Dark, cynical, and charged with eroticism, Chicago, the quintessential Bob Fosse musical, hit Broadway two decades too soon. The original 1975 production — choreographed and directed by Fosse, with words and music by Cabaret’s John Kander and Fred Ebb — ran for a more than respectable 923 performances, but it was its four-performance revival last May that drew critical raves and a new kind of attention. Now Chicago is the first production ever to transfer from the Off Broadway concert series ”City Center Encores!” to the Great White Way, with previews beginning Oct. 23 (and the opening on Nov. 14) — just in time for Broadway’s big winter holiday tourist season.
Perhaps Chicago’s plot — a murder suspect capitalizes on her notoriety and becomes a celebrity as a result of the trial — has greater resonance in the O.J. era than it did in ‘75. When the show’s slick lawyer suggests that the murderer/celebrity could profitably auction off anything she ever touched, the story seems sharply up-to-date. ”Audiences get the connection,” notes Joel Grey, who stars along with several vivid musical talents including Ann Reinking (adapting the original choreography to accommodate a new set and new principals), Bebe Neuwirth, and James Naughton.
Indeed, many members of the cast have strong connections with Fosse, who died in 1987. Reinking, who starred for eight months in Chicago’s original run, was Fosse’s onetime lover and muse. Neuwirth appeared in such Fosse productions as 1982’s Dancin’ and the 1986 revival of Sweet Charity, for which she won a Tony award. And Grey, who first met the director-choreographer in 1948, won an Oscar for his performance in the 1972 film version of Cabaret (Fosse also won for Best Director). ”It’s like hanging out with Fosse, to be in this show,” Grey says of this Chicago’s virtual fifth star. ”Every hand movement is a reminder of his unique and enormous talent.”
Staged at an estimated $3 million, the relatively modest production emphasizes its unique selling proposition: that Fosse choreography. With the increasing prevalence of revivals (The King and I, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Grease), Chicago benefits uniquely from the fact that no living choreographer has the recognizable style — and audience-pulling power — of Bob Fosse.
Inspired by Maurine Dallas Watkins’ 1926 play of the same name (which also inspired the 1942 Ginger Rogers film Roxie Hart), Chicago was originally conceived as a musical-comedy vehicle for dancer Gwen Verdon, then Fosse’s wife and, until Reinking, the leading interpreter of his choreography. But Fosse said he wasn’t too crazy about the original material, and little of it was retained.
He envisioned instead a ”musical vaudeville” — complete with adroit adaptations of such staples as ventriloquist acts, soft-shoe dancing, and female impersonation — in which the audience would be hit with number after number, connected by sketchy dialogue. Fosse wanted the songs to echo the old-time showbiz greats — ”a Bert Williams-type number, a Helen Morgan-type number, an Eddie Cantor-type number,” as he put it — and his Cabaret collaborators Kander and Ebb delivered the requisite goods. So, for example, the Joel Grey character’s key moment, ”Mr. Cellophane,” is clearly patterned upon Williams’ self-deprecating signature number, ”Nobody.”