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Entertainment News

Still successful 'Chicago' looks to hit it big on big screen


Michael Kuchwara
Associated Press

New York - Drinks are flowing and confetti is flying as the entire cast of "Chicago" whoops and wriggles to the beat of loud rock music. A photographer furiously snaps every provocative pose and leer.

True, the liquids are only ginger ale and apple cider, and the confetti is being blown about the large studio by two giant fans, but then this is business: the creation of a new print campaign for Broadway's longest-running revival, which started its seventh year last month.

"Chicago," a cynical musical of crime, corruption and murderous chorus cuties, is one of the biggest theater successes of the last decade.

Companies span the globe - from New York to London to Sydney to Stockholm to Moscow and beyond. It has won scads of awards and prizes, including six Tonys, a Grammy and a couple of England's Oliviers. And there are worldwide grosses of more than $550 million, making it a financial bonanza for producers Barry and Fran Weissler.

The husband and wife brought the revival of the Kander and Ebb musical to Broadway in 1996 after its sensational one-week stint as part of City Center's enterprising series, "Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert."

The show hasn't stopped running - or making money - since.

Now, "Chicago" the stage show is facing something new: a long-awaited, highly touted movie version that opens Friday. The Miramax Films release, costing an estimated $45 million, stars Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere. Academy Award drumbeats and massive publicity - the cover of Vanity Fair, for example - already have started.

However, Barry Weissler doesn't consider the movie, which has been in the works since the original "Chicago" opened on Broadway in 1975, competition for his production. In fact, he welcomes it.

"We will help each other," the producer said. "If the movie is good - and from what I've seen of it, it's exceptional - that can only aid us."

Magnanimous talk from a theater veteran. But then, Weissler is a savvy producer, a man who knows how to maximize his shows' profits and extend their runs.

His revival of "Grease" was walloped by the critics and ran for four years. Clever celebrity casting helped, starting with Rosie O'Donnell, then Brooke Shields and finally everybody from "Dreamgirls" diva Jennifer Holliday to Lucy Lawless of "Xena: Warrior Princess" fame.

Even "Seussical," Weissler's critically lambasted musical of two seasons ago, ran eight months in New York as Weissler tried O'Donnell again, then teen star Aaron Carter and finally gymnast Cathy Rigby to keep the show going.

And he has been just as careful and creative with "Chicago." Ann Reinking created choreography in "the style of Bob Fosse," who directed, choreographed and co-wrote the book of the original. She also played Roxie Hart, a 1920s chorus girl who kills her boyfriend, gets off and becomes a vaudeville star. Bebe Neuwirth was Velma Kelly, Roxie's fellow inmate in Chicago's Cook County Jail.

Over the years, Weissler has placed performers such as George Hamilton, Marilu Henner and Sandy Duncan in the show as well as potent, newer faces such as Taye Diggs, Jasmine Guy and Michael C. Hall of HBO's "Six Feet Under."

Weissler considers his current "Chicago" cast one of the best. Charlotte d'Amboise, who plays Roxie Hart, headed the show's first national tour. Caroline O'Connor won raves as Velma Kelly in the Australian production. And Billy Zane - Weissler refers to him as "our Hollywood star" - plays shady lawyer Billy Flynn.

The producer also has paid close attention to the show's advertising campaign, one of the first to rely on stark, sexy, black-and-white photography and not readily recognizable logos such as the mask in "The Phantom of the Opera," the wide-eyed urchin in "Les Miserables" or those feline eyes in "Cats."

These new print ads will find their way to newspapers, magazines, a big Times Square billboard and the theater itself.

That theater will change, too, early next year. For most of its life, "Chicago" has played at the Shubert, one of Broadway's most desirable theaters, located on a prime West 44th Street block.

In January, it moves five blocks north to the Ambassador, which has 400 fewer seats than the 1,500-seat Shubert.

The musical reopens there Jan. 29.

"The Ambassador is smaller, but it is six years later - and we are not at 101 percent capacity anymore," said Weissler, adding that the decline made those extra seats, especially in the Shubert's second balcony, harder to sell.

"Chicago," like many other long-running shows, was hit hard by the downturn in business after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Advance sales suffered. Six-month advance sales have turned into two months or less, Weissler said.

Still, the producer is celebrating his show's last weeks at the Shubert in style.

And whole new audiences are expected once the film opens.

"I think people are going to want to come see the show after seeing the movie," said Drew Hodges of the Spotco ad agency, which is behind the photo shoot.

"This is such a theatrical musical. When you see those girls in the movie, you are going to want to see the girls onstage, live in front of you."

© 2002 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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