wall to wall musical

Chicago (musical)

Chicago is a Kander and Ebb musical set in prohibition era Chicago. The book is by Ebb and Bob Fosse. The story is a satire on corruption in the administration of criminal justice, and the concept of the "celebrity criminal." The musical is based on a 1926 play of the same name by reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins about actual criminals and crimes she had reported on.

The original 1975 Broadway production ran for a total of 936 performances. Bob Fosse choreographed the original production, and his style is strongly identified with the show. Chicago's 1996 Broadway revival holds the record for the longest-running musical revival on Broadway (not counting the revue Oh! Calcutta!) and, as of March 2, 2008, it has played for more than 4,684 performances. The revival was followed by a production on London's West End and several tours and international productions. An Academy Award-winning film version of the musical was released in 2002.


The musical Chicago is based on a play of the same name by reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins, who had been assigned to cover the 1924 trials of murderesses Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner for the Chicago Tribune.

Annan, the model for the character of Roxie Hart, was 23 when she was accused of the murder of Harry Kalstedt. The Tribune reported that Annan played the foxtrot record "Hula Lou" over and over for two hours before calling her husband to say she killed a man who "tried to make love to her." She was found "not guilty" on May 25 1924. Velma is based on Gaertner, who was a cabaret singer. The body of Walter Law was discovered slumped over the steering wheel of Gaertner's abandoned car on March 12 1924. Two police officers testified that they had seen a woman getting into the car and shortly thereafter heard gunshots. A bottle of gin and an automatic pistol were found on the floor of the car. Gaertner was acquitted on June 6 1924. The two lawyers, William Scott Stewart and W. W. O'Brien, were models for a composite character in Chicago, "Billy Flynn."

Dallas-Watkins' sensational columns documenting these trials proved so popular that she decided to write a play based on them. The show received both popular and critical acclaim and even made it to Broadway in 1926, running for 172 performances. A 1927 silent film version produced by Cecil B. DeMille and starring former Mack Sennett bathing beauty Phyllis Haver as Roxie Hart was remade as Roxie Hart, in 1942 with Ginger Rogers in the title role.

Gwen Verdon read the play and asked her husband, Bob Fosse, about the possibility of creating a musical based on it. Fosse approached Watkins multiple times to ask her permission to adapt the play as a musical, but he was rejected in each instance. Upon her death in 1969, however, Watkins instructed that the rights to Chicago be sold to Verdon and Fosse. John Kander and Fred Ebb began work on the score, modeling each number on a traditional vaudeville number or a vaudeville performer. This format made explicit the show's comparison between "justice", "show-business", and contemporary society. Ebb and Fosse penned the book of the musical, with Fosse also directing and choreographing.

Plot synopsis

Act 1 Velma Kelly is a vaudevillian who murdered both her husband and her sister when she found them in bed together. She welcomes the audience to tonight's show ("All That Jazz"). 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 rap. Roxie expresses her appreciation of her husband's thick skull ("Funny Honey"). 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, 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 ("When You're Good to Mama") perfectly suits her clientèle. 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 her lawyer, Billy Flynn. Roxie tries to convince Amos to pay for Billy Flynn to be her lawyer ("A Tap Dance"). Eagerly awaited by his all-girl clientèle, Billy sings his anthem, complete with a chorus of fan dancers to prove his assertion that "All I Care About is Love". Billy takes Roxie's case and re-arranges her story for consumption by sympathetic tabloid columnist Mary Sunshine, who always tries to find "A Little Bit of Good" in everyone. Roxie's press conference turns into a ventriloquist act with Billy dictating a new version of the truth ("We Both Reached for the Gun") while Roxie mouths the words. Roxie becomes the new toast of Chicago as Velma's fame is left in the dust. Velma tries to talk Roxie into recreating the sister act ("I Can't Do It Alone"), 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 ("My Own Best Friend"), and the ever-resourceful Roxie decides that being pregnant in prison would put her back on the front page.Act 2 Velma again welcomes the audience with the line "Hello, Suckers," another reference to Texas Guinan, who commonly greeted her patrons with the same phrase. She informs the audience of Roxie's continual run of luck ("I Know a Girl") despite Roxie's obvious falsehoods ("Me and My Baby"). A little shy on the arithmetic, Amos proudly claims paternity, and still nobody notices him ("Mr. Cellophane"). Velma tries to show Billy all the tricks she's got planned for her trial ("When Velma Takes The Stand"). Billy's forte may be showmanship ("Razzle Dazzle"), but when he passes all Velma's ideas on to Roxie, down to the rhinestone shoe buckles, Mama and Velma lament the demise of "Class". As promised, Billy gets Roxie her acquittal but, just as the verdict is given, some even more sensational crime pulls the pack of press bloodhounds away, and Roxie's fleeting celebrity life is over. Left in the dust, she pulls herself up and extols the joys of life "Nowadays". She teams up with Velma in that sister act, in which they dance and perform the "Hot Honey Rag" until they are joined by the entire company for the grand "Finale"..

Musical numbers and analysis

Many of the musical numbers in Chicago are based on traditional vaudeville acts including some based on particular vaudevillian performers. The musical numbers are listed below with a description of these antecedents where applicable:

  • "Overture" - performed by a pit-band
  • "All That Jazz" - a number in homage to famous speakeasy owner Texas Guinan
  • "Funny Honey" - modeled on Helen Morgan and Judy Garland's performances
  • "Cell Block Tango" - the "merry murderesses" evoke the "ethnic numbers" of Vaudeville, and the death by hanging is staged as a "tightrope" act
  • "When You're Good to Mama" - a Sophie Tucker/Mae West/Pearl Bailey -type double-entendre song, playing on the implied lesbianism of the character
  • "A Tap Dance" - a soft shoe
  • "All I Care About" - a striptease based on Sally Rand and her fan dance, with Billy Flynn spoofing Al Jolson and bandleader Ted "Is Everybody Happy?" Lewis
  • "A Little Bit of Good" - Mary Sunshine, a female-impersonator reminiscent of Julian Eltinge singing a Jerome Kern parody as Marilyn Miller
  • "We Both Reached for the Gun" aka "The Press Conference Rag" - a ventriloquist act
  • "Roxie" - an autobiographical, observational stand-up comedy routine à la Fanny Brice
  • "I Can't Do It Alone" - half of a "double-act" (or an acrobatic "sister-act")
  • "My Own Best Friend" - a torch song, subverted by the fact the singers are praising themselves. A tribute to Manhattan Serenade.
  • "I Know A Girl"- A conversation with the audience, breaking the fourth wall, in the style of Texas Guinan
  • "Me and My Baby" - a cakewalk, à la Eddie Cantor
  • "Mr. Cellophane" - a clown number reminiscent of Bert Williams' song "Nobody" performed by Amos Hart wearing the costume of Emil Jannings from the final scene of The Blue Angel
  • "When Velma Takes the Stand" - evokes vaudeville's courtroom comedy sketches, and staged as a parody of production numbers featuring collegiate chorus boys with megaphones (i.e. Good News). The music itself is a take-off on piano novelties such as those popularized by Zez Confrey.
  • "Razzle Dazzle" - Flynn assumes the persona of Clarence Darrow in a juggling circus act
  • "Class" - A satirical number about the downfall of society, ironically full of swearing and allusions to bodily functions.
  • "Nowadays" - a song reminiscent of Kander and Ebb's "Maybe This Time" from Cabaret
  • "Hot Honey Rag" - a Charleston finale by Velma and Roxie


Original Broadway production

Chicago: A Musical Vaudeville opened on June 3 1975, and ran for a total of 936 performances, closing on August 27 1977. It starred Chita Rivera as Velma Kelly, Gwen Verdon as Roxie Hart, and Jerry Orbach as Billy Flynn. Velma Kelly was a comparatively minor character in all versions of Chicago prior to the musical rendering. The role was fleshed out to balance Chita Rivera's role opposite Gwen Verdon's Roxie Hart. The musical got mixed reviews. The Brechtian style of the show, which frequently dropped the fourth wall, made audiences uncomfortable. It brought attention to the fact that the show was really about the world we live in, paralleling the glamorization of criminals with how society itself makes criminals into celebrities.

It was through this production, and not the writing, that much of the "traditional" Chicago staging conventions were developed:

  • The double snap in "Razzle Dazzle" was added as an afterthought at the suggestion of Fred Ebb to John Kander. Kander did not like the idea, but Ebb thought Fosse would love it. He did.
  • During rehearsals, "Razzle Dazzle" was originally staged as an orgy on the steps of the courthouse. Fosse was talked out of allowing this staging to make it into the final production.
  • The original finale was "Loopin' the Loop", and based on music submitted to Kander and Ebb by Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera. It was decided that the piece was too lighthearted, so the piece was cut and replaced with "Nowadays". Sections of "Loopin' the Loop" can still be heard in the Overture. Two other sections termed "Keep It Hot" and "RSVP" were cut from the finale too.
  • Until the tryouts, there was another principal character, played by David Rounds and known simply as "The Agent," whose role was to exploit the notoriety of the prisoners for his own gain. He also served as the evening's M.C. This character's role was eventually folded into that of Matron Mama Morton, his song "Ten Percent" was cut, and various members of the chorus shared his emcee duties.
  • In a reversal of roles, Fosse decided the lyrics to the number "Class" were too offensive and censored Kander and Ebb's original version of the song. One of the original lyrics "Every guy is a snot/Every girl is a twat" was restored for the 2002 movie, although the entire number was cut from the final release of the movie.

The show had the misfortune of opening the same year as Michael Bennett's highly successful A Chorus Line, which beat out Chicago in both ticket sales and at the Tony Awards. The show was on the verge of closing, when it ran into another setback: Gwen Verdon inhaled a feather during the finale, which resulted in a throat infection.

The producers planned on closing, when Liza Minnelli stepped in and offered to play the role of Roxie Hart in place of Verdon. Her run lasted a month, and so the show continued into 1977. Chicago productions based on the original Broadway were mounted in London (UK) - starring Jenny Logan as Velma Kelly and Antonia Ellis as Roxie Hart and Vienna (Austria) starring Isabel Wiecken as Velma Kelly in 1979 and 1981, respectively. An Australian production with Nancye Hayes as Roxie Hart, Geraldine Turner as Velma Kelly and Terrance Donovan as Billy Flynn in the early 1980s.

City Center's "Encores!"

In 1996, City Center announced that Chicago was to be included in its fall line up of "Encores!" series. The series had been previously used exclusively to bring attention to older, more obscure musicals that might have otherwise have been forgotten.

The production was directed by Walter Bobbie with choreography "in the style of Bob Fosse" by Ann Reinking, who also starred as Roxie Hart. Also in the show was Bebe Neuwirth as Velma Kelly, Joel Grey as Amos Hart and James Naughton as Billy Flynn. The show was well-received, despite the fact that performers were still holding scripts and the choreography was sometimes unpolished. By intermission on opening night, there was talk of a full scale revival.

Broadway revival

Barry and Fran Weissler brought the concert version of Chicago, now titled Chicago: The Musical directly to Broadway, where it opened on November 14 1996. The show set a record for recovering its initial costs faster than any other musical in history. This is likely due to the stripped down nature of the show: the set is nothing more than a giant bandstand, and the costumes are minimalist and black.

Unlike its predecessor Chicago: A Musical Vaudeville, Chicago: The Musical was met with praise from audiences and critics alike. Society had changed in light of events such as the O. J. Simpson murder case, and audiences were more receptive to the criminal-as-celebrity theme of the show. Chicago: The Musical won 6 Tonys, more than any other revival in Broadway history until being beat out by South Pacific which won 7, winning for Best Musical Revival, Best Actress for Bebe Neuwirth, Best Actor for James Naughton, Best Lighting Design for Ken Billington, Best Director for Walter Bobbie and Best Choreography for Ann Reinking. While still married to Verdon, Fosse also romanced Ann Reinking, who would later choreograph the revival as well as play Roxie.

Chicago: The Musical has run for over 4,588 performances as of December 2007 and holds the record for longest-running revival on Broadway, second only to the nude revue, Oh! Calcutta! (although the West End revival of Blood Brothers has been running longer). Chicago is currently the eighth longest-running Broadway show ever. During its run, the show has played in three Broadway theatres - the Richard Rodgers Theatre, the Shubert Theatre and the Ambassador Theatre.

The Grammy Award winning cast recording of the revival was released on January 14, 2003.

West End production

On November 18 1997, Chicago: The Musical opened in London's West End. The original cast of the production included Ute Lemper as Velma, Ruthie Henshall as Roxie Hart, Nigel Planer as Amos Hart and Henry Goodman as Billy Flynn. The production won the 1998 Olivier Award for Outstanding Musical.

The show ran at the Adelphi Theatre for 9 years until transferring to the Cambridge Theatre in April 2006, where it continues to play as of August 2008.

International productions

There have been professional productions of Chicago in Denmark, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Italy, Romania, South Korea, Portugal, Brazil, Spain, Mexico, Argentina, Russia, Canada, Belgium, Austria, Ireland, Scotland, Greece, Israel, South Africa, China, Australia, Singapore, Poland and the United Arab Emirates, as well as amateur productions in Croatia, Serbia, Spain, Hungary, Cyprus, Norway, India, and Albania.

Chicago has given the opportunity for the stars of foreign productions to make their Broadway debuts including Bianca Marroquin (Mexico), Denise Van Outen (U.K.), Terra C. Macleod (France and Canada), Petra Nielson (Sweden), Ute Lemper (U.K.), Ruthie Henshall (U.K.), Anna Montanaro (Austria and Germany) Pia Douwes (The Netherlands), Marti Pellow (U.K.), Caroline O’Connor (Australia).

The first Japanese-language production of the Tony-winning revival of Kander and Ebb's Chicago will debut in October at the Akasaka ACT Theatre in Tokyo, Japan, followed by an engagement at Osaka's Umeda Art Theatre.

Presented by Barry and Fran Weissler is association with Tokyo Broadcasting System, Inc. and Kyodo Tokyo Inc., the production will star Ryoko Yonekura as Roxie Hart, Yōka Wao as Velma Kelly and Ryuichi Kawamura as Billy Flynn.

Although the touring production of Chicago was first presented in Japan in 1999 — it has since toured the country three times — this will mark the first production of the hit musical to be heard in Japanese.

In a statement, Kyodo Tokyo Inc. president Yoshito Yamazaki said, "More than 150,000 people in Japan have fallen in love with the English-language production of Chicago. And while English-language productions have visited Japan repeatedly, it was always our dream to be able to present a Japanese-language production of this wonderful, record-breaking musical, and make Chicago available to millions of Japanese who can now enjoy it fully in their own language. I'm happy to announce that in a few months, that dream will become a reality."

Producer Weissler added, "What a thrill it is to see that Chicago continues to reach new audiences all over the world. To know that Kander and Ebb's fantastic songs continue to be performed by actors in a variety of languages across the globe is truly phenomenal. We're delighted to now be able to introduce the excitement of Chicago to millions of Japanese theatregoers in their native language."

Notable casts

Notable casts of professional stage productions of Chicago
Roxie Hart Velma Kelly Billy Flynn Amos Hart "Mama" Morton
Gwen Verdon Chita Rivera
Ruthie Henshall (West End 1997-1998) Dawn Spence Jordan Blake-Klein (West End 2007) Nigel Planer (West End 1997-1998) Sharon D. Clarke (West End 2004)
Jill Halfpenny (West End 2005) Ute Lemper (West End 1997-1998) Jerry Orbach (Original B'Way 1975-1976) Joel Grey Marcia Lewis
Claire Sweeney (West End 2001) Bebe Neuwirth (1996 B'Way 1996-1997) John O'Hurley Dale Meeks (West End 2006-2007) Meg Johnson
Ann Reinking Amra-Faye Wright (Broadway Jan. 16-March 26, 2006; West End, Nov. 5, 2007) Marti Pellow Peter Davison Brenda Edwards
Brooke Shields Heather Parcells Kevin Richardson Kevin Kennedy Gaby Roslin
Lisa Rinna Jasmine Guy Harry Hamlin Gareth Hale Anita Dobson
Jennifer Ellison Ruthie Henshall Usher (B'Way Revival Aug. 22, 2006-2006) Les Dennis Lynda Carter
Ashlee Simpson (West End Sept. 25 - Oct. 28 2006) Caroline O'Connor Darius Danesh Paul Rider (West End Nov. 5, 2007) Alison Moyet
Aoife Mulholland (West End Dec. 18th 2006 - Mar. 28 2007) Pia Douwes Tony Hadley Kelly Osbourne (Sept. 10-Nov. 18, 2007)
Melanie Griffith Frances Ruffelle (West End Nov. 5, 2007) Joey Lawrence Adriane Lenox (B'Way Revival Aug. 7-2007)
Denise van Outen Mýa (B'Way Revival 2008) Wayne Brady (B'Way Revival 2004) Debra Monk
Samantha Lynn Kloss Brent Barrett Jennifer Holiday
Tina Arena Michael Greco Teresa Young- Rucker
Charlotte d'Amboise David Hasselhoff (West End July 16, 2004-2004) Carol Woods (singer / actress)1st Nat. Tour B'way Revival June 2 2008-
Bonnie Langford Duncan James
Linzi Hateley Maxwell Caulfield
Bebe Neuwirth (Dec. 31, 2006-Apr. 22, 2007) Tom Wopat (Broadway, Aug. 7-Sept. 2, 2007)
Sally Ann Triplett George Hamilton (Sept. 10-Oct. 7, 2007)
Rita Wilson (Broadway June 12, 2006-Aug. 20, 2006) Brian McKnight
Robin Givens Ian Kelsey
Bianca Marroquin Jeff McCarthy (Broadway, Dec. 7, 2007-Jan. 13, 2008)
Rebecca Thornhill John Schneider (Broadway, planned Jan.14, 2008)
Suzanne Shaw Terence Maynard (West End Nov. 5, 2007)

Film adaptations

In 1927, a silent film version of the original non-musical play was made. In 1942, a "cleaned-up" version of the 1926 play, this time called Roxie Hart, was released. It was directed by William A. Wellman and starred Ginger Rogers as Roxie, Adolphe Menjou as Billy Flynn, and Spring Byington as reporter Mary Sunshine. In this version, Velma is reduced to a small role, and Roxie is mistakenly tried for murder.

A film version of the Kander-Ebb musical was produced and released in 2002, starring Renée Zellweger as Roxie Hart, Catherine Zeta-Jones as Velma Kelly, and Richard Gere as Billy Flynn. The story was told by staging the vaudeville acts as fantasies of Roxie Hart, eliminating some songs, and lightening the character of Roxie. The original lyrics of "Class" were restored for this film version, which although not present in the final release print, was included as a DVD bonus feature. The 2002 film won the Oscar for Best Picture, and Zeta-Jones won Best Supporting Actress.

References in pop culture

  • The Jimmy Neutron episode "Lights, Camera, Danger" features a musical number, "And Save The Day", which is a parody of "All That Jazz"
  • On the third episode of the first season of The Muppet Show, Joel Grey (Amos in the 1996 revival) sang "Razzle Dazzle"; in the 17th episode, Ben Vereen sang "Mister Cellophane".
  • LeAnn Rimes' 2007 song "Nothin' Better to Do" had its music video features scenes similar to both the musical and the 2002 film.
  • In The Devil Wears Prada, Andie takes her father to see Chicago.
  • In Saturday Night Live, John C. Reilly (who played Amos in the 2002 movie) and Will Ferrell sang "Nowadays" since Ferrell's character thought Reilly had played Roxie.
  • In the Birthin' episode of Absolutely Fabulous, the character of Katy Grin is cast as Roxie in the West End Production for a gala performance starring Cilla Black as Mama. Bo Turtle fantasises several production numbers, including "All That Jazz" performed by herself, "Roxie" performed by Katy and "Razzle Dazzle" performed by Marshall, accompanied by dancers from the West End and UK Touring casts of the show.
  • On Dancing with the Stars, Lisa Rinna performed the song, "Roxie".


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