Though stars Renée Zellweger, Richard Gere and Catherine Zeta-Jones are getting the lion's share of the publicity surrounding the successful movie version of the musical Chicago, theatre aficionados (many of whom have flocked to the Oscar-nominated film again and again) remember that the show wouldn't exist but for the efforts and artistry of the late Bob Fosse, who directed, choreographed and helped conceive the book, composer John Kander and lyricist-librettist Fred Ebb. The three were responsible for the 1972 film version of Kander and Ebb's Cabaret. One of the last successful movie musicals, it won several Oscars, though not the one for Best Picture. Three decades later, the composing duo may see a film born of their artistry finally seize that prize. Kander and Ebb talked to Playbill On-Line about the long journey that led to this improbable happy ending.
Playbill On-Line: This experience must be incredible for the two of you. About 30 years ago, you were in a similar situation with a film based on one of your musicals earning a lot of attention and plaudits and awards. Did you ever imagine it would happen again?
Fred Ebb: No.
John Kander: I always don't think it's going to happen—ever. [Laughs]
PBOL: I remember covering the progress of the movie "Chicago" over the years. At times, I wondered if it would ever be made.
JK: I don't think we paid all that much attention to that. We were involved a little bit with a script that Larry Gelbart wrote.
FE: I saw a couple of the scripts. With Larry Gelbert, I saw three of them. And then Wendy Wasserstein's script. That's about all.
JK: For me, the machinations of the movie business are so baroque, I stopped trying to figure it out long ago.
PBOL: Were you closely involved in making the film?
FE: No. We went to Toronto once and were treated very well and watched the filming of part of "Cell Block Tango."
JK: We got a few minutes with each of the principals.
FE: Each of them sang for us. It was fun. Robby [Marshall] is a friend. He and Bill Condon read us the script.
JK: They tried to keep us in the loop. They're both terrific and Robby is very much a part of our lives since his very first job in New York. He was in the chorus of Zorba. Then he was in The Rink. He choreographed Kiss of the Spider Woman. He had directed Chicago in California. Not only is he a close friend of the family, he also knew this material very well. He also did Cabaret on Broadway and his contribution to this version of Cabaret is enormous.
PBOL: Who was responsible for the musical part of the filming?
JK: Doug Besterman did the orchestrations. As far a laying things out, David Krane was involved. Oddly enough, more than I would have expected, the numbers are pretty much intact. There are the usual kind of extensions, but Rob stayed very close to the original intention of the songs. And Doug Besterman stuck as close as possible to the original orchestrations of Ralph Burns. There was a moment when they were supposed to go to England and rerecord a lot of orchestrations. They were going to make them bigger. My job was to convince them that if they made them bigger, they'd make the movie smaller. PBOL: When were you called upon to write the new song, "I Move On"?
FE: Right at the beginning, there was some feeling that after "Nowadays" in the libretto, the movie might sustain another moment. So we wrote "I Move On." Then in the course of filming, they thought nothing was really better than, or could or should follow "Nowadays." So "I Move On" was discarded.
PBOL: Though it is sung over the credits.
JK: Yes. We'd written several songs for various versions of the movies. We wrote some songs for Larry Gelbart's version.
FE: There was some notion too, that there should be an original song to qualify for an Academy Award. According to the Academy rules, it has to be a song written especially for the movie.
JK: It was the same for "Cabaret."
PBOL: So you wrote some other songs. Any chance they'll be used in other projects down the road?
JK: Very doubtful. They're very specific. There's one song where Roxie tries to get $5,000 out of Amos. It's called "Five Grand." There were a bunch of others.
FE: I can't remember them now.
PBOL: A few songs in the original score, "Class," "A Little Bit of Good" and "Me and My Baby," were left out of the film. Did you fight to have them kept in?
FE: "Class" was actually filmed. But the reason for that was that it slowed the movie down. The court room scene was going gangbusters, and then "Class" is a song where the two women [Velma Kelly and Mama Morton] are stationary at a table. To stop and sing it, it stopped the action.
JK: The audiences, when they previewed it, were sort of pulled back at that point.
FE: They wanted to find out what happened in the trial.
PBOL: I thought it was cut because the filmmakers couldn't find a way to fit the song into the central conceit that the musical numbers were all taking place in Roxie Hart's imagination.
FE: That was another reason. There were all sorts of things that mitigated against it.
JK: It will be on the DVD.
FE: And it is on the soundtrack.
JK: The two girls did it wonderfully.
PBOL: And "Me and My Baby" was never thought to be a part of the film.
FE: No. And "A Little Bit of Good" is gone.
PBOL: Because the stage affect of the reporter Mary Sunshine being a man in drag wouldn't have worked in a film context?
JK: I think we all agreed on that at the beginning.
FE: I never questioned any of those decisions. Rob just knew what to do. At no time did that seem arbitrary or incorrect to me.
JK: We've known him so long.
FE: We knew he loved [the show] and that he cared. Robby's like the host of a party. He wants everybody to be happy and particularly us. He would do nothing that would upset us and make us dissatisfied.
JK: There's not enough that we can say about him and his responsibility to this film. I really wish it was publicized more, because he's a real hero here. Every one of those principals individually said something to us about how wonderful it was to work with Rob. He made people brave. He made them brave because, in the first place, he had confidence in them and he wasn't going to come down with a club on their heads if something went wrong. He's terrific to work with.
PBOL: Has this film created interest in your other musicals as possible film projects?
JK: [Laughs] I'll let you know. Talk is talk.