U-M musical theater department visiting Kander and Ebb's 'Chicago'
Photo by Peter Smith Photography
For the show focuses on two young, sexy, fictional Prohibition era murderesses—Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly—who vie for media attention, hoping to parlay sensational, notorious celebrity into a show business career. (Perhaps in an homage, the press nicknamed Knox "Foxy Knoxy," just as one of “Chicago”’s murderesses is called "Foxy Roxie.")
“It’s such a statement about how things don’t change,” said “Chicago” director Linda Goodrich. “ In all of these kind of cases, there's so much hype, and then suddenly, it’s over, almost before the verdict is read.”
What’s not over, however, is theatergoers’ affection for this John Kander and Fred Ebb musical, which heavily employs vaudeville styles and tropes, and was based on a 1926 play of the same name, written by Maurine Dallas Watkins (a Chicago Tribune journalist who covered the crimes of two real female killers).
Featuring hits like “All That Jazz,” “When You’re Good to Mama,” and “Razzle Dazzle,” “Chicago” premiered on Broadway in 1975, with a book by Ebb and Bob Fosse (who also directed and choreographed the original production). Astonishingly, a Broadway revival that began its run in 1996 is still going strong—with a string of celebrities stepping in to taken on major roles along the way—and Rob Marshall’s 2002 film adaptation won a best picture Oscar.“In some ways, I feel like I’ve been waiting to do this show my whole career,” said Goodrich, who noted that her first-ever professional job was a role in the musical “Sugar Babies," which celebrates burlesque. “ That was my introduction to that style, and as a dancer, I just fell in love with it. And I was also a drummer early in life, so I’ve always been attracted to shows with a strong rhythmic base. I’ve tried to get the rights (to ‘Chicago’) before, but this time, everything finally lined up.”
Unlike the ongoing Broadway revival, which is presented in more of a concert style and moves the show's story into contemporary times, U-M’s “Chicago” will be more visually rooted in its 1920s reality, with guest scenic designer Andrea Bechert building jail cells and courtrooms.
And while Goodrich appreciated what the celebrated film adaptation did well, she also thinks that it, as well as the Broadway revival, lost the show’s humor in translation.
“The point of the writing in the show is that the audience becomes a character,” said Goodrich. “You’ve got to find yourself horrified by the crimes, and then, just seconds later, laughing and entertained before your catch yourself and remember the grim reality. The point that’s driven home is that we’re all promoting this kind of behavior. We’re all involved in it, and we really need to ask the question, ‘Why are we drawn to this? Why do we stop to watch a car wreck? What is it in us that delights in that kind of horror?'”