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The Genesis of Chicago

Chicago Reaches Its Majority By Peter Filichia

If a musical were a person, the revival of Chicago would now be old enough to drink in all fifty states.

Precisely twenty-one years have passed since the revival of the Kander-Ebb-Fosse 1975 masterpiece opened its second Broadway run: three months at the Richard Rodgers, six years at the Shubert and then to the Ambassador where, in eleven weeks, it will have played for fifteen straight years – and counting.

Little did we know in 2006 when Chicago released a tenth anniversary, deluxe CD set in a long box that less than half its eventual run had been attained. And who knows? Perhaps that ten-year span will only become, to quote one of the show’s dropped songs, “Ten Percent” of its eventual run.
Who’d have predicted this level of success for a show that was said – quite erroneously – to have been a flop its first time out? No – the original Chicago ran more than two years – a total of 936 performances, which back then only twenty-seven other book musicals had been able to better.

That statistic didn’t make it a hit, however. As any producer will tell you, the only definition of a hit is a show that returns its original investment. Chicago indeed did.

Perhaps Chicago’s wipeout at the 1975-1976 Tonys was a reason for the flop myth. It was nominated for an impressive nine awards and didn’t win a one. Most of those losses were at the hands of A Chorus Line, which would be around for nearly thirteen more years than the original Chicago could muster.

But ho-ho-ho, who’s got the last laugh now? When A Chorus Line closed as the longest-ever-running Broadway show, it had run 6,137 performances. Chicago, on its November 14, 2017 anniversary, will have played 8,723 – which means if you take the Chorus Line run and add the entire 2,502 performances that all-time Tony champ The Producers attained, you still won’t have as many showings as this Chicago revival.

Better evidence still: John Kander and Fred Ebb would see each of their projects well into the nineties be termed “from the writers of Cabaret and ‘New York, New York.’” However, in this new century, each of their projects has been touted as the work of “the writers of Chicago, Cabaret and ‘New York, New York.’”

First things first.

Come April, 2018, Chicago will have a 241-page book to its credit. The name of the author alone should get any genuine musical theater fan tremendously excited: Ethan Mordden has done the job, and, as usual, has done it extraordinarily well.

All That Jazz: The Life and Times of the Musical Chicago comes courtesy of Oxford University Press. Mordden spends a chapter explaining that the city of Chicago has had a wild reputation almost since its inception. He then goes on to examine Maurine Watkins’ original 1926 play, the 1927 silent, the 1942 film Roxie Hart and the three important versions of the musical, including the 2002 Oscar-winning movie.

Journalist Watkins covered the 1924 trials of Midwestern murderesses Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner, who became her Roxie and Velma. The latter only became important in the musical. She was originally conceived as a “social grandee” but the musical changed her into “a mean-streets prison know-it-all.”

None of the properties, however, took advantage of a hilarious real-life incident: Belva and her Beau each hired a detective to check out each other. Both lovers then decided to hire two, then four – giving new meaning to “misery loves company.”

Watkins actually reported that Gaertner and her lover “both grabbed for the gun,” an idea which, as we know, Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb appropriated. They didn’t include this delicious little detail: Belva claimed she was trying to save her honor, but she shot him in the back.

Here’s a surprise to those who think of Billy Flynn as having the matinee-idol looks of Jerry Orbach, James Naughton or Richard Gere: Watkins envisioned Billy Flynn as “a little man, like Napoleon.” The play also included Jake Callahan, a reporter who gave Roxie advice. (That was all; Watkins didn’t romantically link them.) After Roxie was acquitted and a new and more dramatic crime immediately happened, Jake said, “Ain’t God good to the papers!”

The play’s original title — a purposely ironic one — was The Brave Little Woman. Who retitled it Chicago? No less than George Abbott, who’d been hired to stage it. (He was in his first year of a directorial career that would span sixty-one years.)

The silent film credits Frank Urson as its director, but Mordden sees Cecil B. DeMille’s hands and touches all over it and infers he did the job. Urson had previously been DeMille’s assistant, so how did he get all the glory? Mordden theorizes that DeMille had just finished directing The King of Kings (four years after helming The Ten Commandments), so he didn’t want to sully his lofty reputation by ostensibly purveying scandalous material.

What’s surprising about the silent is that Amos, needing that $5,000 for Roxie’s defense, steals the money – by breaking into Billy Flynn’s house. The film ends with Roxie walking in the rain, seeing a newspaper with a headline about her whisked away by the wind and sent into the gutter.

Symbolism!

Regarding Chicago’s conceiver and its first director- choreographer Bob Fosse, Mordden believes, “Feelings of unworthiness dogged him all his life.” He imagines Fosse saying to himself, “Am I inferior to Jerome Robbins? Am I inferior even to that poky Donald Saddler?”

He certainly knew what he wanted from his leading lady. “Fosse’s Verdon, the devil’s Verdon” is the way Mordden describes her, and of course, the latter description is what she literally played in Damn Yankees.

Even without Mr. Applegate, the description fits. Never mind the adjective “Sweet” when Verdon played Charity Hope Valentine. The show’s logo tells all: that stance, that look, and that tattoo in the long-ago era when no self-respecting woman would even consider having one. Charity wasn’t all that far away from the prostitute Verdon had played in New Girl in Town.

So, Roxie Hart would be a natural for her. Unfortunately, when she and Fosse approached Watkins in 1962, the playwright said that she didn’t want Chicago musicalized. Seven years later, after Watkins died and her will was read, Fosse and Verdon were delightfully surprised to find that she had given them the right of first refusal.

They took it.

By then, Kander and Ebb had proved themselves with Cabaret, which was a major leap towards the concept musical. Perhaps one reason the show was so long-aborning (derailed in part by Fosse’s heart attack) was their finding the right concept. As Mordden implies, had they done it as a realistic musical, it wouldn’t have worked, for we can’t get behind Roxie Hart, whose response to being dumped by her boyfriend is, needless to say, an overreaction.

They found a smart way out by making it a vaudeville show. They musicalized each character with an alter-ego from that era – Roxie, Helen Morgan; Billy Flynn, Ted Lewis; Mama Morton, Sophie Tucker – and wrote songs in that style. (Although “Class,” a most ironic comment on the way America has devolved, has marked at the top of its sheet music, “Quasi Franz Schubert.”

Mordden also praises the revival’s artwork that shows photographs of cast members. “These pictures, shot in black and white, wore a deliberate downbeat look, as if sex and jazz were really taking their toll,” he writes, “the haggard appearance of the Sunday after the sin-filled Saturday.”

So why the difference from the mild reception in 1975 and the sensational one in 1996? “The show hasn’t changed,” Mordden states. “We have.” And if that statement isn’t strong enough, how about this one: “Chicago might well become the new Oklahoma! – the piece Americans think of when they hear the word ‘musical.’”

Well, it is only fifteen weeks away from running four times as long …

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.