”CHICAGO: THE MUSICAL” may be a 1975 musical set in the 1920s, but it’s as contemporary as today’s news.
It drips with cynicism, with murderers transforming into celebrities, a judicial system motivated by money and everyone with their hand out for a bribe.
And the truth?
Well, the truth is manipulated and bent out of shape until it’s unrecognizable.
Based on a 1926 play of the same name by Chicago Tribune reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins, the musical was written by John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics) with book by Ebb and Bob Fosse (who also directed and choreographed.)
It received six Tony Awards (for its revival), 2 Olivier Awards and a Grammy .
Here are some things you might want to know about “Chicago” before seeing it.
The structure of the musical is set up as a vaudeville show, with a series of various musical acts introduced onstage.
In fact, it was originally named “Chicago: A Musical Vaudeville.”
For example, before Roxie Hart sings “Funny Honey,” the song is introduced: “For her first number, Miss Roxie Hart would like to sing a song of love and devotion dedicated to her dear husband Amos.”
Another song is introduced: “And now, the six merry murderesses of the Cook County Jail in their rendition of Cell Block Tango.”
There are duets, solos, big ensemble numbers.
The music in the show reflects the variety of acts and sounds in vaudeville in 1920’s Chicago. There’s jazz, blues, ragtime, romantic ballads with chorus girls with oversized feathers, even a tap dance.
“Mr. Cellophane” is a sad-sack song performed by a man who feels invisible to the world. It’s based on the song “Nobody,” which Bert Williams, a member of the Ziegfeld Follies and vaudeville’s greatest Black star, performed.
And “When You’re Good to Mama” is one of those blues songs with suggestive lyrics, in the style of Sophie Tucker, the Last of the Red Hot Mamas. For example:
If you want my gravy
Pepper my ragout
Spice it up for Mama
She’ll get hot for you.
Many lines sound naughty, though can claim innocence upon closer examination. For example, Mama Morton sings a line about “when you’re stroking Mama/Mama’s stroking you,” though it’s preceded by a line that says, “Let’s all stroke together/Like the Princeton crew.”
It also is possibly the only Broadway song that includes the phrase “up yours.” But, the lyricist is careful to couch it like this: “So boost me up the ladder, kid/And I’ll boost you up yours.”
But it’s all in the delivery.
Sometimes, as in the song “Class,” the music works against the lyrics, to comedic effect.
Mama Morton and Velma sing about how “nobody’s got no class,” claiming, “Ah, there ain’t no gentlemen/To open up the doors/There ain’t no ladies now/ There’s only pigs and whores.” While they are singing so, well, class-lessly about how no one has class anymore, the music’s pretty and delicate and the vocal harmonies sweet. It’s a perfect musical contradiction.
The musical is introduced in the beginning as “a story of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery – all those things we hold near and dear to our hearts.”
In the song “Cell Block Tango,” the six women who are in jail for murder each explain the particular circumstances that led them there. And though they claim their innocence, they also sing “He had it coming/if you’d have been there/If you’d have seen it/I betcha you would’ve done the same.”
One woman explains that her husband, who accuses her of adultery with the milkman, ran into her knife.
“He ran into my knife ten times,” she claims.
The lawyer, Billy Flynn, sings a song, “All I Care About,” in the style of Ted Lewis and Eddie Cantor, in which he proclaims that whatever he does, he does it out of love.
“All I care about is love,” he proclaims. It’s the total opposite of reality, because he won’t do a thing for his clients without first receiving exorbitant fees.
“Chicago” was met with mixed response when it first hit the stage in 1975.
Audiences weren’t so sure about its cynicism.
Though nominated for 11 Tony Awards, it won none.
The musical was possibly ahead of its time, as it highlights judicial corruption and the glamorization of celebrity.
But what a difference 21 years make. Its revival in 1996 was a rousing success; it won six Tony Awards, including Best Revival of Musical. A 2002 film adaptation received an Oscar for Best Picture.
According to Fred Ebb in the 2003 book “Colored Lights: Forty Years of Words and Music, Show Biz, Collaboration, and All That Jazz,” “I think that the audience caught up with the show, and history has been a great friend to us. We are living in a time of sensational murders, and people getting away or not getting away with them, depending on what you believe. We have been helped enormously by the O.J. Simpson case and presidential adultery, and similar stories that had our sort of jaundiced worldview in the headlines.”
His collaborator, John Kander, replies, saying the success of “Chicago” “…is a little bit like the history of ‘Pal Joey,’ which was originally considered just too mean in spirit. Then it was revived and was a big hit.
“…I guess it proves, much to our delight, that corruption never goes out of fashion.” ¦
In the KNOW
“Chicago: the Musical”
When: Nov. 29, 30
Where: Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, Sarasota
Information: 941-263-6799 or www.vanwezel.org
When: Feb. 14-19
Where: Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 Southwest 5th Avenue, Fort Lauderdale
Cost: Tickets go on sale Dec. 16
Information: 954-462-0222 or www.browardcenter.org
‘Chicago’ and ‘Cabaret’
If you’re a fan of “Chicago: The Musical” and love the music, you have an opportunity to see not only “Chicago,” but another Kander and Ebb musical, “Cabaret.”
The Asolo Repertory Theatre (5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota) is staging “Cabaret” Nov. 16 through Dec. 31. Tickets are $38 to $98 and can be ordered by calling 941-351-8000 or going to www.asolorep.org.
The award-winning musical is known for songs such as “Wilkommen,” “Money,” “Maybe This Time,” “Don’t Tell Mama,” “Two Ladies,” “Mein Herr,” “I Don’t Care Much” and of course, “Cabaret.” ¦
Leave a Reply