Bobbie on Chicago: "Every Number a Showstopper

Bobbie on Chicago: "Every Number a Showstopper The revival of Chicago, the 1975 Bob Fosse-John Kander-Fred Ebb musical, in a new production starring Ann Reinking, Bebe Neuwirth, James Naughton and Joel Grey, was a smash hit last spring at City Center in the Encores! concert series of great American musicals. Now the show, directed by Walter Bobbie, has become the first Encores! presentation to move to Broadway, where it has set up shop at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.

Twenty-one years ago, Chicago was a major Broadway success‹it originally starred Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera, ran for two years and was nominated for 11 Tony Awards. But 1975 was also the year of A Chorus Line, which won all the prizes and left Chicago Tonyless.

The revival of Chicago, the 1975 Bob Fosse-John Kander-Fred Ebb musical, in a new production starring Ann Reinking, Bebe Neuwirth, James Naughton and Joel Grey, was a smash hit last spring at City Center in the Encores! concert series of great American musicals. Now the show, directed by Walter Bobbie, has become the first Encores! presentation to move to Broadway, where it has set up shop at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.

Twenty-one years ago, Chicago was a major Broadway success‹it originally starred Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera, ran for two years and was nominated for 11 Tony Awards. But 1975 was also the year of A Chorus Line, which won all the prizes and left Chicago Tonyless.

As many critics have noted, though, while the 1970's was the right decade for the sentimental Chorus Line, the cynical Chicago was perhaps just a bit ahead of its time‹and is just right for the mid-1990's. Based on a 1926 play of the same name by Maurine Dallas Watkins (which was turned into a 1942 movie called Roxie Hart that starred Ginger Rogers), the musical tells of an aging chorus girl who murders her lover, hires a clever lawyer, takes her case to the public, is freed and becomes a star‹a plot more than a little reminiscent of daily newspaper headlines in the age of O.J. Simpson.

Bobbie, who revived the musical for the Encores! series, and who is perhaps better known to Broadway theatregoers for his portrayal of Nicely Nicely Johnson in Jerry Zaks's 1992 revival of Guys and Dolls, says one reason he chose Chicago was that "with what has happened in recent years, especially the O.J. trial, it seemed very timely in a very new way.

"Its original cynicism seemed less cynical," he says, "more part of our recent social and judicial history, more real. It suddenly had a real poignancy. It no longer seemed like a piece of fiction, like a story from which we distance ourselves. In a way, the show is no longer a satire‹it's a documentary. The cynical edge in Chicago is that in this story crime not only pays, it leads to great success. And no one in the audience in 1996 can say, 'I hope that could never happen.' Because we've seen it happen."

Bobbie says that much more than the show's topicality appealed to him. "I always thought it was a fascinating story," he says. "It's endlessly witty and satiric and entertaining and sassy in the best show-business tradition of musical comedy. And I always thought the score"‹which includes such Kander and Ebb blockbusters as "Razzle Dazzle," "Mister Cellophane" and "All That Jazz"‹"was just smashing. It's one of the few scores where every number has a chance of stopping the show."

And then, of course, there's the original Bob Fosse choreography.

"It was so elegant," says Ann Reinking, Fosse's long-time companion, who choreographed the revival in the spirit of the late choreographer and director‹and who portrays Roxie Hart, as she did for the last eight months of the original run. "Even though some of it was derived from vaudeville and burlesque, and there's tap-dancing and hoofing, a sense of ballet has been incorporated, and there's a definite elegance to it."

Reinking, who has appeared in four Fosse shows‹the others are Pippin, Sweet Charity and Dancin'‹as well as the movie All That Jazz, says that she loved starring in the original Chicago but that she likes it "even more now. Because I'm closer to the right age. I'm 47, and the show was created for someone in their late forties, for a woman of a certain age, and I am now a woman of a certain age. So I'm more appropriate for the part now. It's for somebody who has a personal history, and when I was in the show 20 years ago, I didn't have a personal history."

For Joel Grey, two additional reasons for the show's success are its focus on the basics and its evocation of old-time vaudeville. "The last 20 years of the Broadway musical have been an era of trappings, of special effects, of helicopters onstage and chandeliers falling," says Grey, who won a Tony Award in 1967 as the master of ceremonies in another classic Kander and Ebb musical, Cabaret, and an Oscar in 1972 for the movie version, which was directed by Fosse. "Because of the necessities of the City Center concert version, Walter Bobbie had to stay away from trappings. And it turned out to be just right. Because the show is a collection of great vaudeville numbers, and what could be better than a vaudeville with no distractions?" James Naughton, who plays Roxie's big-time lawyer, a brash, manipulative and Machiavellian mouthpiece right out of today's Court TV, agrees. "The show is pared down to its basic elements, the music and the dancing," says Naughton, a Tony winner as Best Actor in a Musical for City of Angels in 1990. "And the music and dancing were so exciting‹and the audiences realized they had been missing that kind of excitement for a long time."

For Bobbie, who made his first Broadway appearance in the original cast of Grease in 1972, Chicago marks a Broadway directing debut. And he is eager for more: "Martin Short and I are talking about doing a revival of Little Me"‹a 1960's musical that starred Sid Caesar and had a book by Neil Simon‹"for the Roundabout Theater Company next winter. I'd like to go from a dark comedy to a light comedy."

But for now, the focus is on Chicago‹and the director and the performers are thrilled about their Broadway baby. "We had a great time together at City Center," Naughton says, "and now we're having a great time together on Broadway." And so, most definitely, are the audiences.

-- By Mervyn Rothstein