By Peter Filichia
Although the 1996 revival of Chicago opened to splendid reviews, did anyone at the time believe that it would become the second-longest running production in Broadway history? But figures don’t lie: Chicago surpassed Cats on November 23, 2014 with its Performance Number 7,486.
Alas, Bob Fosse, the original director-choreographer and co-bookwriter, and Fred Ebb, the lyricist and co-bookwriter, are no longer here to enjoy the triumph. At least composer John Kander is, and he’s undoubtedly savoring his contribution in making Chicago the longest-running American musical to play Broadway.
Many of us celebrated the occasion of a musical’s knocking Cats down a peg by playing the original cast album with Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera, Jerry Orbach and Mary McCarty. We followed that with the revival cast album that started this record-breaking run: Ann Reinking, Bebe Neuwirth and James Naughton. The we added the third jewel of the triple crown: the London cast album with Ruthie Henshall, Ute Lemper and Henry Goodman.
But let’s go back forty-one years and examine the first draft the authors submitted on August 3, 1973. The script starts with Velma singing “All That Jazz,” but the surprise is that Fred Casely is said to be “in his middle forties, fat.” Sounds like Amos, doesn’t he?
No wonder the characterization was changed and that a slim actor (Christopher Chadman) got the role – and took the mock bullet. “I shot him and I’m damned glad I did! I’d do it again!” Roxie boasts, to which the sergeant says, “Once is enough, dearie.”
The “Cell Block Tango” testimony certainly evolved. Here, Liz refers to her hairdresser, giving him an unfortunate slang name for a homosexual; the hairdo he gave her, she says, put her in a bad mood. (The “two warning shots right into his head” lines aren’t yet written.)
Annie, wed to Ezekiel Young from Salt Lake City, doesn’t poison him, but instead recounts shooting the polygamist six times (one for each of his other five wives and one for herself). June doesn’t say that her husband “ran into my knife – ten times,” but instead just keeps describing the length of the knife with her hands, making its size bigger with each additional description.
Hunyak solely speaks Hungarian, and doesn’t even say “Not guilty.” Mona starts with, “Now you may be wondering why I’ve been saying Lipschitz.” She then tells a completely different story, without Ruth, Gladys, Rosemary and Irving; she and her husband were partners in a bridge game, and after she made a foolish play, he got up and slapped her. She responded by slamming a sculpture on his head.
When the Assistant D.A. produces Roxie’s diary, she snarls, “You went through my drawers?” to which he drones, “Everyone else has.” To prove his point, he reads that she’s had 468 lovers. Roxie responds by trying to make him Number 469. When he refuses, Roxie begins to pray: “Don’t let them hang me! Why … I’ll die!”
Then “Matron” – not “Mama Morton,” mind you – enters, not to sing “When You’re Good to Mama,” which isn’t here, but to introduce “short, fat” Henry Grossman. She calls him “a worm,” while he prefers “theatrical agent.” He sings “Ten Per Cent,” a jaunty song that was dropped in Philadelphia along with the character. (David Rounds, who’d played him, was short, but hardly fat.) When Henry talks to Velma, he predicts the dates for her trial, acquittal and vaudeville tour — lines that later went to Mama.
Velma is a tad sweeter when dealing with Roxie, but then Roxie questions her last name, using an unfortunate slang name for a person of Spanish persuasion. Velma admits to Latin blood – clearly, Fosse, Kander and Ebb had Chita Rivera in mind – but insists that she’s “descended from a long line of noblemen and contessas.”
As Roxie tries to maintain Amos’ good will, a barbershop quartet enters and sings, “For my past / I am liable / For that, I atone / But as it says in the Bible / Don’t cast the last stone.” The creators came up with a much better solution when they had Roxie do a “tap dance” — which in the ‘20s was a slang expression for “a clever evasion, a devious maneuver.”
When the chorus girls introduce Billy Flynn, they sing a verse: “B is for putting bullies in their place; I is for his ideas; Double-L is for legal lion; Y is for yellow bellies, whom he bullies.” Yeah, it’s a stretch; no wonder it was dropped.
“All I Care About Is Love” has some different lyrics; it’s not “Packard cars” to which Billy refers, but “I don’t care to own a Cadillac / In brown or beige or basic black.” There’s no “twisting the wrist that’s turning the screw” coda, either.
Soon after Billy calls his tailor a different unfortunate slang name for a homosexual, we meet Mary Sunshine, who here has a song called “Rose-Colored Glasses.” (“Rains / I never see the rains / Not through my window panes / Of rose.”) That’s followed by Matron’s entering, who, the stage direction says, “is always thrilled at the sight of Billy.” That, as we know, changed.
During the ventriloquism scene, Billy in Roxie’s voice starts with “I was born in a convent / And I nearly became a nun / And that’s the thought that crossed my mind / When we both reached for the gun.” That last line is one of the few that shows up in the song we know today. And while Billy sings, a stage direction says, “Probably we see newsboys in various parts of the audience distributing newspapers.”
While “Roxie” isn’t introduced with a long monologue, it has a verse: “Well, tickle me fine / Well, fiddle-dee-dee / Marie of Romania / Got nothin’ on me.” The barbershop quartet returns to sing that she has “Pansy Eyes” that may influence a jury. The scene that follows is almost Evita-like as Roxie receives visitors: a boy on crutches, a woman who brings her a puppy and a waiter who delivers a delicious meal. “I’d offer you some,” she tells Velma, “but it ain’t none of it enchiladas.”
That leads to quite the verbal catfight. Velma delivers a double-entendre in, “If you were south of the border, you’d come across.” Roxie responds with “How would you like a flaming sword right up your Panama Canal?” But Roxie does relent when flowers are delivered. She offers Velma some violets. “You do like purple, don’t you?” she asks, to which Velma says, “Only around your eyes.”
Many more vaudeville acts are peppered through this script. While Henry tells Velma that her court dates have been delayed, a knife-thrower flings weapons at a board on which hearts are painted. Ditto when Henry says that her St. Louis gig is canceled (Thwack!) and St. Paul, too (Thwack!). A contortionist performs while Velma sings, “I Can’t Do It Alone.” Roxie seems curt in the way that she rejects Velma’s offer. The creators obviously realized in a future draft that they’d do well to have Velma be mean to Roxie first.
Although Matron now describes the scene in which “Go-to-Hell Kitty” murders three people, it was originally conceived as a silent scene. Kitty is indeed hellish, and uses an unfortunate slang name for a woman.
Then comes a slight reprise of the song in which Roxie talks directly to audience members; when they don’t say what she wants to hear, she says “Screw you!” No wonder that she sings “I Am My Own Best Friend” – alone, but while some of those previously seen vaudeville acts surround her. They’re as shocked as anyone else when she proclaims, “I’m going to have a baby!”
And I’m going to have Act Two for you next week.