CHICAGO, THE MUSICAL
MAY 30, 1997
Paul Solman looks at the revived musical that swept this year's Tony Awards, the darkly comic Chicago. The musical won six Tonys, including Ann Reinking for Best Choreography, Walter Bobbie for Best Direction, Bebe Neuwirth for Best Actress, James Naughton for Best Actor, Best Revival of a Musical and Ken Billington for Best Lighting.
PAUL SOLMAN: It's the proverbial hottest ticket on Broadway. Nominated for eight Tony Awards, the revival of legendary choreographer Bob Fosse's dark 1975 musical Chicago, and to some the Chicago revival represents the rival of musical comedy, itself.
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ACTRESS SINGING: Come on babe, why don't we paint the town, and all that jazz.
PAUL SOLMAN: The songs are cynical, the dancing sinuous, the humor black. The story begins with murderous Velma Kelly, played here by Bebe Neuwirth. She had a Vaudeville act until she shot and killed her co-star, her sister, and manager, her husband, when she found them in bed together. The original production was overshadowed by rival shows. The revival, brainchild of director Walter Bobbie, is a smash. So why?
WALTER BOBBIE, Director: It was the year of Chorus Line. And it was a year of the "feel good, find out who I am, share it with the world" musical, and there was this dark, nasty thing about, you know, the justice system in America in Chicago, about the abusive celebrity.
PAUL SOLMAN: Was cynicism too hard to take maybe in the 1970's, where it's a lot easier now?
WALTER BOBBIE: We've watched incredible celebrity trials in our living rooms for the past five years. We've seen them the Menendez Brothers; we've seen O.J. So that we've absorbed that cynicism into our consciousness in some way that we're not stunned by it, but we are provoked by examining the difference between truth and justice and the law, which are clearly very different issues.
PAUL SOLMAN: The show's not just topical. It also features the late Bob Fosse's distinct style and one of his favorite stars, Ann Reinking. Reinking, the revival's choreographer, is Roxie Hart, a chorus girl who's killed her boyfriend, thus eclipsing Velma Kelly. Here she plays the dummy while Chicago's best lawyer, portrayed by James Naughton, ventriloquizes a teary tale of self defense for tabloid reporters eagerly taking notes at a razzle dazzle press conference.
JAMES NAUGHTON: (singing) Oh, yes, oh, yes, oh, yes, we both reached for the gun, the gun, the gun. Oh, yes, we both reached for the gun.
PAUL SOLMAN: In Fosse's original production the fabled Gwen Verdon played Roxie Hart. Verdon preceded Reinking as Fosse's first lady, the one and only Sweet Charity, the Lola of his Damn Yankees, with whom Fosse is dancing here. All in all, Bob Fosse choreographed and directed some of the biggest Broadway musicals of the 50's, 60's, and 70's, from Pajama Game to Pippin to Dancin'. He also directed films, including Cabaret, for which he won an Oscar. We asked Ann Reinking and Gwen Verdon to explain Fosse's style.
GWEN VERDON: If there is any part of your body that could move, he would use it. But not all at once. I mean, it would be a shoulder, a finger. I still remember at the end of "Lola," after dancing, you'd have to go back into the song, and my hair would stick out like that, and he choreographed doing that so that you'd look okay. I mean, he choreographed what you did with the second joint of our little finger.
PAUL SOLMAN: No, you don't mean that seriously.
GWEN VERDON: Yes, I do.
PAUL SOLMAN: What do you do with the second joint of your finger?
ANN REINKING: Oh, in Sweet Charity ya-dun--(demonstrating)--and I mean, over and over--
GWEN VERDON: Soft boiled egg hands.
ANN REINKING: Yes. Soft boiled egg hands.
GWEN VERDON: And they couldn't just open up, bam, like that. They had to flare, and that's in the show--
ANN REINKING: Going to be Roxie, over and over.
GWEN VERDON: But they had to flare.
ANN REINKING: So that it looked like a little firecracker.
GWEN VERDON: But it couldn't be a fist. It had to be a soft holding--a soft boiled egg.
ANN REINKING: A soft boiled egg.
PAUL SOLMAN: Is that his phrase?
GWEN VERDON: That's his phrase.
ANN REINKING: Yes.
GWEN VERDON: Teacup fingers. (laughing)
ANN REINKING: Teacup fingers. (laughing)
PAUL SOLMAN: Behind Fosse's meticulous craft was increasing cynicism about the American scene as suggested in his semi-autobiography, the film All That Jazz. In Chicago, Fosse's vision was at its darkest.
ANN REINKING: Bob was very angry at that point and, from my point of view, Bob was morte focused on the anger and the cynicism than he was on the entertainment. And I think he was disillusioned by the entertainment world by that time too, so--(laughing)--when it came to, you know, how can they see with sequins in their eyes, you really understood the lyric, and also personified it.
GWEN VERDON: I think the actual story and the depth of the story was covered up by all the razzle dazzle of costumes, sets, in my opinion, Bob will strike me dead, but this is a better production of that show because it really hit right between the eyes with what it's about, instead of what they're wearing. And your vision of the show is not diffused by sequins.
PAUL SOLMAN: Sequins--s-e-q-u-i-n-s, sequins.
ANNE REINKING: The sparkly things that you wear.
PAUL SOLMAN: Flashy costumes, flashier sets, both hallmarks of Broadway, especially in recent decades, but in 1997, Chicago is all sleek black costumes and minimalist sets, which underscore the show's cynicism typified by Bebe Neuwirth's biggest number, her pitch to Roxie to team up in Vaudeville.
BEBE NEUWIRTH: (Singing) But I simply cannot do it alone.
BEBE NEUWIRTH: I'm showing her what the act was that my sister and I did together and I lost my 15 seconds of celebrity to Roxie Hart, so I think I get Roxie to do the act with me because, as it turns out, I killed my partner, my sister. I'll get her to do the act with me, and then we'll use her headlines and my--
JOEL GRAY: And she'll kill her later.
BEBE NEUWIRTH: Maybe.
PAUL SOLMAN: Joel Gray plays Roxie Hart's cuckolded husband, Amos.
JOEL GRAY: Celebrity is nuts today with the advent of television and what we do to celebrities and how we deify them I just love that this show really shows it for what it is.
BEBE NEUWIRTH: What I get from the audience is that they're thrilled to have something so deftly throw arrows where they have been dying to have arrows shot.
JOEL GRAY: And it's palatable because it's so goddamned entertaining.
PAUL SOLMAN: In other words, this musical in a way makes both the revulsion and the indulgence in this kind of behavior palatable, you could argue, right?
JOEL GRAY: Yes. And I don't think that it, in fact, glorifies it. I think it kind of dresses it and puts it in a wonderfully entertaining atmosphere, but--and also people will come--I remember that the Nazis would take the people off of the end of the stage and I would be actually the ringmaster in Cabaret, taking all these people to death camps. And there would be people outside who said, "I had such a good time; you were so fun; you're so fun." I was Hitler. "You're so fun."
PAUL SOLMAN: So some people just don't get it?
JOEL GRAY: People don't want to get it, and they don't. They take what they will.
PAUL SOLMAN: Now it's time for a seeming digression about the really rosy lighting scheme for these interviews and the oddly tilted lampshades in the wide shots. You see, we shot in the basement of the show's theater, the Shubert, where just to plug in our TV lights would have cost thousands in union required electricians, engineers, and so on. We settled, instead, for the Shubert's lamps, angling the shades to light our interviewees. Union rules like this are among the many factors that have driven up costs on Broadway. Chicago's producers Barry and Fran Weissler.
PAUL SOLMAN: How much more of an economic risk is it to put on a show today than say it was in the 70's?
FRAN WEISSLER, Co-Producer: I think it's more risky today. Everything costs more. Theater tickets are more; the cost of ushers are more; the cost of all the stuff that goes on inside the theater, other than the actors, themselves, is more. But when you win, there's nothing like it. I mean, if you do well, like in any business, you really do well.
PAUL SOLMAN: I want to get to a reality level here. Let's say I'm coming to you and I'm pitching--I'm saying here's the kind of show I have in mind and I want this mega star and that mega star and so forth. What's the dialogue like?
BARRY WEISSLER, Co-Producer: Let me give you an example of an investor who came to us and said, I'd like to put money into Chicago, but if you do it with a bandstand inside a black box, you'll fail. The people won't buy that. The public won't pay for that. There's not enough here. And I want you to give me a set for each scene depicted in the production. And we said that would be the worst mistake we possibly could make. This has to be a very simple production. It has to seduce the audience into its own environment, and then it takes it on a journey. It's a wonderful journey. And we refused, and we gave that person--it happened to be a corporation, so we gave that corporation their choice of putting money in or not. And they did. We're very convincing.
FRAN WEISSLER: And they're happy now--best thing that ever happened.
BARRY WEISSLER: This production--I don't mind telling you that this production paid back in 16 weeks. That might be an historic record for the modern theater.
PAUL SOLMAN: Sixteen weeks, so everything after that--what percentage after that is gravy?
BARRY WEISSLER: 100 percent.
FRAN WEISSLER: 100 percent, because it's all paid back.
PAUL SOLMAN: Oh, you mean to the investors?
FRAN WEISSLER: To the investors.
PAUL SOLMAN: So in the end, the investors of the 90's, unlike those of the 70's, make a bundle doing almost as well as Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, murderesses who beat their respective raps and go on to play Vaudeville's top venue, the Palace Theater. So topicality helps explain the revival's runaway success and perhaps a circuit of mega-productions like Cats, Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, staged for the big financial score, that are at once astonishing, extravagant, and perhaps an aberration from what's always made musical comedy work on Broadway.
WALTER BOBBIE, Director: If there's been any shift, we've sort of--since I've been here, it's that we've gone from the great director/choreographers to the standstill British musicals where the set dances, to perhaps a reawakening of dance as a form of storytelling in the American musical. I think we love that.
PAUL SOLMAN: In the final analysis then Chicago's triumph might signal a revival of more than just a show from the 70's or even of the Bob Fosse style but of something more fundamental to Broadway, singing and dancing a distinctly American story.