Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Chicago Rules

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Chicago Rules I doubt that any contemporary musical has ever had the second life that Chicago is now experiencing. The last decade has seen any number of successful revivals that have gone on to tour the U.S. and be seen in foreign productions, but none compares in terms of universal acclaim, box-office success, and buzz. Ever since City Center's"Encores!" series presented it for five raise-the-roof performances in the spring of 1996, Chicago has become one of the hottest and most discussed titles in musical theatre.
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I doubt that any contemporary musical has ever had the second life that Chicago is now experiencing. The last decade has seen any number of successful revivals that have gone on to tour the U.S. and be seen in foreign productions, but none compares in terms of universal acclaim, box-office success, and buzz. Ever since City Center's"Encores!" series presented it for five raise-the-roof performances in the spring of 1996, Chicago has become one of the hottest and most discussed titles in musical theatre.

The Broadway production continues its sell-out pace in its second year. The West End version at the Adelphi Theatre won virtually unanimous raves and has become one of the few genuine musical sensations that city has seen of late; while Beauty and the Beast pulls in London's family audience, Chicago is the first musical in some time to get that town's sophisticated trade to turn out en masse. Two U.S. touring productions are mopping up, and new Roxies, Velmas, and Billys seem to be cropping up every month. As producers Barry and Fran Weissler were smart enough to realize that the "Encores!" production needed only minimal embellishment for Broadway, their Chicago is among the least costly-to-run blockbusters of the last 25 years, so those tours, as well as the Broadway and London versions, are minting money.

The revival has done wonders for various careers. Bebe Neuwirth was, of course, a multi-award-winning stage and television actress prior to Chicago, but this production has made her a musical theatre star in a way she never was previously (no doubt this is why she has stayed with it so long).

After having stopped the show in the 1992 Broadway Guys and Dolls (a perfect example of a revival whose wild success pales in comparison to that of the Chicago resuscitation), Walter Bobbie had made considerable strides as a director and as artistic director of "Encores!." But he now finds himself nominated for London's Best Director Olivier Award in the company of several of the world's most celebrated classical directors, and it's also safe to say that his bank account has been enhanced by Chicago.

Ann Reinking had been one of Broadway's most striking dancers (and an interesting actress-singer as well) for two decades, but her performing career has been erratic, her subsequent choreographic work (the TV movie of Bye, Bye Birdie, the disastrous Stefanie Powers revival of Applause) unpromising. But she was always a great exponent of the work of Bob Fosse, having started in Pippin and gone on to the original Chicago (replacing Gwen Verdon), Dancin', Sweet Charity (replacing Debbie Allen -- opposite Bebe Neuwirth -- in the Tony-winning 1986 Broadway revival), and All That Jazz (in which she played a variation on herself in a film more or less about the making of Chicago). Reinking was taught both Charity and Chicago by Fosse and Verdon, and was able to transmute their teachings into the scintillating choreography without which the Chicago revival would not exist. As the Bobbie-Reinking-Weisslers Chicago continues to spread itself around the world -- it's now officially scheduled for Melbourne (with Caroline O'Connor as Velma) and Vienna, with many other venues to follow -- the score is bound to acquire additional recordings. So it's ironic that when Chicago was seen at "Encores!," there was not a single recording of it available in stores. Arista's original Broadway cast LP had been reissued on CD in 1990 but had gone out of print (it naturally got a second CD release just prior to the Broadway opening of the revival). The forgotten first London production in 1979 (not staged by Fosse) ran a year and a half but went unrecorded. The only other recording of the show prior to the current revival was Polydor's LP of Australia's 1981 Sydney Theater Company production (also non-Fosse), but that too had become scarce.

The Australian recording has now been reissued on a Polydor CD, but before discussing it, a word about the other recordings. Ballad-free, and without a single genuinely serious character number ("Nowadays" comes closest), the John Kander-Fred Ebb score is one of the team's happiest creations, but it presents a problem on disc. As those who have seen either the original or the revival are aware, almost all of the songs of Chicago are choreographed to the hilt, and Kander and Ebb had in mind throughout their composition what Fosse (who co-authored the book) wanted to do with them in terms of staging. On disc, without the musical staging, the songs are terrific but not quite whole the way the songs are on, say, recordings of the revivals of Guys and Dolls or She Loves Me. In particular, Velma's two big solo spots don't really register as songs apart from their choreography. Then too, Chicago was conceived for and built around the modern musical theatre's two greatest female dancing clowns; not only are Verdon and Chita Rivera a difficult (I would say impossible) act to follow, but their work, and that of the ladies who have taken up their mantle in subsequent productions, cannot be fully captured on a sound-only recording.

The original Broadway cast album of Chicago is essential to any collection. While it makes many cuts in the score, one mustn't miss the opportunity to hear Verdon, Rivera, Jerry Orbach, Mary McCarty, Barney Martin, and Michael O'Haughey; they were all perfection, and, as one who saw them numerous times, I can attest that they were untouchable in their Chicago roles. RCA Victor's Grammy-nominated Broadway revival cast album is far more complete, restoring any number of bits and pieces, notably Velma's "I Know A Girl" (which should have been included on the first recording). But while it's a fine performance, Reinking and Neuwirth suffer even more than do Verdon and Rivera for not being seen; Reinking's singing is more problematic than Verdon's, and Neuwirth, scintillating in the theatre, lacks a distinctive vocal personality like Rivera's.

The first Australian Roxie was Nancye Hayes, who was also that country's Sweet Charity and is soon to open in Sydney as Parthy in the Harold Prince- Livent Show Boat. Her Velma was Geraldine Turner, one of the country's best singer-actresses, a Sondheim specialist (her recital of that composer's work is on CD and worth investigating) not generally known as a dancer. The Billy Flynn was popular local actor Terence Donovan, who is the father of Jason Donovan, Australian soap idol and star of the West End revival of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. And Judi Connelli, who recently made a splash in the New York cabaret world with her intense, near-operatic song stylings, played Mama Morton. Those familiar with both the original and revival Broadway recordings will note that the Australian disc for the most part follows the trimmed down version of the score heard on the first recording. But this is an excellent performance, spirited and very well sung.

One can't help suspecting that one of the best Chicago recordings will be that of the current London cast. Never before has a production of the show starred two ladies -- Ruthie Henshall and Ute Lemper -- who are not only top- notch stage performers but also major vocalists. Henshall, in addition to her numerous theatre recordings, has two solo discs, while Lemper has a slew of them, in German, English, and French. Henshall has the most voice of any Roxie to date, and Lemper's madcap yet glamorous-as-Garbo star turn, loaded with Brechtian "verfremdungseffekt," is really something. So even with the two Broadway and first Australian discs (not to mention Varese Sarabande's "Chicago"---And All That Jazz band rendition), the London cast recording, due in April, should be special.

-- By Ken Mandelbaum