Oscar Race

Chicago's Hope

Broadway's ''Chicago'' auditions for Oscar -- All that glitz. All that glam. All that jazz. And now, maybe, all that March 23 gold

Pssst! wanna know a secret about Chicago, the jazz-age tale Miramax has been trumpeting primarily on the strength of eight Golden Globe nominations? Three little words: It's a musical!

Okay, so that's not really a secret. But it's being treated like one in ads and trailers that pull a curtain over the $45 million movie's 12 full-blown production numbers, most of which unfold as the daydreams of a murder defendant and showbiz wannabe named Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger). Teasers show Richard Gere in the role of Roxie's conceited attorney, Billy Flynn, while avoiding even a snippet of him crooning. They don't play up Catherine Zeta-Jones belting ''All That Jazz'' as hubby-and-sister killer Velma Kelly, either.

The camouflage doesn't bother Zellweger, who finds it hard to listen to herself sing. ''I hear my big brother yelling down the hallway,'' she says, ''the resounding 'Shut up!' when I was doing my best Paul McCartney under the covers at 7 years old.''

Well, that's her hang-up. What's the studio's? ''Musicals are not something Miramax knows it can make work,'' says first-time feature director Rob Marshall, 42, a former Broadway dancer and choreographer who got the Chicago gig after helming a highly rated TV-movie version of Annie. ''Even though they're very proud of this movie, they want to protect their investment.''

The studio's afraid that despite the modest success of 2001's pop-song pastiche Moulin Rouge (which grossed more than $115 million overseas but only $58 million domestically), a lot of moviegoers -- especially younger males -- may still wince at the sound of more-traditional show tunes. ''That's gonna be the hardest audience,'' admits Miramax cochairman Harvey Weinstein. ''They're hard on anything that doesn't have some action or comedy. They were the last audience to see Shakespeare in Love, and they were the last in on The English Patient. I think it's gonna have to be women taking young men.''

If girlfriends can't get leverage, Weinstein is counting on Golden Globes and Academy Awards to grease the skids as Chicago builds on its so-far, so-very-good limited release (see box office chart, page 59). And he can't help talking about Oscar season as if it's his personal marketing tool -- a battering ram made of little gold men. ''Sometimes people say Miramax is awards-centric,'' says Weinstein, who's also running a major campaign for Gangs of New York (in addition, Miramax coproduced The Hours, and Harvey and his brother Bob even get an exec-producing credit on New Line's The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers). ''But for [filmgoers] who resist, the awards and nominations break them down. They say, 'All right. If it's getting this much attention, I might as well see for myself what it's all about.'''

For the alliance of theater and movie people who made Chicago, it's been all about persistence. The film fell apart more times than the guests on a Barbara Walters special. ''I never thought I'd live to see it finished,'' says 70-year-old producer Marty Richards. ''It's been a long, long ride.''

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