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Entertainment News

'Chicago' feeds our fascination with love, lust, and society's most notorious scoundrels

10/19/03

Tony Brown
Plain Dealer Theater Critic

Roxie Hart, has-been 1920s chorine with an appetite for hot jazz and cold gin, has shot her lover to death. She hires ace attorney Billy Flynn, who makes up a sob story the Chicago press plasters on the front page.

Suddenly she's famous, parlaying her notoriety into vaudeville stardom. The music swells on the cellblock, "a whole bunch of boys" appear out of nowhere, and Roxie dances her dance and sings her song:

The name on everybody's lips is gonna be ROXIE.

The lady rakin' in the chips is gonna be ROXIE.

I'm gonna be a celebrity; that means somebody everybody knows.

They're gonna recognize my eyes, my hair, my teeth, my boobs, my nose.

From just some dumb mechanic's wife, I'm gonna be ROXIE.

Who says that murder's not an art?

Murder as art indeed. "Chicago," the visionary John Kander and Fred Ebb Broadway musical about Roxie and fellow "merry murderess" Velma Kelly, deftly transforms homicide into one of the most cherished entertainments of the past decade, on stage and screen.

Alas, it was not ever thus. "Chicago" was way ahead of its time when it was first seen in 1975. The zeitgeist only recently has caught up.

Critics loved the slinky Broadway revival that opened in 1996. Last year's film version won a stack of Academy Awards and is now out on a spiffy new DVD version that restores one of the original numbers.

And thanks to the popularity of the movie, the New York stage production is running at or near capacity, and a new touring version is back out on the road. It comes to Cleveland this week to play eight performances, beginning Tuesday at the State Theatre in downtown Cleveland's Playhouse Square.

But go back to '75, and you find that the New York critics dissed the original production with its sinuous Bob Fosse choreography, the Kurt Weill- and Dixieland-inspired score by Kander and Ebb and the nightclubby, presentational style.

Nice try, the critics said, almost in unison, but it's basically a rerun of "Cabaret," the 1972 film in which Fosse also collaborated with Kander and Ebb.

But with no major changes to the score and with Fosse protege Ann Reinking re-creating the late choreographer's steps, the critics flipped for the '96 Broadway revival. "A musical for the ages," crowed The New York Times.

That would be the same New York Times that 21 years earlier called the show "foolish," "garish, deliberately seedy" and a "grotesquerie."

Why the drastic change of view?

Some say it's the revival's performers, especially Reinking's Roxie, Bebe Neuwirth as Velma and James Naughton as Billy Flynn.

Maybe. But the musical has continued to run strong with other performers, on Broadway (where Melanie Griffith recently completed a run as Roxie) and on tour.

Others cite the revival's stripped-down staging by director Walter Bobbie: no set except for a couple of black ladders on either side of the stage and the orchestra in a black wedge dead center.

Possibly. But that wouldn't explain the wild success of the jump-cut film, directed by Rob Marshall and starring Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere. Along with "Moulin Rouge," it has rekindled Hollywood's interest in the box-office potential of the movie musical.

Criminals as celebrities

The explanation might be as simple as: The 1975 critics were too deep in what Jimmy Carter later famously called the nation's post-Watergate malaise to appreciate the irony at work in "Chicago."

Far more convincing, however, is another, more complex argument, that "Chicago" anticipated a cultural phenomenon of the post-O.J. (and post-post-malaise) 1990s:

Wrong-doers and other shady types, as Roxie sings, are some of our biggest celebrities, along with their lawyers, witnesses and abettors.

It's true that no-goodniks have long had a way of becoming household names - think John Wilkes Booth, Lizzie Borden, Al Capone, Lee Harvey Oswald, Charles Manson. Dostoevsky wrote about circus trials in 19th-century Russia.

But back in the day of Roxie and Velma, there was no "media." There was only "the press," a bevy of competing daily newspapers.

Small potatoes compared with today's massive, corporate conglomeration of network and cable TV, magazines for every niche and Web sites and blogs that together feed the public's seemingly insatiable desire for more superstars.

With such demand for the famous, is it surprising that those involved in criminal proceedings have been promoted to celebrity status? They profit from tell-all books, TV appearances, films and adult videos.

The criminal justice system and congressional investigative committees are the new William Morris Agency, and the "legitimate" media, now virtually indistinguishable from the National Enquirer, is better than a PR firm.

Monica Lewinsky has a TV career. Tonya Harding boxes for a living. John Wayne Bobbitt does porno tapes. Jayson Blair got a book deal. Joey Buttafuoco appears in movies. The list goes on, from Kato Kaelin to Linda Tripp.

Even run-of-the-mill strippers, wife-beaters and adulterers can get their 15 minutes of fame, thanks to Jerry Springer.

If you want stardom, just screw up as publicly as possible.

In pre-O.J., pre-Lewinsky 1975, the wry cynicism of "Chicago" was lost on the critics. But now we recognize the perverse humor of the musical as poking fun at the perversity of our own time, not some distant era.

"Chicago" anticipated it all with Ebb's razor wit, Kander's sultry clarinet glissandos and Fosse's turned-in knees, bent wrists and black-clad dancers.

The Windy City in the '20s was an almost perfect microcosm for such a tale. Jazzmen blew and gangsters blew away, a corrupt bureaucracy winked and shrugged, and a half-dozen newspapers vied to outsensationalize one another.

The story of "Chicago" is based on reality.

In 1924, police accused Beulah Annan (who would become Roxie) of killing her lover and Belva Gaertner (Velma) of doing away with her husband. Chicago Tribune cop reporter Maurine Watkins wrote riveting stories about the two and won banner headlines. The accused both won acquittals.

Watkins left newspapering, entered the Yale School of Drama, and in 1926 produced a Broadway play titled "Chicago," based on her stories. It was made into the 1942 movie "Roxie Hart," starring Ginger Rogers.

But it was not until Fosse, with his preoccupation with fame (see the 1979 film "All That Jazz"), and Kander and Ebb, with their evocations of earlier, jazzier ages (see the 1977 film "New York, New York"), got hold of it that the story became a classic.

The near and the dear

The corrosively comical tone of "Chicago" is set from the very first, when a master of ceremonies grabs the mike:

"Ladies and gentlemen, you are about to see a story of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery - all those things we hold near and dear to our hearts. Thank you."

Lights up on Velma, a widow and single vaudeville act since that night in a Cicero hotel room that she shot her husband and sister/partner when she found them in flagrante delicto.

Velma (who will be played by Broadway performer Brenda Braxton in Cleveland) sings one of Kander and Ebb's most famous songs, "All That Jazz," while slinking around with an ensemble of dancers in one of Fosse's most erotic numbers:

Come on, babe, why don't we paint the town?

And all that jazz.

I'm gonna rouge my knees and roll my stockings down.

And all that jazz.

Start the car, I know a whoopee spot

Where the gin is cold but the piano's hot,

It's just a noisy hall where there's a nightly brawl.

And all

That

Jazz.

We witness Roxie (Bianca Marroquin, also from the Broadway show, on the tour) killing her lover and hear her husband, Amos, blowing her alibi. Then "the six merry murderesses of the Cook County Jail" tell us why they offed their husbands and lovers.

One of them explains that she did it because Bernie kept popping his chewing gum. "So I took the shotgun off the wall, and I fired two warning shots. Into his head."

We meet the matron of the jail, who has her own perversions to feed ("When you're good to Mama, Mama's good to you"); attorney Flynn ("If Jesus lived in Chicago, and if he had $5,000, things might have turned out differently"); and Mary Sunshine, the "sob sister" from The Evening Star ("There's a little bit of good in everyone").

Billy (TV and Broadway veteran Gregory Harrison in Cleveland) puts Roxie on his lap as if she's a ventriloquist's dummy and speaks for her during a press-conference number titled "We Both Reached for the Gun."

In Act 2, Roxie fakes a pregnancy to get more sympathy. Meanwhile, poor Amos, the only innocent person in the entire musical, laments being invisible to everyone in "Mister Cellophane."

As Roxie's trial opens, Billy advises her: "You got nothing to worry about. It's all a circus, kid. These trials - the whole world - all show business." Then he breaks into the cynical soft shoe, "Razzle Dazzle."

In the end, Roxie and Velma live their dreams and take their new double act on the road, singing "Nowadays":

You can like the life you're living,

You can live the life you like.

You can even marry Harry,

And mess around with Ike.

That pretty much sums up the moral of this story. Nowadays, the song says, anything you do is OK, so long as you can get away with it. And if it makes you famous at the same time, so much the better.

Crime pays, sucker

But there is another, subtler message here, one that isn't laid out as clearly but accumulates over the course of the show. It's an admonition that if anyone is to blame for this, it is those of us in the audience who idolize the infamous, who read the tabloids and watch Court TV.

The entire show is played to the audience, as if we were the jury at this trial. Truth be told, many of us probably would find Roxie charming enough to let her walk (and then pay to see her sing and dance).

Velma wraps all this up in a single sentence of two words when she looks the audience in the eye at the top of Act 2 and tells us what she really thinks of us. With those two words, she lets us know that we and our appetites are responsible for turning the criminal justice system into a sideshow.

Those two words:

"Hello, suckers."

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

tbrown@plaind.com, 216-999-4181


© 2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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