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Posted on Fri, Dec. 27, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
Notorious criminals the inspiration for 'Chicago'


Route 66 isn't the only thing that wound from Chicago to L.A.

Like the legendary highway, the play "Chicago" began its circuitous journey in 1926, but unlike the road, "Chicago" hasn't quite arrived yet.

The crime-does-pay comedy finally reaches the screen as a full-tilt Hollywood musical today, nearly 80 years after a Chicago newspaper sob sister figured out her stories of death-row women would get better play if she gave readers a bit of the old razzle-dazzle.

Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere star in a splashy, innovative musical with its roots in a 1926 play by Chicago Tribune reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins. The journalist began to see the possibilities of a show while covering the trial of cabaret singer Belva Gaertner, accused of murdering her husband.

After another woman, the married Beulah Annan, was sent up for killing her lover, Watkins decided there was a compelling play in the story of turning prisoners on "Murderesses' Row" into celebrities.

Her play, loosely based on those cases, was followed a year later with a silent-movie version and nearly 20 years later by the film "Roxie Hart," which starred Ginger Rogers and told the same tale. So, officially, the story did manage to wind its way to L.A. a couple of times, but not as a musical.

Then in 1975, John Kander and Fred Ebb, who believed the time was right for this outrageous story, turned the play into a musical. It had a successful run then, but was an even bigger smash in a 1996 revival, which is still running on Broadway.

Infamous celebrities

"When we wrote 'Chicago,' my thought to Bobby (Fosse, co-author of the book) was, if you walked down the street and asked who the secretary of state was, few people would know, but if you asked who Al Capone was, everyone would know," said Ebb in a 1997 interview. "And the actual reason we wrote this was because Squeaky Fromme took a potshot at the president and became famous."

And the revival came about a year after the O.J. Simpson trial had Americans glued to their television sets.

"I think the audience caught up with the show, and history, most unfortunately, has been an enormous friend to us," he said. "We are living in a time of sensational murders and people, depending on what you believe, either getting away or not getting away with it."

The notorious, says Ebb, have become America's real royalty, at least in terms of public interest, and a show like "Chicago" taps into that incredibly well: a sassy, well-wrought story of women in prison for murder, who plot to turn their dirty deeds into show business success.

When the musical opened 25 years ago, critics enjoyed it, but some branded the piece too cynical. When it reprised, they said there was a contemporary ring to the saga of Roxie Hart (played by Zellweger in the movie), who killed her lover and temporarily persuaded her "Mr. Cellophane" hubby to take the rap, then hooked up with a new partner in crime and amusement, Velma Kelly (Zeta-Jones).

Velma, who was in vaudeville before her arrest, killed her husband and her sister after discovering them doing unauthorized contortions in bed one evening.

All these women want, they tell their depraved attorney, '20s spin doctor Billy Flynn (the Gere character), is a bit of fame to ease their jailhouse pain and put them on showbiz easy street. What they need to do, with Billy's $5,000 assistance, is convince a sympathetic jury they are victims of the injustice of a cruel world.

It seems almost impossible to believe this very contemporary story -- mocking both the celebrity cult of crime and the legal system -- was cooked up in 1926, but a look at Watkins' script shows that not much about the dark side of human nature has changed in 75 years.

"Why, they'll go wild at the chance to own a teacup drank out of by a real-live murderess," says Jake, the hard-boiled Chicago crime reporter, "and of course if she dies by due process of law, the value is enhanced! We could use a carload of underwear! And Victrola records -- I'll kill a chicken over 'em -- think of owning the record she played while the boyfriend lay dying! Great stuff, Billy, great stuff!"

Dual careers

Watkins became better-known for her journalism than her theater work, eventually moving to New York and covering murder trials on special assignment for papers there. "Chicago," however, ran for 172 performances on Broadway, which turned out to be Watkins' most significant theatrical success.

After working in New York and Los Angeles (where she wrote the 1936 MGM comedy "Libeled Lady"), Watkins moved in with her parents in Florida, where she lived until her death in 1969. During the Florida years, Watkins became something of an eccentric and recluse, which played at least some part in keeping "Chicago" out of the spotlight.

In the years following World War II, producers began to sense that the tale of Roxie Hart, remembered primarily from the 1942 Ginger Rogers movie, would be great musical comedy fodder.

In the early '50s, Robert Fryer, who ended up as one of the producers of the 1975 Bob Fosse production, had an idea for a musical version of "Chicago," starring Fosse's eventual wife, Gwen Verdon. She alerted him to the musical possibilities after seeing "Roxie Hart" on TV, and eventually starred in the 1975 version.

But efforts to convince Watkins that her play would become a legendary musical were futile. Fryer and a number of other theatrical suitors were rebuffed by the playwright, who wanted nothing to do with making her work a musical, or anything else for that matter.

Resolute to the end

Rumor at the time was that she felt somewhat guilty about profiting from the fate of murderers, and Watkins did remain steadfast until her death. Shortly afterward, though, her estate sold the rights to Fosse, and musical history was launched.

Almost immediately after "Chicago" became a Broadway hit, talk of turning it into a musical movie began in Hollywood. But despite the best efforts of producers, the project remained "in development" for more than two decades.

For a time, Verdon was to star in the show. Later, Goldie Hawn and Madonna were mentioned. Other candidates, at one time or another, were Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman (who opted out for "Moulin Rouge," the film that made Hollywood see musicals as a contemporary possibility), Kevin Kline, John Travolta, Kevin Spacey and Hugh Jackman.

But the real problem with the musical wasn't who would play the juicy roles, but how the story would be translated to film.

As a musical, "Chicago" was devised as a vaudeville show, to be quite obviously performed onstage, often with the orchestra taking up a small portion of space.

The story was told through a series of acts -- song-and-dance numbers that moved from the jail, to the crime scenes, to the courtrooms, and to the stage where Roxie and Velma performed as murderesses turned stars.

It was Rob Marshall, the film's eventual director, who came up with the idea of playing many of the scenes and numbers as fantasies in Roxie's mind. Marshall was a Broadway choreographer with only one director credit -- Disney's television version of "Annie." But that was considered a minor TV masterpiece, and since he had also been Sam Mendes' assistant in the re-imagining of Kander and Ebb's "Cabaret," his musical credentials were excellent.

Plausibility of fantasy

His fantasy idea was one of the keys to making contemporary audiences buy the musical concept when common sense no longer lets them find plausibility in it -- much like Gene Kelly crooning as he splashes through a puddle in a driving rainstorm, or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing cheek-to-cheek and singing about it, too.

"The hardest part about musicals," Marshall says, "is that scary moment when the characters start to sing."

Now, when the performers sing, it is filtered through the imagination of Roxie Hart, whose life has been spent dreaming about a life onstage. So it seems logical that she would cast her fantasies as staged numbers featuring the major players in her life -- her husband, Velma Kelly, Big Mama the prison matron, Billy Flynn, and even the army of reporters, who, like Roxie herself, are puppets in the talented hands of Flynn.

But Marshall takes the fantasy a bit further, blending the visual language of both stage and film to give audiences a new look at musicals. His stagecraft goes from using the classic streamer of red cloth to simulate blood (a gimmick that was old hat even to the ancient Greeks), to choreographing the production numbers as they might be performed onstage, rather than in film.

Fresh views and angles

Actually, any of the arrangements Marshall created could be performed onstage. What makes them different, using a technique also used by Baz Luhrmann in "Moulin Rouge," is he treats the camera as an invisible spectator, able to wander into and around the routines, viewing them in a series of fresh looks and angles.

Marshall makes amazingly innovative use of angles and close-ups to make audiences feel they are inside the routines, rather than simply observing them on a stage -- although that, in fact, is exactly what they are doing.

His sense of the old Broadway razzle-dazzle is intact.

Pat Craig is the Times theater critic. He can be reached at 925-945-4736 or
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