appy endings are to Broadway musicals what murders are to mystery stories. While not compulsory, they are customary, and those musicals whose leading characters meet with disaster, like Carousel and West Side Story, usually end with mitigating dramatic gestures signaling the possibility of hope and redemption. One might well say that the classic Broadway musical is noteworthy because of its essentially untragic vision, which epitomizes the historic optimism and idealism of the American national character. Even Stephen Sondheim, who has done more than anyone to alter those expectations, did not successfully break with the presumption of hope until Sweeney Todd (1979), whose denouement was wholly tragic—and whose stark bleakness has had few successors.
But four years before Sweeney Todd, a musical opened on Broadway that was as far from optimistic as it is possible to be. Chicago, by the songwriters Fred Ebb and John Kander in collaboration with director Bob Fosse, is the story of two Prohibition-era chorus girls who murder their lovers and use their new-won notoriety as a stepping stone to theatrical celebrity. It received mixed reviews and was shut out of that season’s Tonys by A Chorus Line. Chicago did not receive a major revival until 1996, when a concert-style presentation opened on Broadway to universal praise. Twenty-one years later, it is now, after Phantom of the Opera, the longest-running show in the history of Broadway. The 2002 film version of Chicago was a box-office sensation and won the Oscar for best picture.
Why did Chicago make critics and audiences so uncomfortable in 1975—and why was it received so differently two decades later? Ethan Mordden endeavors to answer this question in All That Jazz: The Life and Times of the Musical Chicago.1 Like the rest of Mordden’s innumerable books about musical theater, All That Jazz is the work of a gushy enthusiast whose slapdash prose does not wear well. Nevertheless, anyone who wants to know how a show like Chicago managed to worm its sour, jaded way into the eternally hopeful hearts of American theatergoers will find food for thought therein.
HICAGO is closely based on a now-forgotten 1926 stage play of the same name by Maurine Watkins, a court reporter turned playwright who used a pair of murder cases she had covered for the Chicago Tribune as the basis for a satirical portrayal of Chicago’s criminal-justice system. The play ran for 172 performances on Broadway and was later turned into the 1942 film Roxie Hart.
In the early 1970s, at the encouragement of his then-wife Gwen Verdon, Fosse secured the rights to the play and enlisted the services of Kander and Ebb, who were best known at that time for Cabaret (1966). Fosse had brought that musical to the screen in 1972 in a dazzling film that won him an Oscar and (after a year in which he also won a Tony and an Emmy) made him the most important director in all of show business.
Fosse seems to have thought of Chicago as a kind of successor to Cabaret, a musical that would use the old-fashioned conventions of vaudeville in the ’20s to comment on America in the ’70s in the same way that Cabaret uses the cabaret styles of Weimar-era Berlin to portray the rise of fascism in Europe in the ’30s. The tone is set at the top of the show by a speech delivered by its master of ceremonies: “You are about to see a story of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery, and treachery—all those things we all hold near and dear to our hearts.” What follows is a musical whose satirical point is that there is no longer any justice in America, only a legal process and a “free” press that are fatally infected with the tawdry values of show business. It is because these institutions are so deeply compromised that Roxie’s lawyer is able to secure her acquittal for a murder (of which we know she is guilty) by falsely passing her off as a hapless victim of circumstance: “Give ’em the old hocus pocus / Bead and feather ’em / How can they see with sequins in their eyes?”
It was Ebb’s idea to structure Chicago as a Brecht-style “presentational” musical in which the characters are performers in a vaudeville show, telling the story through song. Each musical number is a free-standing act introduced by a master of ceremonies: “Ladies and gentlemen, presenting the silver-tongued prince of the courtroom, the one, the only Mr. Billy Flynn!” The book, credited to Ebb and Fosse, was “punched up” by Fosse’s playwright friends Paddy Chayefsky and Herb Gardner, who filled it with hard-hearted primary-color characterizations and razor-sharp one-liners consistent in tone with Ebb’s innuendo-laden lyrics (“If you want my gravy / Pepper my ragout/ Spice it up for Mama / She’ll get hot for you”). None of the principal characters is sympathetic, not even Amos, Roxie’s cuckolded husband, who is too much of a chump for the audience to view him with anything other than contempt. As for Roxie and Velma, her fellow prisoner and spiritual partner in crime, all they want is fame—and the reporters of Chicago are more than happy to give it to them.
The result is a show that was, as Fosse said when Chicago: A Musical Vaudeville (its full title) opened, “my image of America right now.” To be sure, it is at least as much an indictment of the self-hating Fosse, a Chicagoan by birth who saw himself as a second-rate hoofer unworthy of his success, using “the old razzle dazzle” to paper over his technical inadequacies. All in all, Chicago is a harsh and loveless satire of American life that is also superbly crafted, a combination of traits all but unknown on Broadway in 1975 (though Mordden unconvincingly tries to place the show in a long tradition of satirical musicals). This alone explains why Chicago made so many of its viewers squeamish, and it’s enough in and of itself to explain its comparative failure.
On top of that, Chicago suffered from a double-barreled case of bad timing. Richard Nixon’s resignation was only eight months old when Chicago opened on Broadway, and most Americans were still more inclined to turn their backs on the nightmare of Watergate than to brood over its deeper implications. Conversely, the national longing to move on surely contributed to the phenomenal success of A Chorus Line, which opened a month after Chicago. A show-business fable that pretends to be realistic about the hardships of the profession but is at bottom a sentimental portrayal of the artist’s life, A Chorus Line was everything that Fosse’s diamond-hard, stingingly angry musical was not.
To read the reviews of the original production of Chicago is to clearly sense the degree to which the show was out of tune with its historical moment. Clive Barnes’s equivocal New York Times review described it as
a comedy melodrama of a girl who shoots her lover and is then acquitted through the chicaneries of the Chicago criminal system—you can only wonder who ever thought it was suitable for a musical.
More interestingly, Walter Kerr, writing about Chicago for the Sunday Times, compared it to Cabaret but called Fosse’s production “altogether too heavy to let the slender, foolish story breathe.” “Al Capone wasn’t Hitler and Cicero wasn’t Munich.” Kerr’s criticism underlines what seemed to many people in 1975 to be a fundamental problem. Cabaret argues more or less explicitly that the decadent, pleasure-seeking nightclubbers of Weimar were guilty of (in Mordden’s words) “lacking a politics when barbarians make one of their periodic assaults on civilization.” Chicago, by contrast, is a nihilistic portrayal of a totally amoral world, one in which everyone—including the audience—is complicit in Roxie’s criminality.
At the same time, Kerr’s caveats also hint at flaws in Fosse’s elaborately designed and costumed staging. Joel Grey, who played Amos in the 1996 revival, recalled the original production as being “awfully, awfully dark, and also over-produced.” Whether this was true is hard to say, as scarcely any film footage of the show survives, but the original-cast album is sung and played with a detached and chilly slickness consistent with Grey’s memory.
Whatever the real reason—and nihilism and slickness are the least pleasing of bedfellows—Chicago did not make it into the pantheon. It had a respectable run, closing in 1977 after 936 performances, then dropped from sight. No one expected it to surface again, much less become one of the biggest successes in Broadway history.
ineteen years after the final curtain, America had changed greatly. While the Monica Lewinsky scandal had yet to break, the level of cynicism in America—not just about politicians, but also about the reporters who covered them—had increased immeasurably since 1977. It is no coincidence that the trial of O.J. Simpson took place a year before the original concert presentation of Chicago that led to the show’s Broadway revival, and was in part responsible for the decision to produce it.
According to the revival’s director, Walter Bobbie:
I was reading Chicago and watching the O.J. trials at the same time and I thought, “Oh, my God, this satire has turned into a documentary.” It resonated in a way that I thought made it feel completely fresh. The manipulation of the courts, the abuse of celebrity, everybody having a press agent—all that seemed to be newly minted.
In addition to consciously evoking the frenzied circus atmosphere of the Simpson trial in his 1996 staging, Bobbie trimmed away the heavy-handedness of Fosse’s production. His version was originally a concert presentation planned to run for only four days as part of a series called “Encores!” Bobbie and a team of producers transferred it directly to a Broadway stage, placing the pit band in the onstage jury box and making the “presentational” aspect of Chicago even more salient. Not only did this allow the show itself to come through more clearly, it made Chicago a remarkably inexpensive show, one whose smaller operating expenses allowed the producers to recoup their investment much more quickly. Such a show could in theory run indefinitely, both on Broadway and on the road—which is, of course, exactly what happened.
Rob Marshall’s film version of Chicago also breaks faith with the precedent of Fosse’s original production in even more decisive and consequential ways. While visually complex, Marshall’s film is not slick, and it concentrates on individual performers rather than trying to suggest a big-budget stage spectacle. Nor does it shove in our faces the trite notion that We Are All Villains Now. Instead, Marshall gives us a Roxie (poignantly played by Renée Zellweger) who is not vicious but pitifully deluded, making it possible to sympathize with her. Even more ingeniously, he has circumvented the problem of finding a cinematic equivalent to Chicago’s Brechtian presentationalism by turning its vaudeville-show “frame” into a stream-of-consciousness portrayal of Roxie’s fantasy life—in which she is a stage star. Marshall’s version is a kinder, gentler Chicago, playing on our emotions in a way that Fosse would never have stooped to do. But it works on its own terms, not merely as a commentary on Chicago but as an artistic achievement in its own brilliant right.
Which brings us back to the original show…or does it? For the original Chicago exists only in the fading memories of those who happened to see it on Broadway four decades ago. Not even Fosse’s choreography survives, save in fragmentary form.2 The Chicago that most people know is either the one currently running on Broadway or the one filmed by Marshall. That is how the show will be remembered—and I, for one, have little doubt that it will continue to be both remembered and revived. Stripped by Bobbie and Marshall of Fosse’s nihilistic excesses, Chicago emerges as a simplistic but nonetheless telling critique of our latter-day culture of celebrity, one that is at least as relevant to the crassness of the Age of Trump as the show’s previous iterations were to the ages of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.
To criticize Chicago for being cynical now seems absurd. Today it seems more like a selfie, a group portrait of a country denuded of absolute values, one in which, as the startlingly melancholy-sounding finale assures us, “You can like the life you’re living / You can live the life you like / You can even marry Harry / But mess around with Ike / And that’s good, isn’t it?” But anyone who thinks Chicago is telling us that it is truly “good” to live in such a land hasn’t been watching.
1 Oxford, 272 pages, $29.95
2 The 1996 revival was “choreographed in the style of Bob Fosse” by Ann Reinking, who replaced Gwen Verdon in the original production in 1977.