About "Chicago", the Musical

By Robert Vaux

"Chicago" is a long-running Broadway musical that has become one of the most noted in the history of the theater. Based loosely on a notorious murder case in the 1920s, it skewers the twisted priorities of media sensationalism and the way society makes celebrities out of criminals. Though it originally opened in the mid-1970s, it attained its greatest success in a 1996 revival, which in turn spawned an Oscar-winning 2002 film. It's noted for its unusual subject matter and for choreography by the legendary Bob Fosse, who helped stage the original production.

The Plot

"Chicago" tells the story of two chorus girls, Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, accused of murdering their respective lovers. The media circus surrounding their crimes brings them immense fame, aided by the machinations of their unscrupulous lawyer, Billy Flynn. They eventually gain acquittal, but by then the press has moved on to the next sensational crime, leaving them alone and bankrupt. Despite their mutual dislike of each other, they team up to form a "sister act" and quickly regain their lost fame.

Origins

"Chicago" started out as a straight stage play, written by Windy City newspaper reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins. She covered the 1924 trial of a pair of murderesses--Belva Gaertner and Beulah Annan--and decided to fictionalize the material for a play. When she died in 1969, producer Richard Frye, choreographer Bob Fosse and actress Gwen Verdon (Fosse's wife) bought the rights to it. They hired writers John Kander and Fred Ebb to rework it as a musical, based loosely on the world of vaudeville.

Broadway

The first run of "Chicago" opened on June 3, 1975 at the 46th Street Theater on Broadway. It featured Verdon as Roxie Hart, Chita Rivera as Velma Kelly and Jerry Orbach as Billy Flynn. It was considered a modest success--running for two years and over 900 performances--but audience were baffled by the way it often broke the fourth wall, and it was stomped at the 1975 Tony Awards by "A Chorus Line." It ran on the West End in 1979 and a few other locations around the world, but by the early 1980s was limited mostly to small regional productions.

Revival

A 1996 revival of the musical saw a swift change in its fortunes. The new version further emphasized the Brechtian nature of the original, while paring back the sets and costumes to stark black minimalism. The era was rife with tawdry tales of crime in the media, and the earlier satire seemed far more timely than it had the first time around. The production became an instant sensation and won 6 Tony Awards--including Best Musical Revival, Best Actor James Naughton and Best Actress Bebe Neuwirth--and as of this writing, has run consistently on Broadway since it opened.

Film

The success of the revival eventually resulted in a 2002 film adaptation, starring Renee Zellweger as Roxie Hart, Catherine Zeta-Jones as Velma Kelly, and Richard Gere as Billy Flynn. It was an immense critical and box office success, earning over $300 million worldwide, and garnered a total of six Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress for Zeta-Jones).