History of Chicago (The Musical)

               John Kander and Fred Ebb’s musical Chicago has a rich history dating back to 1970s, a time of true revolution. Kander’s music and Ebb’s lyrics, combined with choreographer Bob Fosse, result in a show that not only musically reflects brilliance, but also thematically. Based on a 1926 play by Maurine Dallas Watkins, Chicago satirical themes and intricate plot are reasons why this musical is so popular today (as evidenced in the 1996 revival and the 2002 film.)  The main production described in this essay however, is the original 1975 Broadway production, with Chita Rivera as Velma, Gwen Verdon as Roxie, and Jerry Orbach as Billy Flynn. This original cast encompasses in essence what the show is about and its uniqueness. Ebb and Kander’s musical Chicago demonstrates not only a revolution in ideology, but also in its revolutionary music and choreography, illustrated through jazz sounds, innovative rhythms, and witty lyrics.     

         Perhaps one of the most important aspects of the musical are the creators themselves.  Ebb, born in New York in April 1932, was a graduate of New York and Columbia universities, and worked with composer John Kander in the early 1960s. In contrast, Kander was born in the more rural Kansas City, in March 1927. Their darker comedy Chicago, which encompassed the 1920s Vaudeville style,  was a hit compared to some earlier shows they collaborated on. However Cabaret, which opened a few years prior, was a major international success as well. Fosse’s choreography is described visionary, he combined very sexual dances with mod expressionism. Fosse’s work though encompassing much of the feeling of the 1920s, has also a subtlety contemporary feeling. When the 1920s music combines with the contemporary cheorography, the result is an uneasy mixture of elements, a very original show. Set designer Tony Walton’s work is described as a “technical marvel,” and lighting designer Jules Fisher’s lighting job is stunning (Kroll).  Jack Kroll describes Chicago as “Fosse’s best work, uncompromising and with real strength showing in every idea and image.” The strengths of all the creators and all those involved in the original 1975 Broadway production resulted in an inspired 1996 revival and 2002 film.

               The 1996 revival cast is described as “blazing its own trail,” and with a unique take. Ann Reinking, who plays Roxie (and is choreographer of show) is thought to have comedic brilliance and with established credentials. Bebe Neurwirth, a “perfect” Velma and James Naughton as manipulative Billy Flynn. Cheoregrapher Reinking, inspired by her partner and mentor, Bob Fosse, does well in the revival. The 1996 cast received several awards, including Tony “Best Musical Revival” (Elyse Sommer). The 2002 film, which won the Academy award for best picture, included the cast of Renee Zellwegger as Roxie, Catherine Zeta Jones as Velma, and Richard Gere as Billy (Cara Lane). Though the movie was quite popular, it is incomparable to the original production itself and should not be supplemented for the original. Disregarding the film, revivals, and various versions, Chicago is based on the 1926 play, as mentioned earlier.

               Watkin’s play is based on an actual events that Watkin experienced herself. Her satirical comedy set up the foundation for what Kander and Ebb would create decades later. The original play was a 182 performance success when on Broadway in 1926. However, the 1975 version eliminated several elements of the original, such as the newspaper world portions, and instead emphasizing the show-biz aspect. The musical numbers are popular and catchy, the creators take the essence of the play and make it their own.  “All that Jazz” encompasses several elements of the show, jazz, sex, and liquor. The history of the play and the historical events of that time, influence perhaps, the final product of the musical itself. Chicago also had a series of overseas productions, a German version in 1977, a British version, and even an Australian version in 1981 (Kurt Ganzl).

               The vaudeville musical encompasses several musical elements such as rhythm, harmony, and texture, to name a few, and this combines with the jazz style to result in a classic musical. The rhythm and texture displayed in “The Cell Block Tango,” for example, illustrates the strengths of the musical, the layering and the rhythm result in very danceable music.  The round style of “Class,” illustrates some harmony as well as humor- the two main characters sing about the class that both of them rather lack.  Some of the ironic songs, such as Roxie’s “Funny Honey” and the mimicked “They Both Reached for the Gun” encompass a lot of humor in the music. Billy’s “Razzle Dazzle” incorporates a feeling of being at the circus, and this provides strong evidence of the “pastiche” that occurs throughout the musical.

         In conclusion, there was a lot that went into making this musical, be it lyrically, musically, or dance-wise. Chicago’s brilliance lies in its respect to the past, but also its contemporary atmosphere. The realistic characters, the hum-able tunes, and the flashy set remain critical to the heart of the show. The musical has a timeless feeling, and has stayed strong throughout the decades. However, in 1975, this music was completely innovative and never really done before. It was all and all a hit, and with good reason.


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