Broadway’s ‘Chicago’ Turns 20: Stars Reflect on Show’s Success

Gordon Cox
Variety

The Broadway revival of “Chicago” opened on Nov. 14, 1996 — and in the two decades since, it’s become one of the longest running musicals in Broadway history, second only to “The Phantom of the Opera.” On the production’s 20th birthday, we look back at the musical’s journey to becoming a Broadway landmark, through interviews with the people who lived it.

The John Kander and Fred Ebb musical “Chicago” premiered in 1975 in a production directed by legendary director-choreographer Bob Fosse. The story of a wannabe vaudevillian who finds the fame she was always looking for when she commits a headline-grabbing murder, “Chicago” had an original cast that included Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera and Jerry Orbach. It proved a moderate success, playing just over two years, but critics seems to find the musical’s cynical take on fame and the media somewhat too dark. That year, too, the show was overshadowed by “A Chorus Line,” the smash hit that opened the same season and ran for 15 years.

In 1994, New York’s City Center launched Encores!, a series of semi-staged concert performances, with the aim of showcasing forgotten musicals during a brief, four-performance run. When “Chicago” was added to the Encores! slate in May 1996, it was the most recent musical Encores! had ever done.

WALTER BOBBIE (director): I directed the first show at Encores!, “Fiorello!,” and after that they asked me to take over as artistic director.  At the time we were very much doing things that were in the earlier canon of American musicals, the Gershwins and the Porters and the Berlins and all that stuff. I thought that we didn’t need to get ourselves locked into that time period. And I had always loved “Chicago,” and the score was fantastic.

JACK VIERTEL (current artistic director of Encores!): Back then I was part of the committee that basically created Encores!, and when Walter said he wanted to do “Chicago,” I thought it was a bad idea. I thought it was not obscure enough. The whole committee felt the same way. Rarely has a committee been wronger!

BOBBIE: I was reading “Chicago” and watching the O.J. trials at the same time and I thought, “Oh my God, this satire has turned into a documentary.” It resonated in a way that I thought made it feel completely fresh. The manipulation of the courts, the abuse of celebrity, everybody having a press agent — all that seemed to be newly minted.

Once Bobbie convinced the Encores! board to produce the show, he had to figure out how to do it within the spare production constraints necessitated by the Encores! format.

BOBBIE: I wanted the evening to be an homage to Fosse, not to redo his production, but to pay tribute to the kind of vocabulary and the visual imagination that he had. That became our guiding principle. For Encores! we had never had a bandstand onstage before, but I said to John Lee Beatty, the set designer, that I wanted the band to be in a jury box. We did a lot of thinking like that, that’s not obvious to the audience. We thought a lot about how to get every possible prop out of the show. We weren’t going to be literal about costumes. I said to William Ivey long, the costume designer, “Fosse loved dancers. I want them to look like dancers.” I wanted the show in Fosse’s two favorite colors: black and flesh.

WILLIAM IVEY LONG (costume designer): If you work with dancers and you watch their lines, you make it tight and smooth. And that’s just going to be sexy. The story takes place in a real flapper time, with gangsters and pinstripes and fedoras, and if you think about it, Roxy’s dress and Velma’s slip, they’re really flapper dresses. And then for the men, I have striped stretch spandex, so you can see the gangster stripes on the legs. It’s combining 1929 flappers and gangsters with 1970s Bob Fosse. These gangster pants are bell bottoms. Bob Fosse invented this move with the bell bottoms where he would catch his heel in one of the bell bottoms and rock back, and by catching the heel you have a straight line right to the floor. Jim Borstelmann, who was an original cast member, comes back and teaches all the dancers who wear the bell bottoms how to do it.

BOBBIE: I remember seeing “Pippin” [the 1972 show also directed and choreographed by Fosse] and seeing a ladder on the proscenium and thinking it was so cool. So I said to John, “How about if we have a ladder?” He said, “How about if we have two?” We let the abstraction and the ideas of the show guide us, and the visual imagination of Fosse, rather than literally going back to his production. And of course my partner in all of this was Rob Fisher, the musical director of Encores! He was meticulous in honoring that music.

LONG: Listen, I didn’t make a thing for that first Encores! production of “Chicago.” I took my scissors and my needle and thread and my serger machine, and I went to 38th Street, I went to Capezio, I went to Danskin, I went to Lord & Taylor, I went to Saks Fifth Avenue, I went to all those places and I assembled things. I remember asking some people to bring bras from home. And they all brought their dance shoes from home. Encores! had never done this kind of dance show before.

BOBBIE: We didn’t audition anyone. I interviewed people who had worked with Fosse. Our casting director brought in a whole bunch of people who had worked with him. I wanted people in the show to understand the vocabulary and be part of that.

ANN REINKING (choreographer and actor, Roxie): I was originally only going to choreograph, and Liza Minelli was supposed to do the role of Roxie. But she couldn’t get out of an engagement. And because I had done “Chicago” back in ’76, after Gwen Verdon left, everybody knew I knew it very well, and it wouldn’t take me long to remember it. So all eyes turned on me. I said, “I don’t know if I can, I’m out of shape.” And Walter said, “Oh, you can bull your way through four shows!” And I went, “He’s right, I can. All right, I’ll do it.” It was just four shows!

BEBE NEUWIRTH (actress, Velma): I had heard somewhere that Encores! was going to do “Chicago.” I had seen it when I was 15 on Broadway, and I had done it at Long Beach Civic Light Opera in 1992. I had played Velma, and Annie Reinking choreographed it and Rob Marshall [who went on to direct the Oscar-winning 2001 film] directed it. I called Walter and I said, “I’d like to throw my hat in the ring.” You know, it’s very unlike me to go after something like that. I’m not the kind of person who does that.

JOEL GREY (actor, Amos): I got a call about playing Amos. I remembered seeing the original production and I thought it was awfully, awfully dark, and also over-produced. And I remembered Amos’ number “Mr. Cellophane” as being very bathetic, as opposed to spare. I said to them, “I don’t think I’m right for Amos. I’m hardly a garage mechanic.” Then I got an email from a friend, who had heard I turned it down. He said, “I think you’re making a mistake. That’s a great number.”

JAMES NAUGHTON (actor, Billy Flynn): Everybody else in the company was a dancer except me. Every single other person. Annie and I had worked together at Williamstown in the 80s, and she said, “Don’t worry about Jimmy, he’ll be fine.” But when everyone else was working on refining their dancing, I was going, “Annie, do I start with my left foot or my right foot?”

REINKING: Oh, Jimmy’s a wonderful mover. I even put in a step that I always call The Naughton. He does a great shimmy.

The cast and creative team put the Encores! production together in an ultra-quick rehearsal period of just nine days, and played their first performance on May 1, 1996.

GREY: Rehearsals were exhilarating, because it was like we rediscovered the score the way the audience did as soon as we starting performing it. And every day we became more enamored of it.

NEUWIRTH: There was something unusual going on right from the beginning. Everybody in the cast either knew each other or had worked with each or had very strong connections to each other. A lot of us had worked with Bob Fosse, and all of us loved him deeply. And none of us were kids, also. Everyone was at least in their 30s. There were people in their 40s; there was a guy in his 50s. Everyone had been around for a while, and I think because of that, there was weight to what we were doing. When that first cast came walking downstage in that vamp, doing the snake arms and doing that walk and staring the audience down, and having this deep internal life — hoo. You can stage that, and you can choreograph it, but the extra something that happened, with that particular combination of people, was really the thing that completed the alchemy that is so deep and so profound that 20 years later it’s still cooking like that.

NAUGHTON: The first performance, I’m standing backstage waiting to go on, the curtain goes up and the first song, “All that Jazz,” starts. And when it was over the audience literally roared. They were yelling. Applause and yells. It’s a wonderful sound in the theater. You don’t hear it very often. They roared after every single number.

NEUWIRTH: The roof came off City Center.

BOBBIE: I just remember thinking: What the hell is going on?

GREY: Every darn number stopped the show. We said, “Oh, I think we’re onto something.”

JOHN KANDER (composer): To this day, I can’t explain the response. Some people said it was because of the O.J. trial that audiences were more responsive to the cynicism, or to the corruption. But we’d had plenty of corruption going on back in the 70s, from Watergate on, so the public was used to this kind of material even back when we first did the show in 1975. I do remember that some of the original reviews thought the show was way too harsh, and glamorizing vice. They didn’t seem to feel that way anymore! It confounds me, not because the show isn’t relevant, but because it’s always been relevant. I think sex and murder and corruption have always been with us, and also the pretense that it’s a surprise when some scandal happens, or corruption is exposed. I think maybe our inner hypocrisy has always been there as well. Maybe as long as you can count on human hypocrisy, “Chicago” can have a nice long life!

NEUWIRTH: The pendulum swings on Broadway. It bounces around from revivals to new works to overblown productions to very spare productions. And at that time Broadway, to my taste, had just about had it with these too-much-stuff-onstage shows. Too much stuff in between the audience and the material. Set pieces that were more than they needed to be, videos onstage, upstaging the performers. In “Chicago,” the audience was getting material. There was nothing between them and the orchestra, and between them and the performers and the material. There were no special effects. I think it was Walter who said the special effect is the material.

Audience response was so strong that those involved in the production were certain that commercial producers would flock. That’s not quite how it turned out.

VIERTEL: I saw the invited dress rehearsal, and it was an electrifying evening. I called Rocco Landesman [then the head of Jujamcyn Theaters] and said, “This show’s going to move to Broadway.”

NAUGHTON: There was talk about a transfer, but it turns out that the Weisslers were the only producers who actually took us up on it. I kinda thought there would have been some competition!

BARRY WEISSLER (producer): By 1996, we had already done “Zorba” with John and Fred, and we had already been involved with “Cabaret,” so we had a relationship with them. Fran made the fateful call, the day we saw “Chicago.”

FRAN WEISSLER (producer): We went to one of the last Encores! performances, the Saturday matinee. It was fabulous, and we were beside ourselves. I remember we walked out, and we got both John and Fred on the phone — this is the day of the performance, right after we saw it — We said, “Look, we were there today, and every single general manager, producer, agent and manager were there. Just give us a little piece of the show! We don’t even care if our names are on it!” (Which is a lie; we did!) There was a long pause and either Fred or John said, “You’ve got the whole show.” No one else wanted to do it!

B. WEISSLER: Everyone thought we were crazy.

F. WEISSLER: This was the age of “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Les Miserables” and “Miss Saigon,” and in “Chicago,” there was no chandelier dropping. There was no French Revolution. There was no helicopter onstage. When we went to raise money for Broadway, nobody would give us any. So we raised the two and a half million ourselves, and that’s why we ended up owning so much of the show, and why it ended up being very good for us.

BOBBIE: The success of the concert led some people who were interested in the show to want to do a more elaborate production. I remember sitting in a meeting with Barry and Fran and saying, “I think we have all the ideas right. Now I just want to finish it.” We had to get rid of the scripts. We had memorize our lines. We had to get rid of the microphones at the edge of the stage. We had to more fully realize certain parts of the show, which had been half-realized because we ran out of time. I wanted to finish what I started. I didn’t want to add any other stuff. Fran and Barry got it. They saw it completely.

Once the Weisslers scored the production, then they had to nab a Broadway theater — and figure out how to sell the show to audiences.

DREW HODGES (founder of Broadway ad agency SpotCo): Liz Smith wrote a column saying no one was going to come. No one’s going to play $75 for a glorified concert. I thought, “Uh, that’s a problem.” I said to the team that we needed to own the minimalism, and figure out a way to make it clear that we’re doing the show this way because it’s the best way to do it, and not because we don’t have a big enough budget. When Calvin Klein does a black and white fashion ad — this was back in the days of the Marky Mark ads — no one thinks, “Oh, they didn’t have the money to do color.” Somehow in that context it’s an aesthetic choice. And so someone said, “Why don’t we get a fashion photographer and have them shoot it in black and white?”

B. WEISSLER: We hired the fashion photographer Max Vadukul, and he asked me one question: “What is it you see? What is it you want from me?” I said, “I want fashion, sex and danger.”

HODGES: We figured out early that one of the rules was that in the ads, the girls could never been seen behind bars. Because they owned it, they owned the show. They were empowered. If they’re behind bars, they’re not.

B. WEISSLER: Initially, we had a deal to play the Martin Beck Theater [now the Al Hirschfeld]. But then Rocco [Landesman] didn’t want the production, because he wanted “Whistle Down the Wind.” So we were booked for the Martin Beck and never even got on stage!

F. WEISSLER: “Whistle Down the Wind” was Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Andrew Lloyd Webber had so many successes. And here was “Chicago.”

B. WEISSLER:  The Shubert Organization [another theater owner] didn’t want us either, because they wanted [the musical adaptation of] “Big.” But Sam Cohn, who was the agent for most of the “Chicago” creative team, set a certain requirement that if we didn’t open in the year 1996, we would lose the rights to the show. So we began that fall at the Richard Rodgers Theater [owned by the Nederlander Organization]. We had 18 weeks there. They used us as a filler until “Steel Pier” came in.

F. WEISSLER: I remember saying to Jimmy Nederlander, “Come on, Jimmy, 18 weeks?” And Jimmy said, “Fran, you’re not gonna play three weeks!”

B. WEISSLER: So we took the interim booking and crossed out fingers. The Shubert Theater was a reluctant backup. And then there was opening night.

F. WEISSLER: When we got the review, Barry said, “Fran, we’re on the front page of the New York Times!” With a theater review! I don’t think it had every happened. All the soldiers from Bosnia were above the fold, and underneath are our girls, under the fold. The review continued in the theater section, and on both sides were huge pictures of the show. Oh my God, we thought we had died and gone to heaven.

B. WEISSLER: After that everybody wanted us. We went to the Shubert, and then later moved to the Ambassador.

The production went on to win six Tony Awards. After that, the producers and the creative team faced the challenge of maintaining the show, both at the box office and on stage, all while taking replicas of the production around the world.

BOBBIE: I go regularly to “Chicago.” I don’t tell people I’m coming. I do notes. And a couple times a year, I’ll have a full company rehearsal, where everybody comes in and we start right from the top of the show. As I say when I begin those rehearsals: My name is still on the poster!

LONG: Because most actors in the show only have one costume with no changes, body sweat, which is filled with salt, eats through the black dye. It takes quite a bit of maintenance. We have a pot of black dye where every now and then we redip the black, but that’s only for desperate times, because it doesn’t really work. We have to keep making new ones.

B. WEISSLER: The star casting we do just came as a natural progression. Fran and I didn’t sit at a table and say, “Look, we’ve got to change stars every three months.” Our wonderful original cast began to leave, and so we were making lists of people to go out to, and then started making calls. We still chase.

REINKING: No two “Chicagos” are alike, because of the different dancers. Bob always tailored to every dancer. It’s not a huge variation, it’s just a way to say the same thing, but with a different step. If there’s something that’s not quite right, we’ll open the bag of tricks. Like with Melanie Griffith [who played Roxie in 2003]. She’s this almost six feet tall, long-legged, gorgeous woman. And in the song “My Baby and Me,” for her to do these cute little baby steps that were Chaplin-esque, it just wasn’t right for her. I wanted to capitalize on her beauty. So I made her a different kind of mama with her babies, having fun with her sensuality, but not in a Chaplinesque way.

BOBBIE: After Broadway we took the show to London, and I said, “If we bring American actors over, we will close in six months. Wherever we go, we should celebrate their community, their talent, their dancers.” And we did that all over the world. Thematically, this show works in every culture. The seduction of celebrity, the manipulation of the press, getting away with murder, it all works in every culture.

B. WEISSLER: We go to Tokyo one year in English, and the next year they revive it in Japanese. We do that every single year. We’ve now played Tokyo about 10 times.

Conventional wisdom on Broadway pegs the lifespan of a successful musical revival at about two years. At five, “Chicago” had begun to flag. But then the 2001 Oscar-winning movie was released.

F. WEISSLER: I was worried. I thought if you could pay five or seven dollar to see a movie, why see a Broadway show for much more money?

B. WEISSLER: But we hitched our marketing wagon to the movie, celebrated the movie, and lo and behold, if you read the movie reviews, every one of them referred back to the Broadway show, and said things like “This never would have happened without the Broadway revival.” It boosted us back up to the top at the box office, five years into our run.

NEUWIRTH: I didn’t see the movie! For a couple of reasons: I don’t see a lot of movies. I’ve never see “The Sound of Music” either, so it’s not a big deal that I didn’t see “Chicago.” But the other thing is that the show has a very intimate, personal place, a very treasured place in my heart. I don’t want anything to cloud my vision of that.

BOBBIE: I remember I was doing Encores!, then suddenly I’m sitting on the opening night in London in the same row as Joan Collins and Margaret Thatcher going, “What the hell just happened to my life?”

NAUGHTON: I invested in the show before we opened on Broadway. So I’ve been a beneficiary of its success for 20 years so far. Still going. Still paying!

KANDER: It’s a show which seems to be there all the time, and I feel totally not responsible for any of that. The Weisslers have done an incredible job of making sure that it stayed in the public consciousness. It’s certainly been a great gift to me, and was to Freddie.

GREY: It’s just one of the best memories in a bunch of good ones. “Wicked,” “Chicago,” “Cabaret,” “George M!,” “Anything Goes.” I feel very blessed. Good stuff.

REINKING: Mr Fosse and Mr. Kander and Mr. Ebb created such an entertaining show. It’s  a really good evening of singing and dancing and acting, with a satirical moral to it. You really shouldn’t be laughing and dancing about this stuff, but we’re going to anyway! That’s what satire has to be, otherwise it’s not palatable.

VIERTEL: “Chicago” is one of the very few cases — it might be the only case — of a musical that time caught up with. Most shows that don’t go on successfully, after a certain point, time passes them by. “Chicago,” when it was first produced, was thought to be too cynical, too downbeat, too vicious. Its ironies were too bold. But our view of who are has completely changed, and “Chicago” still seems so relevant.

NAUGHTON: Here we are 20 years later, and I think we’re all shaking our heads at our political situation these days. The Billy Flynns of the world and the manipulation of the press and public opinion, all that is exactly was what Kander and Ebb were writing  about. We’re all the way down that hole now.

Related stories

Producers Resolve Dispute Over 'Great Comet' Billing

Broadway's 'The Color Purple' Will Close in January

Glenn Close Sets Broadway Return in 'Sunset Boulevard'

Get more from Variety and Variety411: Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Newsletter