In May 1996, the City Center Encores! series produced a stripped-down (and sexed-up) version of Bob Fosse, Fred Ebb and John Kander’s Chicago under the direction of Walter Bobbie with choreography in the style of Fosse by Ann Reinking (who also stared as Roxie Hart). When the show received raves, producers Barry and Fran Weissler ushered the concert version to Broadway, where it opened November 14, 1996.
The production recently celebrated the start of its 20th year of performances on Broadway, and members from the cast and creative team were on hand to recall some of their favorite memories from ’96.
Bebe Neuwirth (original Velma Kelly; Roxie Hart; Matron “Mama” Morton)
Favorite Memories: You know that I can’t answer that… I absolutely cannot do it because, honest to God, every night, every performance, I was grateful and overcome with joy to be there to perform.
On Coming Back (and in Different Roles!): Ten years ago, I had my first hip replacement, and I thought, “Oh look, I can dance again!” I wasn’t going to be able to dance with the athleticism that I needed for Velma, but I went to [producer] Barry [Weissler], and I asked him if he would consider letting me play Roxie, and so I did! In a sense, that meant a lot to me, personally in my life, because I went from thinking, “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to dance again [with this] excruciating pain,” to not only being able to dance again, but to be able to come back into my beloved show and play Roxie. And then, get this! I’m onstage playing Roxie saying, “I’ve always wanted to dance in vaudeville, and now I’ve got me a world full of yes.” That parallel…!
On Playing Matron “Mama” Morton: I did “Mama” like two years ago. I had the best time playing her. I loved it! I asked for spats. I wore Oxford shoes with spats on it because I wanted to reference the ‘20s. It was really nice. It was an unexpected thing that happened. I felt so much older than all the girls who are playing [Roxie and Velma] now. I felt maternal, I really did feel like I wanted to take care of these girls, and that found its way into the performance—if not in a way that the audience saw, then certainly in a way that I felt and helped me in the performance.
Favorite Backstage Moments: We did Secret Santa, and that was fun. We had a spanking machine on somebody’s birthday! We also pulled together a collection of money when somebody’s bicycle was stolen. We collected for Broadway Cares together. It was just… It’s an interesting question, and again, no answer to it. But, there’s no answer because it’s a whole life that happens [backstage]. It’s a whole community that happens backstage when you’re with each other for those two-and-a-half hours eight times a week, and you spend a full day together on two-show days and just go through so much together.
Biggest Challenge: Leaving. When I left, it was the right time to leave. I never thought I’d stay as long as I stayed, but I just kept loving it so much. I didn’t want to leave.
James Naughton (Billy Flynn)
Favorite Memories: Well, the fondest one is the first night we did it for an audience at City Center as part of the Encores! series. The audience just roared back at us after every single number. They roared. That’s a sound that when you hear that in the theatres, you go, “Whoa! They’re having a wonderful time.” And that was exciting. That was probably my favorite moment because we realized we had something special. I’ve never heard a sound like that before or since. But I’ll never forget that—that was a thrill.
On Getting Cast: I didn’t audition. [Director] Walter [Bobbie] called me up and said to me, “We’re doing an Encores! show in the spring that I think you’d like to do called Chicago.” And I didn’t know the show… He said, “What are you doing in May?” And I said, “Nothing at the moment.” He said, “Can you keep it open?” I said, “I’ll do my best.” And then another friend of mine said, “You know, that Chicago show is really good, and you’d be great in that part,” so I said, “That’s interesting. Walter just called me about this.” Anyway, it came to pass, and I had a wonderful time doing it. I had known him for a long time. I’d known Ann Reinking. We worked together in Williamstown in the ‘80s together, so it was a delight. Total delight.
On Making a Return: I don’t know if you knew about this, but last November when we passed Cats as the second [longest-]running show of all time, we staged a little event where on a Sunday night, during a regular performance, all of a sudden the show was going on, and during the show, I came up over the bandstand and said to the guy who was playing my part, “I’ll take it from here.” I finished the scene, and then we did the song “We Both Reached for the Gun” and the dance number with the company. This was planned. Later on Joel [Grey] came out and did a little bit of “Cellophane,” and at the end, Anne and Bebe came out and did “Nowadays.”
Joel Grey (Amos Hart)
Favorite Memories: Opening night at Encores! before anybody knew anything… Jimmy Naughton and I would stand in the back, and the opening number went on, and the audience cheered… And then they cheered…and cheered…and cheered! And the opening number stopped the show at Encores!, as did every single number that followed. It was pretty good.
Favorite Part of the Show: I liked it all! Of course, “Cellophane” is a great number!
John Kander (Music)
Favorite Memories: Actually… writing it was fun. It was a difficult show to rehearse, and the atmosphere was complicating, but writing it was kind of a complete joy. And I know it was Fred’s favorite show, always, because it has no ballads in it. [Laughs.]
Getting the Rights: This came to us from Bobby [Fosse] and Gwen [Verdon]. They had wanted to do this for a long time, and they had a great difficulty getting the rights because Maurine Watkins, who wrote the play, became a religious person and didn’t want the piece done anymore, but eventually…the family loosened up, and Gwen and Bobby got the rights for it and came to Freddy and me and asked us to do it, so it wasn’t [initially] our idea.
On Its Lasting Power: I didn’t even think the show would run [when it originally debuted]. We got okay reviews, but two months into the original production Gwen got sick. She had nodes on her vocal cords and had to have an operation. They were going to close, and Liza [Minnelli] said—literally—“Well, I’ll do it.” She learned the show in a week, and she played it for six weeks. Because of that, the show became a hit, so I was just telling Barry [Weissler] as I came in, “We wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for Liza.”
Walter Bobbie (Director)
Favorite Memories: I think on opening night—running down the street with Barry Weissler on our way to the party going, “We were on the front page of the Times. Not the front page of the drama section! We’re on the front page of the Times!” Oh my God… We were like two children running down the street, giggling and jumping and laughing. It was great.
Assembling the Cast: We wanted people who had worked with Fosse in his career. Not only were we celebrating his entire vision as an artist and his choreography, but the entire ensemble—pretty much everyone in the ensemble—had worked with him at some point. Bebe had done two shows with him; Ann certainly had worked with him; Joel had worked with him. We basically wanted people who were there to pay tribute to someone they had all worked with. He was in the building all the time. That’s how we cast it. We never had auditions. We just called people.
On Its Lasting Power: The issues of the manipulation of the courts and the press, getting away with murder, the abuse of “celebrity”… I think these things reignite our show every day. Our show is kept alive by the front page of the paper. I remember I was reading the script while the O.J. [Simpson] trial was going on and going, “Oh my God, I have to do this play now because it seemed really minted.” It seemed we had gone from a play that was a satire to one that had become a documentary—thematically rich. It seemed essential, and it seemed of the moment.