time as mean-spirited and ugly—had long given way to the forget your troubles, c'mon get happy crowd-pleaser CHICAGO of today. The 1996 Broadway revival turned CHICAGO into the 2nd longest-running musical in Broadway history. And it didn't accomplish that by making visiting tourists and blue-haired theater parties uncomfortable. It became a hit by submerging the show's unsavory attributes under layers of glamour, sex, and style. Yes, with nary a trace of irony or self-awareness, CHICAGO had become Fosse's "Razzle Dazzle” number.
CHICAGO's themes remain relevant, but its contemptuous
view of America and humanity no longer discomforts
Casting a movie in ways that invite comparisons to a show’s original cast can be problematic. Since there IS no other Roxie Hart for me but Gwen Verdon, I was actually pleased that the film went with an entirely different take on the character. I hadn’t seen Renée Zellweger in anything before, but her Roxie has a Glenda Farrell quality—tough, quirky, wisecracking—that feels both period-perfect and suits the film’s concept. Catherine Zeta-Jones is dynamic as Velma Kelly, but the lovely woman hasn’t a coarse bone in her body. It's impossible to take your eyes off of her when she's onscreen, but when she tries for Velma’s lowbrow vulgarity, the best you get (and here she isn’t alone) is Damon Runyon-esque posturing of the Guys and Dolls sort. The entire cast of CHICAGO is exceptionally good, Richard Gere--the most animated I’ve seen him onscreen since Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977)--being a particular delight, displaying even more playful showmanship at age 52 than in that online clip of his 1973 appearance in Grease.
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
The thrill and terror of seeing any movie adaptation of a favorite show is discovering what they did with (or to) the songs you loved best and played most often on the OBCR album. Sometimes your favorites don’t even make it into the finished film (On a Clear Day You Can See Forever’s baffling decision to excise its sole lively production number “Wait Till We’re Sixty-Five”). Other times you’ll wish they hadn’t (don’t get me started on A Chorus Line: The Movie again). From the very first time I listened to the CHICAGO Broadway cast album, “Funny Honey”, “The Cell Block Tango”, “Roxie”, and “Nowadays” became my favorite songs in the show. How did their transfer to film rate?
|"Funny Honey"- B|
The movie goes for a sultry, torchy interpretation of this number, and scores high points for the way it cleverly establishes the film's visual vocabulary for Roxie's fantasies. It only earns a "B" grade because I've never gotten over the sheer brilliance of Gwen Verdon's vocal performance of this song. It's comic poetry.
|"The Cell Block Tango"- A+|
Every detail about this inspired fever dream of a number works magnificently for me. I especially love that Marshall includes the "victims" in this death tango, and the way the prison reality is intercut with the fantasy. The number is theatrical, it's cinematic, it's a scarlet wall of women behind bars. My favorite number in the movie.
Roxie is a singular sensation to herself in this narcissist anthem that becomes a terrifically glossy and stylish production number in the style of the classic Hollywood musicals. It's deliciously old-fashioned and Zellewgger shines in it. Literally.
|"Nowadays/Hot Honey Rag"- A+|
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
In spite of that dreadful, written-for-the-film Oscar-bait song "I Move On", I'll always enjoy the movie version of CHICAGO. It's an incredibly well-crafted musical that I credit for rescuing the genre from animated singing teapots, and I genuinely think it deserves all of its success. (Though Marshall revealing in the DVD commentary that personal fave-rave Toni Collette was almost cast as Roxie was a bit of news I didn't need. OMG...can you imagine?! Be still my heart.)
But through no fault of its own--after all, the movie didn't change, I did--CHICAGO just doesn't stand the test of time for me as what I might consider a classic musical. When I revisit Cabaret (1972), even after all these years, it's a film that continues to offer me a full-course meal. Rewatching CHICAGO recently was like having a sorbet dessert...thoroughly delightful and pleasant, but there wasn't anything for me to chew on.
I told you that CHICAGO and A Chorus Line are eternally linked for me. Here it is 2022, both shows have been made into films, yet when I really want to have my best experience of either and both...I still go back to listen to those original Broadway cast records I purchased in August of 1975.
There's a wealth of material on YouTube and on the internet about CHICAGO. You can see clips from the original production, the 1992 Long Beach production, the 1996 Broadway revival, and the deleted "Class" musical number from the motion picture. Any footage you can catch of Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivers performing is pure magic.
|Also available on YouTube (for the time being) is the silent film version of Chicago (1927)|
and the Ginger Rogers remake/reworking Roxie Hart (1942) - Thanks, Cinefilia
My favorite curio is an audio track from the 1975 Philadephia tryouts that features cut songs and the original lyrics to "The Cell Block Tango" (wherein we discover "Lipschitz" initially referred to Jacques Lipschitz, the cubist sculptor). Listen to it HERE.
|"Minsky's Chorus" Reginal Marsh - 1935|
The painting that inspired the original CHICAGO poster art
Copyright © Ken Anderson 2009 - 2022