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Go, go 'Chicago': It took decades before audiences connected with 1920s story

Saturday, March 6, 2004
By BRETT OPPEGAARD, Columbian staff writer

One piece of evidence that society is getting exponentially more cynical (or at least aware of its cynicism): "Chicago," the musical.

    Maurine Watkins wrote the play in the 1920s, about a woman charged with murder who becomes a celebrity because of her crime. It wasn't particularly well-received when it opened in 1926, nor when choreographer Bob Fosse adapted it into a musical, with the help of songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb, in 1975.

    It finally connected with audiences during a Tony-winning revival in the mid-1990s, an era that featured the Menendez brothers, Lorena Bobbitt, Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco. The time of Marcia Clark and Johnnie Cochran. And Tonya Harding.

    The movie version -- released last year, starring Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere -- had a whole new set of real-life lawbreakers to support the theme, which all has propelled to a great degree the success of the national touring company of the show, which will stop in Portland Tuesday through March 14.

    Tom Wopat (probably best-known for his role of Luke Duke in the TV show "Dukes of Hazzard,") will play the sleazy lawyer Billy Flynn. He said the release of the Oscar-winning film has raised the profile of this piece from a Broadway favorite to a cultural touchstone, helping people process the quirks of the current legal system.

    "We're in a spate of celebrity trials right now," Wopat said. "Kobe Bryant, Martha Stewart, Michael Jackson. ... This is a great country, but you better know your way around. And it definitely helps to know the right people. If you don't pay attention to history, it will repeat itself, and it's repeating itself right now."

    Playwright Watkins took her only full-time newspaper job in 1924, hired by the Chicago Tribune to write about crime from a "feminine" perspective. Among her early assignments, she sneaked into the funeral of Bobby Franks, the boy killed by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, pretending to be a mourner. There, she talked with the young killers before they confessed to the crime.

    Yet Watkins gained notoriety for two other stories she wrote about bewitching female murder suspects: one rich, one pretty.

    The first series followed the trial of Beulah Annan, a beautiful young woman who shot her lover, then turned on her husband's phonograph and played a fox trot called "Hula Lou" over and over again.

    Meanwhile, Watkins also was working on a story about Belva Gaertner, a well-known lady who was found covered in blood in a car with her dead boyfriend and a gun. She claimed she was too drunk on gin to remember what happened.

    While providing accounts on these cases, Watkins used her keen observation skills to spot the subterranean twists of the trials as well as the whims of the women's wardrobes. She described one of the accused killers as a woman "whose pursuit of wine, men and jazz music was interrupted by her glibness with the trigger finger."

    Both Annan and Gaertner were acquitted of the crimes, and Watkins left her post at the Tribune soon afterward to attend the Yale School of Drama.

    "Chicago" was one of her class assignments, written about her experiences at the Tribune and the stories she covered. Annan became Roxie Hart, "the most beautiful murderess," in Watkins' story, and Gaertner was turned into Velma, Hart's jailhouse friend. The professor called the student's play "vile, immoral and blasphemous," but he acknowledged that it was a true representation of the city and gave her the highest grade in the class.

    Watkins later became a screenwriter in Hollywood, responsible for more than a dozen films, including the 1936 comedy "Libeled Lady," which starred Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow.

    According to some historians, Watkins felt guilty about benefitting from the Chicago crimes and eventually moved into seclusion and abandoned her writings, not allowing any productions of her play despite intermittent interest in revivals. Her death in 1969 finally cleared the way for the Fosse production team to remake the piece, but 1975 also featured the opening of "A Chorus Line," which hogged the awards and attention of the media.

    So the show went back into obscurity until the time was right ... or, in this case, society was ripe.


    If You Go

    * WHAT: "Chicago," a national touring production of the Broadway musical.

    * WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through March 13, with additional shows at 2 p.m. March 13 and at 1 and 6:30 p.m. March 14.

    * WHERE: Portland's Keller Auditorium, 222 S.W. Clay St.

    * COST: Tickets range from $10 to $63.

    * INFORMATION: To reserve seats, call the Portland Opera box office at 503-241-1802, or Ticketmaster at 360-573-7700.

    * ON THE WEB: www.broadwayacrossamerica.com, or www.portlandopera.org.

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