Shock Absorbed

Don’t call Chicago an act of high subversion. It’s just good old-fashioned Broadway.


Richard Rodgers Theater

New York City

Chicago begins with a man stepping before the curtain to tell us that we are about to see a story of “murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery, and treachery,” all those things “dear to our hearts.” This makes us nervous. When a big Broadway show proclaims its daring, we can brace ourselves for pretty mild stuff. So it proves. As a subversive act in which we are supposedly complicit, Chicago is quaint.

The origin was otherwise. This musical is based on a play of the same name that was written in the early 1920s by Maurine Watkins, a Chicago reporter who had gone to Yale for George Pierce Baker’s celebrated play-writing course. As part of her course work, Watkins wrote the first draft of this play, which lambasted and lampooned corruptions in the Chicago that she knew. It was produced in 1926, and took its place in the post-World War I theater’s surge of cynicism. Within a few years, Broadway also saw such plays as Broadway, The Front Page, Burlesque, and The Racket, works intended to rip the rosy trappings off several pieties in America’s new, bitterly enlightened age.

This cynical frisson attended the two film versions of Chicago, in 1927 and 1942 (titled Roxie Hart), and was apparently on hand as late as 1975, when John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Bob Fosse made a musical of the play, directed by Fosse. We’re now told that the musical was ahead of its time back there in 1975 (though it ran 898 performances and had been a successful play 50 years earlier), and that today, at last, its moral challenge is acceptable. Today, in fact, Chicago is about as challenging as a Victorian peep show. Could it really have been otherwise 21 years ago? Some have said that the effect of the O.J. Simpson trial and other recent moral circuses have helped this musical’s revival. Well, America has always liked to think of itself as a time-ravaged innocent. (Even Edith Wharton looked back to long-lost innocence.) It was always a dubious chastity. This citing of O.J. is only the latest fantasy on the subject, summoned to explained the new success of a show that was never a failure. But, luckily for those who will flock to this latest Broadway hit, Kander and Ebb and the present producers still take its moral daring seriously, which enables them to give it some life.

In Al Capone’s Chicago, Roxie Hart, a married night-club chorine, shoots her lover and engages a smooth lawyer, Billy Flynn, to get her off. He sets out to do this by making her a newspaper-headline sensation. This steals the spotlight from a fellow prisoner, Velma Kelly–a vaudevillian with two murders to her credit, whom Flynn has also been publicizing before trial. The pursuit of justice soon becomes the pursuit of post-trial vaudeville contracts. Complications follow, of course, involving Roxie’s nerd husband, Amos, and her sudden claim to be pregnant.

T he book of the musical, by Ebb and (the late) Fosse, flexed the play to bring in a total of six other attractive murderesses, dancers all, with seven males to partner them. (What are the males doing in a female prison? The gods of musical theater scoff at such questions.) In the current production–I didn’t see the 1975 version–the show is viewed as a show: old-fashioned vaudeville (presumably done to save production costs). The band is on-stage center on a raked platform, with conductor, just the way big bands like Xavier Cugat and Lawrence Welk used to appear, with the performers coming out of a runway in the middle, or around the edges, of the stand. From time to time, as at the start, someone addresses the audience, which reminds us that everyone up there knows it’s just a performance. This is all to the good: It spares us any pressure to take this “shocking” story seriously.

Kander’s music is rhythmically apt but melodically flaccid; Ebb’s lyrics don’t always escape the banal. We know what the songs are supposed to be doing, but they rarely soar past serviceability. Two pleasant exceptions are “Razzle Dazzle,” in which Billy Flynn and the company expound their philosophy of deceit, and “Class,” in which Velma and the butch prison matron lament the decline of good manners. The arrangements by Ralph Burns and Peter Howard add a welcome lift to the score, especially with a tuba.

Ann Reinking, who worked with Fosse, has choreographed Chicago “in the style of Bob Fosse,” says the program. The result is mostly carnival kooch dancing in excelsis, tempered with nifty acrobatics, with all the women in slinky, transparent black. Because the bandstand takes up most of the stage, all the dancing and almost all the action must take place in what used to be called “One”–the first plane of space parallel to the footlights–except for the sporadic use of tall ladders that swing out from the wings. Reinking uses every inch of space ravenously.

She causes some discomfort, though, by playing Roxie herself. She played that role in the latter part of the 1970s run. Now, whatever her actual age is, the passage of time shifts our attention. Instead of focusing on her performance, we keep marveling at how well she has kept her body in shape and that she is as precise and limber as anyone on stage. The face and the line of the neck have been less fortunate. It’s hard to believe that this Roxie is Velma’s coeval, more or less, and that she could be pregnant. Even those who don’t know the facts of Reinking’s career and are more chivalrous than myself may have some difficulty here.

Bebe Neuwirth, as Velma, is little help to Reinking in this regard. Neuwirth is tart, cool, sexy–and, alas, clearly younger than her co-star. Besides, she has something that Reinking, for all her show-biz finish, lacks: a winning arrogance. Neuwirth doesn’t work to win us over. She owns this stage, she seems to say, and we’re lucky to be there, to have the chance to appreciate her. It’s the kind of serfdom that only an exceptionally talented performer can dare to offer. Neuwirth dares; and we accept.

As Billy Flynn, James Naughton sings surprisingly well and is almost sufficiently overweening. Joel Grey, who made his first success in an earlier Kander-Ebb musical, Cabaret (1966), is Roxie’s husband and plays him for pathos–not exactly a one-note performance, more of a half-note. Mary Sunshine, a newspaper sob-sister, is played by D. Sabella, whose odd billing is eventually explained.

John Lee Beatty designed the setting, which couldn’t have been much of a strain for this gifted man. Ken Billington had a much more demanding job with the lighting. Billington had to provide the spatial variety, the novelties for the eye, that the one plain setting precluded; and he succeeds ingeniously.

The director, Walter Bobbie, brought all the above elements together. This is his best accomplishment. Obviously, the directing of musicals is more straitened than that of plays, but Bobbie has settled for a lot of stock poses, pauses, and prolongations.

With its boast of turpitude, Chicago is a reminder of a line in Ann Douglas’ recent study of the 1920s, Terrible Honesty. Douglas writes: “The 1920s could be said to have patented the idea of history as a form of instant irony, as a fun-house mirror revealing every distortion and falsity in things once held timeless and true.” Seventy years later that irony has become a well-thumbed norm. And yet, there’s that paradox. Chicago needed to cling to its belief–or pretense–that it is shocking. Its wiggling and wriggling, its cartoons of sex and murder and justice, are what give the show its occasional glints of fun.