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It's about the perversity of celebrity



Story by: Jack Foley

"IT’S fun and it’s a great ride, but what it says is rather dark… It’s about the perversity of celebrity, and who we choose to celebrate," comments director, Rob Marshall, when speaking of the enduring phenomenon that is Chicago.

Inspired by the highly sensationalised trials of Cook County, Chicago Tribune court reporter, Maurine Watkins, was the first person to pen Chicago.

The play, originally titled ‘The Brave Little Woman’, opened to rave reviews when it was produced in 1926.

Two film adaptations followed - Chicago, a silent film released in 1927, and Roxie Hart, starring Ginger Rogers, which was released in 1942 by Twentieth Century Fox.

Though the satire was specific to a certain time and place, Watkins’ tale of murder and media manipulation would prove both prophetic and timeless.

The play resurfaced in 1975, when Broadway veterans, John Kander, Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, adapted Chicago as an acclaimed Broadway musical, with stage legends Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera in the roles of Roxie and Velma, respectively. The production proved to be a great success.

Yet it’s not only the themes of the story that executive producer, Neil Meron, attributes to the success of the production.

The lyrics and melodies provided by Kander and Ebb enhanced the universality of Watkins’ clever play, while the choreography by Fosse added a trademark sensuality.

"John Kander and Fred Ebb are American heroes when it comes to the theatre," explains Meron. "A good song, a good lyric, a good melody withstands the test of time. I think that’s really true of the words and music of Chicago.

"They’re fun, they’re sharp, they’re sarcastic, they’re sexy, they’re biting. They hold up now, they’ll hold up in the future, they’ll hold up when we’re long gone, and they’ll hold up in interplanetary video distribution."

Miramax films optioned the rights to the Kander, Ebb and Fosse musical in 1994 from producer, Marty Richards, and began the arduous process of transforming the stage production into film.

The most difficult aspect of doing this, however, came in breaking down the so-called ‘fourth wall’, as Marshall explains.

"In most musicals, you see people sing songs to each other. They don’t sing to an audience. There is no audience. There’s the fourth wall," he said.

Marshall’s solution involved transforming the musical numbers into imaginary projections of the protagonist, Roxie Hart. The film therefore exists on two planes: the reality of Prohibition-era Chicago and what Marshall calls the ‘surreality’ of Roxie Hart’s interpretation of that world.

"We had to figure out a way to involve the audience in a similar way without breaking the fourth wall, the way one can on stage," continues Marshall. "Roxie is the dreamer in the movie. She’s the wannabe.

"She desperately wants to be on stage. She sees her life in these musical sequences. It becomes one linear story that jumps back and forth between these two realities. It embraces the fact that all these numbers take place on stage instead of trying to disguise it."


Having been given the green-light, the process of casting began and first to sign on the dotted line was Catherine Zeta-Jones. For the former Darling Buds of May actress, the chance to appear in the film was the realisation of a childhood dream.

She explains: "When I was a little girl, I always wanted to be on stage, singing and dancing. I was obsessed with musicals from the golden years of Hollywood. I would have just loved that world of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers."

Her devotion to musical theatre, coupled with years of formal training, led her to London’s West End, where she had a role in 42nd Street at a young age.

Another stage veteran, Richard Gere, was attracted to Chicago because of the ‘smart’ script, the ‘great’ music and the interesting juxtaposition of Roxie’s fantasy set against the heard reality of a murder case in 20s Chicago.

Gere starred as Danny Zuko in a West End production of Grease as a young actor and quickly impressed Marshall with his enthusiasm and natural ability for musical.

"I lucked out," he confesses. "He was unbelievable. He loved it, too. He loved the joy and camaraderie of it. It’s such a unique role for Richard, and yet it’s such a perfect fit."

Once casting was complete, however, it was back to school for all involved, even those who had experience in theatre. Two months of exhaustive rehearsals took place, with the performers moving between dance instructors, voice rehearsals and acting rehearsals for hours on end.

The result, however, is a movie that has been critically well-received (it has won Golden Globes and Oscars), while helping to ensure that the legacy of Watkins’ story remains intact, on-screen, for another generation.

 

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