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The Musical Chicago

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May 30, 2017

Five little-known facts about the musical Chicago

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It’s a long while since the musical Chicago became classic. It takes its place in Broadway pantheon next to other hits such as The Cats. Tickets for the show that is still in repertoire on Broadway are sold out months before the show is due. Cell Block Tango song has been used for dance performances countless times, while the film based on the musical starring Richard Gere, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Renée Zellweger enjoyed an absolute success. It was like a blast. It won the Best Picture Oscar – it’s no laughing matter!

However, it’s not that simple! There is a closet full of skeletons behind each howling success. And that is exactly the thing we, the viewers, would really love to rummage through. So, let us have a close look at what has been going on behind the scenes of the musical Chicago.

Fact #1: CRIMINAL ROOTS

The story rose to the height of its fame owing to one humble (OK, not very humble) reporter called Maurine Dallas Watkins who used to write about crime for one of Chicago newspapers in the 1920s. She would go to the crime scenes nearly every day, talk to the police, victims of crime and suspects, attend trials, and draw cartoons of the jury. That was during the period of Prohibition, which Maurine used to call “the utmost hypocrisy since the times of Judas”. She insisted on it as she kept encountering undisguised corruption everywhere because, in fact, alcohol-selling business was thriving like never before. Speakeasies which are enjoying the second boom of popularity in Ukraine used to be extremely hip. Crime took more and more terrifying shapes and, day by day, got more and more inextricably interwoven with official law enforcement agencies.

Under the circumstances, a phenomenon of a “criminal celebrity” came into existence: a person who broke the law but got loved by the general public and turned into a show-business type “star”. This is the case of the ladies singing the Cell Block Tango song: each of them murdered her own husband but insisted on having sound reasons of “he had it coming”. These criminals cannot be acquitted under any criminal code but an ordinary viewer, as a human-being, is able to understand them, while women hurt and offended by men give them a standing ovation.

Maurine wrote the script for Chicago in 1926. Since then, the story has seen only minor corrections. There was its roaring return to Broadway stage in 1975 owing to Bob Fosse – the daddy of films and musicals. In 1996, producers gave in to pressure exerted by fans of the story, revised the script, and brought several songs Fosse hadn’t wanted to use back to the musical. The extended version of Chicago includes fifteen tracks in Act 1 and ten tracks in Act 2.

Fact #2: CASTING INTRIGUES

Another subject related to the musical is behind-the-scenes intrigues around the movie version of Chicago. For instance, do you know how many desperate phone calls and messages the film-makers got from Beyoncé and her managers? Because the singer was raving about the part of Mama Morton and was ready to agree to a much smaller payment only to be able to personify the image of this extremely vivid character onscreen. Remarks to the screenplay said: she must be a plump woman aged 35-65 (what a wide age range!), sharp-tongued, and charismatic. Thus, it is virtually a single case in the history of casting in the world film industry when a candidate for the part turned out to be too young and skinny, rather than the other way round. The part was given to the rap artist Queen Latifah who played it brilliantly, according to the film community. Mama Morton says the phrase which became proverbial: “When you're good to Mama, Mama's good to you”. Take Catherine Zeta-Jones – she didn’t have a clue about the plot of the film she was auditioned for: she just made it clear that she wants “the part where she had to sing All That Jazz”, the iconic song of any cabaret stage in the world. The actress sought as much glamour as possible. And she got it! It’s hard to believe it now but Renée Zellweger who played the part of Roxie Hart didn’t have any background in singing or dancing at the moment when she was cast. The only thing she could rely upon was a standard Stage Movement course taught at acting colleges. However, Zellweger was brave enough to take on this responsibility. She managed to create a vivid character and receive a Golden Globe award for that.

Fact #3: A CLUE OF COLOUR

Check whether you have an observant eye for detail: when ladies are dancing the Cell Block Tango, what colour is the handkerchief a Hungarian girl pulls out? You will most certainly say “red” as all the characters in this wing of the prison are convicted of murder. They have blood on their hands, both literally and metaphorically, with the handkerchiefs symbolizing this. However, the Hungarian girl didn’t kill anybody! She pulls out a white handkerchief, which is enough for an observant member of the audience to guess a thing others will find out a bit later.

Fact #4: DICTATE OF CENSORSHIP

Makers of every Chicago version had their own ideas about the boundaries of decency. That is why performance versions dating back to different years differ in terms of vocabulary. The line “Every guy is a snot. Every girl is a twat” from Class was censored. Scriptwriters desperately tried to win back their version but to no avail: the uncut version was first sung only in 1996 performance.

Fact #5: THE ISLAMIC TRACE

The musical Chicago had a good chance to trigger a large-scale international political scandal. Salman Rushdie, a British Indian writer, who had been a victim of an attempted murder for writing his book The Satanic Verses, had a proposal from “an anonymous art investor” to rewrite the script of the musical so that the events would take place in an Islamic country and parts of murderesses would be played by real Muslim women. The Cell Block Tango scene was supposed to show women taking off hijabs and performing the original version of the dance. We don’t know for sure how negotiations were conducted but it is known that Rushdie turned the tempting offer down. He must have decided that it wasn’t worth playing with fire – his life is worth much more than any musical, even the most sensational one.

If you want to feel the unmatched aura of the city of Chicago but for the time being you have no ticket to get there, welcome to the world of the musical! You are sure to spend an agreeable couple of hours!

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