The 1996 revival of Chicago, still going strong at the Ambassador Theatre, recently became the second longest-running Broadway show in history (only The Phantom of the Opera has run longer). It's poetic justice for the somewhat under-appreciated original production of this Kander and Ebb great, which has also gone on to later triumph via an acclaimed movie adaptation. One of the treats of a long run for theatre fans has been a seemingly endless cycle to star replacements intended to attract new audiences as the production rounds out year after year on the Main Stem.
Click through to read my selections for the Top 10 Cast Replacements in the Revival of Chicago.
10. Melanie Griffith
For decades, Chicago producers Barry and Fran Weissler have been known for their inventive casting choices, thinking outside the box to bring more ticket-buyers into the theatre. (Do yourself a favor and listen to Forbidden Broadway's brilliant parody of the Weisslers' Grease casting.) A major casting coup in Chicago was securing film star Melanie Griffith for the role of Roxie in 2003. Big questions loomed: Could she dance? Could she sing? Could she hold the stage? According to the New York Times, the answers were no, not really and hell yes. People flocked to the box office and the mammoth hit snowballed on.
Although the role of Matron "Mama" Morton was brought to the big screen by Queen Latifah, it was created on stage originally and in the revival of Chicago by the more traditional Broadway belters Mary McCarty and Marcia Lewis, respectively. A major exception to this in the replacement casts has been R&B diva Jennifer Holliday, who brought her inimitable style and limitless voice to the part. This was not your mother's Mama!
At the far opposite end of the spectrum from any kind stunt casting, mention must be made of Charlotte D'Amboise's multiple stints as Roxie in Chicago. D'Amboise is the star dancer of her generation and has recently received some of her long overdue acclaim for originating roles in the revivals of Pippin and A Chorus Line. Roxie fit her like a glove, and while she was merely one in a near-million Roxies to rock this Chicago, her multiple runs loom brightly for her stellar singing and dancing.
7. Wayne Brady
Wayne Brady is a rarity in today's pop culture, the mainstream television personality who can also sizzle as a song-and-dance man. This makes him something of a throwback, but luckily for the Chicago revival, Brady's fan base is decidedly in the here and now. His impressive Broadway debut in Chicago was a hot ticket and carried the implicit promise of theatrical turns to come in the future.
West End diva Ruthie Henshall's appearances on Broadway have been few and far between. New York has seen her in the Sondheim revue Putting It Together and as a replacement Ellen in Miss Saigon, as well as in the roles of both Roxie and Velma in Chicago. Her Roxie was a recreation of her triumph creating the role in London's incarnation of this revival, so memorably recorded on the London cast album (opposite Ute Lemper). Henshall's Roxie is a delightful departure from the traditional mold, bringing an almost pop opera vocal heft, particularly in "My Own Best Friend," but perhaps most amusingly in the "Roxie" monologue where she belts up the octave the line "I'm a star," which is normally just spoken word!
5. Chita Rivera
Over the years, a heap of laurels has been lavished upon two-time Tony-winner and Kennedy Center Honoree Chita Rivera and all are deserved. Few pleasures can equal the visceral thrill of seeing Rivera onstage, but to see her in a Kander and Ebb musical is even more special as she is clearly one of their dearest muses. Bob Fosse wisely chose her to create the role of Velma in Chicago and today's audiences can only dream of what she was like in that role, star Fosse dancer that she is. What we got to see instead was Rivera, decades later, taking a stab at the role of Roxie and, no surprise, it was a complete victory.
4. Ben Vereen
Another Fosse protégé who scored as a replacement star in the revival of Chicago is Ben Vereen. More than 30 years after he created the role of the Leading Player in Fosse's Pippin, Vereen stepped into the role of Billy Flynn in Chicago and proved the decades had done nothing to diminish his smooth style, velvety voice and mesmerizing moves.
3. Karen Ziemba
They don't make 'em like Karen Ziemba anymore, except that — lucky for us — they did make Karen Ziemba. A true triple threat, she is a star singer, dance and actress and would have been much more appreciated in another era when each of those things carried more currency than in today's crassly commercial casting world. Still, Ziemba's star shines through, and perhaps never more brightly than when she took over the role of Roxie. Has anyone been more sympathetic in the part than Ziemba's girl-next-door-somehow-turned-murderess? And, of course, she slayed the musical numbers. Karen Ziemba as Roxie is Broadway as it should be.
2. Ute Lemper
A true original, Ute Lemper has been doing her own blazingly original thing in concert halls and cabarets since she first came to prominence playing Grizabella in the original Vienna production of Cats. Renowned for her unique mastery of the work of Kurt Weill and other Weimar-era composers, Lemper was a natural choice for the Brechtian world of Chicago and was so distinctive that one of her production photos as Velma became the image of Chicago wherever it played internationally for years.
1. Sandy Duncan
Sandy Duncan's performance as Roxie in the revival of Chicago is something of a legend. Duncan is a major star with numerous major credits on both stage and screen. Since watching her fly memorably onto Broadway as Peter Pan in 1980, New York audiences have waited with baited breath for Duncan to create another musical role. A replacement Roxie sounded just as good, and then no sooner did word get out that Duncan was indeed breathtaking in the role, injury and complications prevented more than small number of audiences from experiencing her magic. And so fans whisper about Sandy Duncan in Chicago and we wait, crossing our fingers for the chance to see her again.
(Ben Rimalower is the author and original star of the critically acclaimed Patti Issues, currently on a worldwide tour. His new solo play, Bad with Money, performs through Feb. 27, 2015, at The Duplex in NYC. Read Playbill's coverage of the show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)