Theatre people tend not to be 10 AM people. At that hour, journalists and critics can barely wrap their lips around a cup of coffee, let alone flap them excitedly over a new Broadway show. Actors and dancers have it even worse, forcing their bodies to stretch and cavort at breakfast-time when they're more used to giving their all 12 hours later.
Still, the buzz was high on Chicago, a revival of the John Kander/ Fred Ebb/ Bob Fosse Broadway musical that knocked `em dead at City Center's popular "Encores!" series last spring. That semi-production, which offered singing and movement -- even though the performers still had book in hand -- created enough excitement to warrant a Broadway revival, now on its way to the Richard Rodgers Theatre for a Nov. 14 opening.
The press was invited to preview a rehearsal, and Playbill On-Line was there.
Before making his opening remarks, producer Barry Weissler (fresh from his Grease Hall Of Fame induction duties the day before), raved to Playbill On-Line about Chicago having "one of the most charismatic casts ever on Broadway. The show really LANDS and gets the audience on all levels."
Asked about differences between this production and the original that opened June 3, 1975 at the same theatre, the sharp and intense-eyed Weissler said, "the script was trimmed, numbers moved a bit, and some numbers have been re-orchestrated a bit." I later spoke to lyricist and librettist Fred Ebb, who noted that no changes have been made since the "Encores!" staging, and that apart from some cuts in the book, he and composer John Kander haven't made any significant changes to the piece in its original form.
After a show-bizzy drumroll to bring the room to order, producer Weissler walked to the center of the room, the location of an as-yet-unused wooden staircase, to the side of which sat the show's drummer and pianist, who accompanied the rehearsal. Weissler quickly introduced the director, Walter Bobbie, who called the show "not a recreation, but a tribute, to Bob Fosse, a most gifted man of the theatre."
Weissler then pointed out choreographer/star Ann Reinking (playing Roxy Hart), who wore a black leotard with a white dickie around her neck. All the actors and dancers were made-up and surprisingly glamorous looking, causing Weissler to joke, "these people never look this good at this time of the morning!"
If good looks didn't do it, the first number certainly did: Chicago's signature tune, "All That Jazz." Co-star Bebe Neuwirth, as Velma Kelly, led the ensemble song, replete with the Fosse-inspired choreography of sinuous hip and arm movements. Dancer Michael Kubala, who also plays Sgt. Fogarty, later told me that of the three Fosse shows he's worked on (Dancin' and Pippin were the other two), Chicago's is the toughest because it requires the most subtlety. "The movement is very controlled," Kubala said, "everything has to be like you're underwater . . . You feel the resistance."
Actually, the first number, with its catchy tune and evocative lyrics ("in a noisy hall where there's a nightly brawl..."), proved irresistible. The rehearsal went straight into the second song, the celebrated "Mr. Cellophane." It's the only number in the show for the character of Amos, but it's a show-stopper, which is why this production offers Joel Grey in the role. In a blue dungaree jacket and dark, striped pants, the tanned Grey donned white gloves to represent the character's invisibility (the show also has intentional Vaudevillian aspects). His rendition, which included some dialogue with co-star James Naughton, was controlled and introspective, more hurt and confused than helpless and bitter.
After warm response to that somber number, high comedy ensued with the press conference rag, "We Both Reached For The Gun." Here, Naughton becomes Reinking's ventriloquist, putting a press-friendly spin on Reinking/Roxy's murder confession. A wicked and high energy number, Gun offered the unusual sight of the usual staid Naughton doing a funny/nerdy voice when speaking for Reinking.
The fourth and final presentation, delayed by a Reinking shoe-change, was a sexy, shimmying dance duet for Reinking and Neuwirth.
* Interviewed after the mini-performance, Ebb, sporting a casual, blue and grey striped polo shirt, told Playbill On-Line that he felt Chicago has even more relevance now, in an era when manipulation of the courts and the press has become common: "After the Menendez Brothers, Joey Buttafuoco . . . people are ready for the show now."
Echoing those words, Reinking said that Chicago mocks "America's tendency to make stars out of the strangest people."
Michael Berresse, fresh from Off-Broadway's The Cocoanuts and now playing Fred Casely, elaborated even further: "It's all about sensational murder trials and razzle-dazzle. Basically, Ann Reinking is playing O.J. Simpson."
Reinking essentially agreed with that assessment of Roxy. "First she swears, then she kills, but you still have to like her. It's quite a moral show, but it's funny, with a lot of Vaudeville trimmings."
On a more serious note, Reinking spoke about the influence of her mentor, Bob Fosse. "I'm a little sillier, but I work in the same way -- I tailor the choreography to the dancer. You can train the dancer in the basic vocabulary and then take it from there."
"The advice I got from [Fosse]," Reinking continued, "was to honor the craft. Honor the space that you're in. All the great ones say the same thing, honor the craft of what you're doing -- and have fun doing it."
* Though Grey is inextricably identified with Kander & Ebb because of his performance as the emcee in Cabaret (on Broadway, film, and again in Broadway revival), this is only his second K&E show -- and his first Broadway appearance in nine years.
"I've been doing plays on the road," Grey told Playbill On-Line, "Hartford Stage, places like that. And I'm very good friends with John and Fred. This was just too good, I couldn't turn it down... The stakes are high in every number; every number stops the show, and there are no duds in the score."
Asked about the difference between 1996 Chicago and 1975 Chicago, Grey said he thought of the piece as a character show, "you can concentrate on the people without a lot of distractions."
Both Bebe Neuwirth and James Naughton admitted that they were, indeed, distracted by the kind of fishbowl atmosphere of an open rehearsal for invited press. "It can be hard to concentrate when you have cameras going up your nose," Naughton said. "The show is wonderful, but we've only been rehearsing a week."
Neuwirth added, "it's certainly not the most ideal atmosphere to view the show, with the audience RIGHT THERE in front of your face while you're trying to play `out there'."
Naughton, who portrays Billy Flynn, said one of the good things about rehearsing the show is that so much is already in place from Walter Bobbie's staging at "Encores!". "The moves you saw me doing, those are basically the same as we did last spring. Obviously, there are refinements, and we now get off-book altogether, but we already have the basics."
Naughton's previous work with Kander & Ebb had been quite recent: He was in an early workshop of a new musical based on Thornton Wilder's play, The Skin Of Our Teeth. That workshop was directed by Jerry Zaks and co-starred Bernadette Peters. The show is still in development.
* In choosing Chicago as a Burns Mantle Yearbook "Best Play" for 1975-76, Otis L. Guernsey wrote, "The most popular new musical of the season was Chicago, a show in the Carousel tradition of transposing the characters and atmosphere of a strong play into the larger context of a full-scale Broadway musical. The play by Maurine Watkins had the same title, was described as a `satirical comedy,' played 172 performances, and was named a Best Play of 1926-27. Its tale of a 1920's love nest murderess in the midst of all the gangsters, molls and shysters of her era was as jazzier-than-life as the score, book, and lyrics by John Kander, Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse could make it, enhanced by Patricia Zipprodt's costumes and Tony Walton's sets. Since its heroine was, after all, a killer -- albeit an appealing one in the person of Gwen Verdon -- Chicago stretched our sympathies perilously close to the breaking point. It was a black musical whose production concept...was so stylishly colorful that the show merits a 1976 Best Plays designation for its new musical self, even with the borrowed finery of its original script. "
Walter Bobbie's words 20 years later prove deeply ironic: Chicago is a manifestation of what we've seen in America in the last two to three years. We've developed a cynical distance. Where we once said, `ahh, this could never happen,' we now see daily on television."
For tickets and information on Chicago, which begins previews Oct. 23, call (212) 307-4100.