All that Fosse
Chicago had bad luck for 20 years after it opened on Broadway in 1975. First, the John Kander-Fred Ebb musical was overshadowed by the colossal success of A Chorus Line; audiences found Chicago’s acid satire less comfortable than A Chorus Line’s snazzy sentimentality. But the lowest blow came in 1979, in Chicago director Bob Fosse’s distasteful, semi-autobiographical film All That Jazz. Joe Gideon, the character based on Fosse himself, turns a worthless show into a hit by sheer directorial sleight-of-hand. This did happen with another show, Pippin, an airy nothing that Fosse’s showmanship whipped into a five-year run. But because All That Jazz took its title from one of Chicago’s songs, everybody just drew the natural conclusion.
Possibly because of that gratuitous bad-mouthing, Fosse wasn’t able to get backing for a film of Chicago (he died in 1987). The show languished, half-forgotten, until a 1996 Broadway revival (still running today) secured Chicago’s rightful reputation as one of the best American musicals of the last 40 years, with Kander and Ebb’s best score (and that’s saying something, for the men who wrote Cabaret).
That 1996 hit revived talk of a film, and it’s finally here, directed and choreographed by Rob Marshall and written for the screen by Bill Condon. Renée Zellweger plays Roxie Hart, the stage-struck, jazz-baby housewife who murders her lover as he tries to walk out. Catherine Zeta-Jones is vaudevillian Velma Kelly, who earned her own killer reputation after catching her husband and sister in the sack. And Richard Gere is Billy Flynn, the flamboyant criminal lawyer who specializes in defending homicidal females. The film cuts a handful of songs (only one, “I Am My Own Best Friend,” is really missed), but it captures the spirit of the show. The bitter burlesque of celebrity worship, criminal chic and media frenzy is intact (though less outlandish than it once seemed), and Marshall and Condon have found a way to revel in the musical numbers without worrying about whether they’re realistic.
Fosse is still the phantom at the feast, of course, and no wonder. He did co-write the book with Ebb (adapted from Maurine Dallas Watkins’ 1927 play) and also gave the show its style (summed up in its subtitle, A Musical Vaudeville). In re-imagining the show for the screen, Marshall and Condon have not jettisoned the sultry, angular eroticism of Fosse’s dance style. It’s so much a part of the show and the music that they couldn’t have removed it if they’d wanted to, and they would have been foolish to try. On one level, Chicago is a tribute to Fosse’s genius, without his prodigious ego.
The cleverest touch in Condon’s script (which is otherwise quite faithful to Fosse and Ebb’s book) is in turning the musical numbers into fantasies in Roxie’s own showbiz-besotted imagination. By doing this, Condon and Marshall kill two birds. On the one hand, they can embrace and justify the stage-bound razzle-dazzle of the numbers. On the other, they offer a canny rationale to audiences leery of musicals. (Moviegoers today, it seems, don’t bat an eye when an action hero outruns machine-gun bullets or survives a 70 mph motorcycle crash, but seeing a character dance and sing somehow offends their sense of what’s possible.)
Marshall makes only a small misstep—in his penchant for fragmented editing. Marshall reproduces Fosse’s choreographic style but not Fosse’s fluid camera work; he seems unwilling to let a performer hold the screen for more than a few seconds at a time. It’s an MTV-style trick for directors whose performers can’t really handle their jobs, but it does a disservice to the cast of Chicago (which includes Queen Latifah, bold and sassy as a jailhouse matron; and John C. Reilly, as Roxie’s hapless lump of a husband).
The pleasantly surprising truth is that they’re all (yes, even Richard Gere) natural musical performers, and Marshall would do us all a favor if he’d just stand still a minute and let us enjoy them a little more. But I quibble. When a musical is as good as Chicago is, I count my blessings. We can’t take great movie musicals—or even good ones—for granted anymore.