"And Sophie Tucker'll shit, I know, to see her name get billed below Foxy Roxie Hart!"
- Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse
- Music by John Kander
- Lyrics by Fred Ebb
- Directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse
- Opened 6/1/75 in New York. 947 performances.
Matron Mama Morton
This musical was based on several plays and movies that were, in turn, based on a "sensational murder trial" in Chicago in 1924 that was dramatized by court reporter Maurine Watkins in 1926.
Chicago is told in the style of a series of "vaudeville" song-acts that highlight the major players in the drama. Roxie Hart murders her lover Fred. Not knowing the circumstances, her nebbish husband Amos is willing to take the rap for the murder until the police identify the body as Fred; and, realizing he's been a cuckold, he fngers Roxie, who is thrown into the clink. She joins a handful of other merry murderesses, amongst whom the "star" is Velma Kelly; they're overseen by Matron Mama Morton, who takes care of her girls in return for various favors. No woman has ever been put to death for murder, and Roxie isn't about to be the first; she takes Mama's advice and persuades Amos to come up with $5,000 to hire Billy Flynn, "Chicago's most famous defense attorney." Billy turns Roxie into a media star as he proclaims her innocence. This doesn't sit well with Velma, who finds herself ignored and jealous. Her attempt to interest Roxie in a double act falls flat. However, fame is as fickle for Roxie as it was for Velma, and she resorts to pretending to be pregnant to bring the spotlight back. This works for a while, but when Roxie is acquitted, she finds that everyone is ignoring her again. Having spurned Amos despite his overtures, she turns to Velma, and the two embark on the double act that Velma had been pushing earlier.
- All That Jazz
- Funny Honey
- Cell Block Tango
- When You're Good to Mama
- All I Care About
- A Little Bit of Good
- We Both Reached for the Gun
- I Can't Do It Alone
- My Own Best Friend
- Me and My Baby
- Mr. Cellophane
- When Velma Takes the Stand
- Razzle Dazzle
- All That Jazz (reprise)
Chicago won no Tonys in 1976. It was nominated for:
- Best Musical
- Best Director
- Best Book
- Best Score
- Best Actor
- Best Actress (Chita Rivera)
- Best Actress (Gwen Verdon)
- Best Scenic Designer (Tony Walton)
- Best Costume Designer (Patricia Zipprodt)
- Best Lighting Designer (Jules Fisher)
- Best Choreographer
Not as deep as Cabaret but more cynical, Chicago was the perfect 1990s musical. A bit too cynical for audiences of the mid-1970s and swamped by the tidal wave of A Chorus Line, it found a much more receptive welcome in its revival some 20 years later, especially as it showed up around the time of the Simpson trial--talk about timing! I saw it twice with two different casts in Denver, and I would've seen it a third time in Las Vegas except that I didn't have time. My dad didn't like it that much, but my mother and I were blown away both times.
The story is structured similiarly to Cabaret in that the production takes the form of a show of some sort (in this case, a vaudeville/variety show) in which the players are "introduced" and tell their stories through song. Kander and Ebb specialize in this kind of framework; besides Cabaret, they used something like it in 70, Girls, 70 and echoes of it in Steel Pier [don't ask me about Flora, The Rink, or The Act; haven't gotten them yet]. In Cabaret, the songs were often dark reflections of the situations in the book scenes; in Chicago, the songs are more straightforwardly incorporated into the plot, though each was styled as a variety act and introduced by a Master of Ceremonies (in this case, the band leader). For example, Billy does a ventriloquist act with Roxie on his knee, acting as the dummy as he puts words into her mouth about what "really" happened when "We Both Reached for the Gun"; when Hunyak becomes the first woman to be put to death, it's styled as a tightrope act (albeit with a hangman's noose); Velma's desperate "I Can't Do It Alone" is half of a double act, complete with corny jokes ("What's your sister like? Men, yuk yuk yuk."); and Billy enters, singing what may be the most cynical song in the show, "All I Care About" (is love, of course, just what high-powered lawyers work for), in a swirl of glittering women swishing huge feathers around in a mini-Busby Berkeley sequence.
Nearly all the songs are terrific. The ones that stand out as not being terrific are "When Velma Takes the Stand," which is just a rewrite of "I Can't Do It Alone," and "Me and My Baby," which is OK, but I prefer the faster version that appears on the revival cast CD. Otherwise, the overture is one of the truly great ones; "All That Jazz," "Razzle Dazzle," "Nowadays," and "Mr. Cellophane" were hits of varying degree (and of course "All That Jazz" became better known when it was used as the title of the Bob Fosse biography); and the ventriloquist metaphor in "We Both Reached for the Gun" is a fantastic (and perfectly truthful) statement on how lawyers manipulate their clients for best effect.
I can't complain about the casts I saw (except for Robert Urich as Billy, he sucked big time: couldn't sing, flubbed some lines, and acted with all the panache of the Pillsbury Doughboy), but how could they compare to the originals? Wouldn't you just have killed to have seen this trio? I can't even imagine the pairing of Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera--it's like staring into the sun, especially when they danced.
- It was Gwen Verdon's last musical, and yet again she proved why she was one of the all-time greats of the musical stage. She played Roxie Hart with a wonderful mix of naivete and cynicism, sort of a Sweet Charity with a harder edge. Her "Roxie" is a tour de force, from her wicked, delighted laugh at the publicity she's getting to her deadpan "Good luck to ya" to her winking statement to the audience that "Those are my boys." Goddamn, why wasn't this filmed? (Ahh, they probably wouldn't have used Verdon anyway. Stupid Hollywood gits.)
- It's hard to think of a Broadway star who's had such staying power, and who has appeared in so many outstanding shows in so many diverse roles, as Chita Rivera. Her Velma is by turns hostile (in the sensational "Cell Block Tango"), desperate-eager (in "I Can't Do It Alone"), and resigned (in my mom's favorite song, "Class"). Her rendition of "All That Jazz," with her knowing laughs and sultry voice, is as classic a performance as has been committed to vinyl/plastic.
- Jerry Orbach owns the role of Billy Flynn. No one has ever managed to equal his sheer sleaziness, his transparent indifference, his naked cynicism. This performance is as far a cry from "Try to remember..." as it gets. If you only know him through his TV/movie work, you must get this CD.
- Barney Martin, who would go on to play Jerry Seinfeld's father in that series, is the ideal Amos: unhandsome, chubby, somewhat dim, bewildered by the things happening to his wife and by the way she treats him, negligible to Billy Flynn except as a source of money. The nicest character in the show, he's also the biggest loser in the end, when Roxie rejects him. "Mr. Cellophane," his big number, is both funny and sad at the same time; when he finishes lamenting his invisibility, he thanks the audience and hopes he didn't take up too much of its time.
- Mary McCarty plays her crypto-lesbian Matron to the hilt in "When You're Good to Mama"; apparently, on the word "tat" in her song, she bounced her ample bosom.... She doesn't get to display much emotional range in her two songs besides leering; she's more of a shouter than anything.
- M. O'Haughey does a fine job with Mary Sunshine, whose naive insistence on believing only the best about Roxie is an echo of today's gullible press lapping up the empty charm of a certain seatwarmer in the White House. For how many bars does O'Haughey hold that note in "A Little Bit of Good in Everyone?" I dunno, but the population of the Earth rises measurably during that time.
The booklet is unfortunately pretty minimal: A song list, technical details, some small dark pictures, a cast list, a short history of the show, and a plot synopsis. The only good picture is the big one of Verdon and Rivera on the back of the booklet. The text is white-on-red, which is kind of annoying.
What with the revival CDs dominating public attention in the last few years, the OBC has been somewhat neglected. Like many earlier musicals, the original truncated or left out some material. Still, this version is extremely entertaining and filled with splendid performances--performances uniformly superior to those on the American revival CD, at least (I haven't gotten the London one yet, so don't ask me about Ruthie Henshall until I have a chance to get it). An essential recording for Verdon, Rivera, Orbach, and Kander and Ebb fans, as well as comprehensive Broadway collections. Listeners exploring beyond today's Broadway boundaries are urged to get it.
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