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Pittsburgh director turns movie stars into Broadway players

Friday, January 03, 2003

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

NEW YORK -- The movie version of "Chicago" has finally come to fruition -- shot in Toronto by a director from Pittsburgh with a cast not known (with one exception) for its musical prowess or any connection (with another exception) to that toddlin' town in the title.

Director Rob Marshall arrives at the premiere screening of his film "Chicago" at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences three weeks ago in Beverly Hills. The movie opens in Pittsburgh tonight. (Chris Pizzello, Associated Press)

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The movie's gestation period lasted longer than Michael Jordan's reign in the pantheon of Second City sports heroes. Stars attached to, or rumored to be involved with, the project at one point or another included Madonna, Goldie Hawn, Rosie O'Donnell, Charlize Theron, John Travolta and Kevin Spacey.

When the dust cleared, there stood Catherine Zeta-Jones, a musical theater veteran in the United Kingdom not known for those skills in America; Richard Gere, a leading man who hadn't done song and dance since his stage days 30 years ago; Renee Zellweger, a skilled actress whose warbling heretofore had taken place primarily in her shower; and John C. Reilly, best known for his roles in Paul Thomas Anderson films, none of which required him to sing.

"I grew up doing musicals," said Reilly, the only Chicago native in the cast, during a set of cast interviews at the Essex House hotel. "That's all there was to do when I was growing up. It was musicals or crime."

Of the key performers in the movie, only rap mistress Queen Latifah has a musical pedigree known to most fans. She had to audition three times to get the role of prison matron Mama Morton.

Zellweger, on the other hand, was invited to meet with director Rob Marshall, a native of Squirrel Hill and graduate of CMU, and virtually had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to the interview.

"I'd never seen the musical, I didn't know what it was about, I didn't know the music, I didn't know the story. It didn't really translate on paper to someone who had no knowledge of what it meant," Zellweger said.

She admits to having tried out for the musical "Hair" while in college. "I watched from the audience and enjoyed it very much," she said. "I sang a couple of notes in 'Empire Records.' And then of course there were fabulous vocal moments in 'Bridget Jones Diary,' " she said with obvious sarcasm.

Rene Zellweger, self-described graduate of "the Rob Marshall Singing School of 'Chicago,'" performs in the film. "It was playtime," she says. (David James / Miramax Films 2002)

Her manager basically ordered her to meet with Marshall.

"He was convinced [Marshall] was one of the greatest people that he'd ever spoken to, and that I would be inspired just listening to him and just meeting him, even if we decided not to work together.

"And he was so right. I sat down at a table at the Four Seasons and I was sold. That was it. I didn't care. He, for some reason, had it in his mind that it was going to work. And there would be singing and there would be dancing and it would all be fine. And I bought into it, and I must have been a fool, but I didn't care.

"I was so inspired by his creative brilliance that was right there on the table, and his passion was contagious. As a person he was inspiring. He was so bright, and he was so generous, even in his criticisms about things. He had so much insight. He was wise, and he was such a pure spirit that I thought, I can't walk away from this man and just let him leave the Four Seasons right now and never see him again, because that would be a great mistake in my life."

After attending what she called "the Rob Marshall Singing School of 'Chicago,' " Zellweger relaxed and even enjoyed herself. "It was playtime," she said.

But she still felt like an impostor when it was over.

"I'm an impostor in this world, I'm an impostor on that stage, I'm an impostor in the Roxie role. I feel like there's bound to be someone else who's worked for a very long time in this medium who deserved to have this beautiful experience."

Other members of the cast also gushed about making the movie and about Marshall, although not so floridly as Zellweger.

"I'm feeling like I'm part of his family, I'm from his world, I'm part of him, I just know him," Zeta-Jones said. "He sees everything. He's so prepared.

"He has a huge career ahead of him. It's just a pleasure to work for somebody with such enthusiasm. It's just like a coach, rooting for you. He works so hard, you just want it to be good for him."

But the best thing Marshall told her was that Chita Rivera, who played the role of Velma Kelly in the original Broadway production, had given her blessing to Zeta-Jones in the role. The two actresses met in London when they were appearing in stage shows across the street from each other.

"I did musical theater when I was a teen-ager," said Zeta-Jones, a native of Wales. "I hung up my dance shoes thinking I would never, ever, ever have to call upon that. I had to work so hard to convince people I could act, because I was a musical comedy actress."

When she came to Hollywood to do movies, she had to convince people she could do an American accent.

"The beauty of me doing 'The Mask of Zorro' first is that people thought I was Spanish," she said.

Who knew he could sing? Richard Gere performs in "Chicago". (David James / Miramax Films 2002)

Richard Gere started out doing repertory theater and came up at a time when rock musicals were big. He played Danny in "Grease" in 1973 and "a lot of other things that didn't make it." Four years later came his breakthrough movie role in "Looking for Mr. Goodbar," and he hasn't sung for his supper since -- until now.

He was first attracted to "Chicago" by the script, and then he met Marshall.

"Rob is an extraordinary person, he really is -- one of the really special people," Gere said, suggesting he may be "one of the greatest talents of our time. He's that good."

"He listens, he learns constantly, he's always open to a comment or a suggestion. At the same time, it doesn't throw him off balance for other people to be creative.

"He's incredibly sensitive to people. He created an environment that everyone did their best work and wanted to please him. He never lost it. He's the hardest working man I've ever seen. In a way, he's like a great Yogi director," said Gere, an adherent of Eastern religion.

Queen Latifah called Marshall "the best, in my book. I couldn't think of a bad word to say about that guy."

She took to the music of "Chicago" right away.

"These Broadway tunes are interesting, just clever writing," she said. "There's like a passion, there's like a drama in it that you just don't get listening to regular songs these days.

"Even when I listen to old jazz standards, I love the way the words are put together. I love the way singers back then tried to make their voices sound like instruments. You don't get that stuff anymore. For me to get a chance to sing it, it's fun."

Musicals were a form of escapism for Latifah when she was growing up.

"I got to see 'Timbuktu,' I got to see 'The Wiz' with Stephanie Mills. The bug bit me. I was there. I've seen a few more.

"Just watching television -- all the stuff Bing Crosby would do, Danny Kaye and those guys. It was fantasy for me. Growing up a kid in the projects, you get to kind of go into this world and dream for a while. I don't care where you live, these were fun shows to watch."

Rob Marshall works a dance scene on the set of "Chicago." (David James / Miramax Films 2002)

Rob Marshall also watched a lot of movie musicals when he was a kid, which may have presaged his eventual move into the medium after a Broadway career as dancer, choreographer and director.

"I've been thinking about it recently, and when I've done work for the stage, when I'm choreographing a number, I always imagine what it will be on film first. That's always been my process, it's a funny thing.

"When I started choreographing for television, that was such a thrill. I realized, 'Oh my gosh, there's no proscenium.' And transitions, theater is all about transitions, you move from one thing to the next. And in movies, you can cut. The editing room was really my college about film. I found things you can do and change and work on. It was really like a kid in a candy store."

His first directing assignment on film was a television production of "Annie."

"I was really nervous that first day. But the second day I wasn't nervous. I felt really at home. I guess it was because, starting as a choreographer, there's something about doing things in small pieces and perfecting them like a mosaic and then putting them together. It really makes me so comfortable. And I just love the medium.

"Movies are in some ways the most freeing, imagination-wise, because you can do anything. It's funny that in this movie, all the numbers take place on stage. But how you shoot them and the device of being able to go back and forth, that's only something you can do in a movie.

"That was the joy of 'Chicago.' It made us all nervous because it was very bold, and it wasn't something we could hide behind. It was a very exciting time for me, putting this together."

Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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