Seen by most as a sardonic look at life in the Roaring Twenties in Chicago, possibly attempting to immortalise the era of Al Capone, the American musical Chicago… wasn’t meant to be a bit of musical theater at all.
In fact, what we know today as a Tony Award-winning stage show tells a story apart from the singing and dancing and the lines crafted so carefully by its playwright.
Maurine Dallas-Watkins, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune newspaper, was assigned to report on cases litigated in court.
Was she appalled, amused or astounded at the people brought up on charges of murder, rape and theft? Was she most outraged at crimes committed by women – especially murder, in a town where murder was so commonplace?
Whatever her personal opinions were, she saw fit to weave the entire story into a play which met with international success in 1926. A little more than a decade later, the show was made into a film, reaching audiences across the US.
Remember, at this point, Chicago is still not a musical; it is a cleverly-crafted play.
Superprof now gives you the 411 (the information) on Velma, Roxie and Billy Flynn, along with Mama Morton and the poor slob, Amos, and how they all came to be on stage together.
Ms Watkins certainly meant for her work to be satirical but it was based on facts.
- Beulah Annan, accused of the murder of Harry Halstedt, listened to the same foxtrot record for two hours before calling her husband in a breathless panic to say she had killed a man.
- Her husband, Albert, cleaned out his bank account to pay for her defence.
- Imagine how he must have felt when she dumped him the day after her acquittal!
- Belva Gaertner was a cabaret singer accused of murdering a man named Walter Law.
- Two policemen witnessed her getting into her vehicle; shortly afterwards, they heard a gun go off twice.
- Mr Law was found dead in the driver's seat, along with a bottle of gin and a gun.
By no stretch of the imagination could any of these stories be the cause for merriment and glee, especially remembering the status of women a century ago.
They had just won the right to vote but were still pretty much house-bound; a woman on her own was generally treated as a less-than-reputable character and was considered ‘up for grabs’ - with said grabbing often being her body parts.
Did you know? A similar storyline plays out in The Lion King… believe it or not!
In short, the Roaring Twenties was still very much a time when what men said went and women were seldom permitted a voice.
You might argue that that sword cuts both ways.
Women were often seen as frail and weak, in no way capable of committing murder; a perception that no doubt helped their defence.
In a sense, the social climate of the day makes Chicago an even more remarkable story.
Not only was there murder to report on – murders committed no doubt by women as well as men, but it was a young woman from the Kentucky countryside who reported on them.
Maurine Dallas-Watkins was a woman much ahead of her time.
She attended Butler University in Indiana before continuing her education at Radcliffe, an exclusive women’s university in Massachusetts. She then left Radcliffe and moved to Chicago, working for a time in advertising before landing the news reporter job.
It’s a wonder she didn’t also write a script for Mad Men!
In short, her life was varied and ever-changing; after the fame she garnered from Chicago, she went to Hollywood and wrote screenplays for several successful films… all in a time when women were generally not seen as equal and a woman on her own was considered fair game.
Through shrewd investing and careful spending, along with royalties from her ever-popular Chicago, she ended up independently wealthy.
So, when Bob Fosse, the Broadway producer, asked permission to make Chicago into a Broadway musical, she demurred. Besides the fact that she had no need for money, the reason she refused to sell the show’s rights might surprise you…
Interviewing both women at length before their trials, she came to believe that they were both guilty but, through her writing – intended to be bitingly caustic, she believes she inadvertently swayed the public to sympathy for the murderesses.
Maurine Dallas-Watkins, believing she was the reason those two women escaped justice, could not bear the idea of giving them any more exposure.
It was only after her death in 1969 that her estate negotiated the sale of the script.
Once it landed in Mr Fosse’s hands, he immediately turned it over to the powerhouse composers Kander and Ebb, who soon had the show ready for its off-Broadway run.
Hush now! The curtain is about to go up!
Don’t forget to preview one of the most enduring theatrical ventures: Les Miserables...
Chicago, the Musical
Indeed, the story centres around the two women and their deeds.
Roxie is brought into the prison under the predatory gaze of one Velma Kelly, currently the most glamorous prisoner on the cell block. She worries that her star treatment will now be directed to the block’s newest murderess.
She was soon proven right. Lawyer Billy Flynn looks right past her to the latest waif in prison garb, much to Velma’s distress.
Roxie is rude and vulgar; pretty, yes, but what kind of witness would she make?
It turns out, quite an inventive one. Although she has trouble learning her lines – Billy worked hard to coach her on her appearance and language, there was no end to her deviousness.
Lawyer Billy’s interest in representing Roxie wanes in direct proportion to Amos’ (Roxie’s husband) ability to pay his fees. It didn’t hurt that another high-profile murderess had just been brought into the cell block – and she was demonstrably rich!
Billy, not caring about anything but money, is brought sharply back into focus by Roxie’s assertion that she is pregnant. He sees headlines praising his efforts at earning justice for the young mother-to-be…
Meanwhile, Roxie is making other plans.
Knowing that she can’t rely on anyone but herself, she and Velma strike a deal. They will make the most of their fame together even though they despise one another.
And so the story goes, with All that Jazz.
Get on board with your creative team: how would Roxie have fared with The Phantom of the Opera?
In a lot of ways, Chicago made audiences uncomfortable; it was a garish display of American celebrity culture wherein the actors spoke directly to the audience – breaching the so-called fourth wall.
This musical comedy featured songs that were asides to the audience, making theatregoers feel like they were consorting with criminals.
For that reason and for its bawdiness – the Cell Block Tango alone was seen as outré and distasteful; kinky, even. Patrons hesitated to buy tickets.
Especially as A Chorus Line premiered in the same year and swept the awards ceremonies.
The Broadway production Chicago seemed doomed, especially when the actress playing Roxie accidentally swallowed a feather and had to have emergency surgery.
Just as the artistic director and music director were going to throw in the towel, Liza Minnelli offered to fill in for Roxie; suddenly, you couldn’t find tickets for Chicago anywhere!
And then, Ann Reinking reworked the choreography so that it was less vaudeville and more in keeping with other Bob Fosse Broadway shows.
Mr Cellophane would have approved.
Can you think of two more disparate shows than Chicago and Cats?
Productions, Revivals and Awards
In spite of all of the strange, coincidental happenings mentioned above, the Broadway show closed after a respectable 936 performances and debuted almost two years later, in London on the Cambridge musical theatre stage.
There, it entertained audiences for about 600 performances, earning the Best Actor and Best Actress Olivier awards. It was also nominated for Best Musical.
Do you know other popular musicals that won awards in that category?
It then made its way around the world, landing back on Broadway for a revival in 1996. By that time, it was a well-polished show; it went on to win six Tony Awards – a record that stood unbroken until 2008.
Chicago still holds the record for longest-running revival on Broadway; its success today is due, at least in part, to changing social values in the US.
After the 1995 OJ Simpson trial – a real-life celebrity crime, American audiences were more enthusiastic about a bit of vaudevillian dancing and Razzle Dazzle.
The proof of that assertion is found in the awards Chicago has earned.
The original Broadway show (1975) garnered a lot of nominations but only one win: a Drama Desk Award for Best Lighting. Conversely, the 1997 revival swept both the Tony and Drama Desk awards ceremonies!
As Broadway musicals go, Chicago is no My Fair Lady – and not even in the same stratosphere as Beauty and the Beast. Those characters are some of the most sympathetic in Broadway history, don’t you think?
Still, you can’t help but care, at least a little bit, for Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, even as you chuckle uneasily about the Matron (splendidly played by Queen Latifah in the film version!).
Those women were a product of their time, making the best of what they had, much like Oliver Twist did in his time.
If the story behind Chicago the musical is as gripping as the music and lyrics and story the show presents… now you know why!
Now discover the show everyone is talking about: Hamilton