Chicago (1975) is an American musical with music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb and a book by Ebb and Bob Fosse. Set in prohibition-era Chicago, the musical is based on a 1926 play of the same name by reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins about actual criminals and crimes she reported on. The story is a satire on corruption in the administration of criminal justice and the concept of the “celebrity criminal.”
This is the musical theatre performance I have seen he most. Probably because it is the closest production to the Jazz style which was predominant in my dance training.
I even have black leggings ready to go on the off chance there is a sudden curtain call…Da da da ta da Daa!!….lol!
In the mid-1920s in Chicago, Velma Kelly is a dancer and singer who murdered both her husband and her sister when she found them in bed together. She welcomes the audience to tonight’s show from her prison. Meanwhile, we hear of chorus girl Roxie Hart’s murder of her lover, nightclub regular Fred Casely.
Roxie convinces her husband Amos that the victim was a burglar, and Amos cheerfully takes the blame. Roxie expresses her appreciation of her husband’s thick skull. However, when the police mention the deceased’s name, Amos belatedly puts two and two together. The truth comes out, and Roxie is arrested. She is sent to the women’s block in Cook County Jail, also inhabited by Velma and other murderesses “Cell Block Tango”. The block is presided over by the corrupt Matron “Mama” Morton, whose system of mutual aid perfectly suits her clientele. She has helped Velma become the media’s top murder-of-the-week and is acting as a booking agent for Velma’s big return to vaudeville.
Velma is not happy to see Roxie, who is stealing not only her limelight but also her lawyer, Billy Flynn. Roxie tries to convince Amos to pay for Billy Flynn to be her lawyer. Eagerly awaited by his all-girl clientele, Billy sings his anthem, complete with a chorus of fan dancers. Billy takes Roxie’s case and re-arranges her story for consumption by sympathetic tabloid columnist Mary Sunshine. Roxie’s press conference turns into a ventriloquist act with Billy dictating a new version of the truth to the press while Roxie mouths the words.
Roxie becomes the new toast of Chicago and she proclaims quite boastfully while planning for her future career in vaudeville. As Roxie’s fame grows, Velma’s notoriety is left in the dust and in an “act of pure desperation”, she tries to talk Roxie into recreating the sister act, but Roxie turns her down, only to find her own headlines replaced by the latest sordid crime of passion. Separately, Roxie and Velma realize there’s no one they can count on but themselves, and the ever-resourceful Roxie decides that being pregnant in prison would put her back on the front page.
Velma again welcomes the audience and informs them of Roxie’s continual run of luck despite Roxie’s obvious false claim she is pregnant. A little shy on the arithmetic, Amos proudly claims paternity, and still nobody notices him. Velma tries to show Billy all the tricks she’s got planned for her trial. With her ego growing, Roxie has a heated argument with Billy, and fires him. She is brought back down to earth when she learns that a fellow inmate who was innocent has been executed.
The trial date arrives, and Billy calms her, telling her if she makes a show of it, she’ll be fine, but when he passes all Velma’s ideas on to Roxie, she uses each one, down to the rhinestone shoe buckles, to the dismay of Mama and Velma. As promised, Billy gets Roxie her acquittal but, just as the verdict is announced, some even more sensational crime pulls the pack of press bloodhounds away, and Roxie’s fleeting celebrity life is over. Billy leaves, done with the case. Amos stays with her, glad for his wife, but she then confesses that there is no baby, making Amos finally leave her. Left in the dust, Roxie pulls herself up and extols the joys of life. She teams up with Velma in a new act, in which they dance and perform “Hot Honey Rag” until they are joined by the entire company.
Jazz hands at the ready what makes me like this musical????
There is always a famous character starring in Chicago. They may or may not be in the lead role but this attracts the audience. The last time I saw Chicago in Edinburgh it was Nick Cotton from East Enders who was Billy Flynn. There was also an East Enders character in the lead role in London.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you a story of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery. All those things we hold near and dear to our hearts…” When you know you have seen a musical too many times!!!
The set is black and minimalist and really captures the jazz / vaudeville atmosphere of 1930’s well. I note the minimal set and special effects do not need improved as the characters performance and the dancing fill the stage. The orchestra are sat on stage for the entire show, just like a cabaret revue show, and are really a part of the action and the cast sit visibly in the wings when not performing. I believe this adds to the theatre performance and Jazz quality of the show. There is not many props, only the odd chair here, or ostrich feather there, and the whole feel of the show plays on the audience’s awareness that they are watching a theatrical production – there are lots of quips to the audience and references to certain performance traditions that reinforce this. I feel this makes the audience part of the production. Examples are Roxie’s torch song to husband, where the audience are in on the plea or her rather lame attempt at stand up later in the show.
The cast are all dressed in black fishnets, stocking and suspenders and ‘dance wear’ – Easy enough to get hold of if you are trying to dress a show and probably the only reason why I have managed to get a few of my male friends to watch the show.
The performances of the cast are big, bold and confident. I could not say if I preferred Roxie or Velma as they both look and sound stunning and really capture the feel of the show. Mama Morton, the warden who ‘looks after’ the girls, should be fabulous and powerful and although actresses who ply her have an excellent singing voice they often lack the dose of attitude needed to sell the part. Billy Flynn, is smooth and has to be confident so when new actors take this role they need to hide their nerves. I like that Chicago play upon the theme of the fickle nature of fame by casting lots of celebrities in the lead roles and further promoting the show. I have been impressed with the cast every time I’ve seen Chicago and the cast this time were no different. Having seen the musical before I tend to watch the chorus trying to get the confident moves or choreography. I note the play various characters throughout the show and move together fantastically.
The music itself is great – one of the most thrilling moments in theatre is the Cell Block Tango, as each one of the “6 merry murderesses” tells the story of how she ended up in jail, how “he had it coming” – full of the blackest humour, aggression and anger. I was number 6 in my dance show so always have a little smile to myself when its her turn.
“I simply Cannot do it alone” is Velma’s starring moment of desperation as she tries to convince Roxie to join her act, reeling through the moves she and her sister had put together in a bizarre “one man band” type song. This makes me cringe a little!!
“We both reached for the gun” sees Billy and Roxie speaking at a press conference, with Billy manipulating Roxie like a ventriloquist’s dummy, very cleverly done. I tried this with one of my dance friends and it is more fun doing it than watching it!!
“Roxie” is Roxie’s starring moment, as she fantasises about starring in her own vaudeville show, with “her boys” framing her and having to break their backs holding her up at the end. I liken this to the Madonna song ‘Material Girl’.
The legendary Bob Fosse choreography is my real reason for liking this show. I watch every move in an attempt to recall the choreography- still working on this!
I try to recall the minor details hands, kicks, heads. The Jazz style requires every move to be carefully chosen and executed with precision.
I last saw Chicago at the Cambridge Theatre, Earlham Street, in Covent Garden and near to Pineapple Studios (funny that!!). The theatre is fairly small and one of the West End’s more dingy theatres but I think actually this suits the show quite well as it matches the show’s dark, grimy themes!
Although I enjoyed the film, there is nothing quite like seeing a live performance and the electric atmosphere that a theatre can create.