PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Rob Marshall

PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Rob Marshall It's been a natural segue from Broadway to television and — now, with "Chicago" — to film for director-choreographer Rob Marshall who grew up a fan of such movie musicals as "My Fair Lady," "Oliver!" and "The Sound of Music."
Rob Marshall with sister Kathleen Marshall.
Rob Marshall with sister Kathleen Marshall. (Photo by Aubrey Reuben)

A six-time Tony Award nominee for his work on Damn Yankees, Little Me, She Loves Me, Kiss of the Spider Woman and Cabaret, Marshall makes his feature film directorial debut this month with the eagerly-awaited movie of "Chicago," which hits the top markets Dec. 27 before rolling out across the country in January 2003.

At a Dec. 14 press event for the Miramax film version of the John Kander-Fred Ebb-Bob Fosse show — which casts Renée Zellweger in the role of Roxie Hart and Catherine Zeta-Jones as the other merry murderess, Velma Kelly — Marshall spoke about his concept for the "Chicago" film, his previous work on the TV movies, "Mrs. Santa Claus" and "Annie," as well as his longstanding relationship with "Chicago" composer Kander and lyricist Ebb. Excerpts from that discussion follow.

What was the challenge of putting [Chicago] on the screen?
Rob Marshall: Well, you know, it's funny, it's so specifically theatrical. I saw it originally in the mid-70's, Bob Fosse's production with Gwen [Verdon] and Chita [Rivera]. Then, it was titled actually, Chicago: A Musical Vaudeville, because the whole thing was created as a vaudeville onstage, as you probably know, which means that all the songs were presentational songs. All the songs were based on specific vaudeville routines, like the Sophie Tucker number or the Bert Williams number — "Mr. Cellophane" — or the ventriloquist number, so they were all specifically designed for the theatre. That's quite daunting when you're thinking about how you do it for film, because it's meant to stay in the theatre — like A Chorus Line was. I know people have been struggling — I think that's what took it so long. A traditional musical where people sing to each other, a book musical, is much easier to translate to film, and that's pretty much what most musicals we know are. But, this one was trickier because of that, because it was so created for the theatre.

I know that, obviously, over the past 25 years, people have been struggling with different versions, especially in the last 10 years since Miramax had the rights. And, I'd seen a lot of those scripts, and a lot of them had tried to shoehorn it into the idea of a traditional musical or had eliminated most of the score. The score was, like, gone — like three songs left — because none of them were really working, because they had not embraced the fact that this was a theatrical piece. When I went in to meet with — I went into meet on the movie Rent. I had done "Annie" for television, and then I had done Cabaret sort of simultaneously, and those two things led me to meet with movie people. Sam Mendes and I were all of a sudden talking to movie people, and we were like, "How did that happen?" So, I went into meet with Miramax about Rent, but I had secretly always been thinking, "What would I do with Chicago? How do you solve Chicago?" I went into Harvey's office. Actually, I went to Meryl Poster's office, and she dragged me into Harvey's office 'cause I started explaining my ideas, and she said, "Let's go into Harvey's office and explain what you just mentioned to me." And, then I sort of went through, from beginning to end, how I thought this could work. And what I explained, basically, was that we needed to embrace the fact that these numbers took place on a stage, and that needed to stay intact. In other words, they only work on the stage, on a vaudeville stage. That's how those numbers are created. You know, it seemed so simple, but it was so odd for people to discuss theatre with film, just too weird. But what I said, simultaneously, you could have a real story, the real Chicago. So you could live in these two different planes and still tell one narrative. And, it was such a new way of thinking, but I knew it was the only way this movie could be done.

Then, the question was, "So you live in those two different worlds. How does that work? Is it just the way you tell the story? Is it just a Fellini-esque way of telling the story, you just tell it that way, jump to vaudeville numbers, or is there a way that we can get into it?" And one of the thoughts that I had come up with — and this hadn't been solidified, really, until Bill Condon and I started finding it together — one of the thoughts was that it could happen through Roxie's mind . . . because she was the dreamer. The dynamic of Roxie and Velma is somewhat unclear in the play because they're both killers, but the dynamic was very clear to me. One starts on top, one is the wannabe. So, what was great was that we could figure out a way — it made sense that she was the dreamer—in her mind. It was all that that sort of came together. And they said, "Well, this is your movie." [Laughs.] When you first thought about going into film, spending your whole life in theatre, how daunting was that? How did you see the challenge?
RM: I never intended to work on film. That was never something that I thought, "That's what I'll be doing." I've been thinking about it recently. When I've done work for the stage — for instance, when I'm choreographing a number, I always imagine what it would be on film first. That's sort of always been my process. It's a funny thing. I'll be choreographing a big baseball number for Damn Yankees, and I'll think, "Well, on a movie I would do this, this, this, this and this." So, on stage, then, because of the constraints of the proscenium, I'll do this. So, when I started choreographing for television — the first thing I choreographed was an original Jerry Herman musical for Angela Lansbury, "Mrs. Santa Claus." That was such a thrill because I realized, "Oh my gosh, there's no proscenium!" Also, transitions. Theatre's all about transitions—how you move from one thing to the next seamlessly. And, in movies you can cut! [Laughs.] It was like, "Oh, my God, I can just cut to that." And then in the editing room — that was really my college about film. In the editing room, I found the things you could do and change and work on. It was really like a kid in the candy store, especially for a choreographer, who loves movement and loves movement of camera. If you want to show somebody just an eye or just a shoulder or focus on. In theatre it's very hard to find the — to focus. You light it, and you hope everyone is looking at what you want them to look at, but they could be looking over there. So, you can focus the camera. I just found myself so at home. It was such a funny thing. I didn't expect that. I did ["Mrs. Santa Claus"] and learned an enormous amount.

Then I choreographed "Cinderella" for television, the one with Whitney Houston and Brandy and Whoopi . . . So I continued to learn from that. In some ways that was even a bigger scale, the musical itself. Then, they asked me to do "Annie." And that was really daunting because I'd never directed for film, but I felt like I was ready . . . I remember my first day on the set. It was Universal, so you drive through the gates, and you're going to the huge sound stage. And the Jurassic Park ride is right there, and they're playing that big "dah dah dah" music, and I was going, "Oh my God, I have to go in there and be a director." And I thought, "I have to say, 'Action.' I have to say, 'Action and Cut.'" It was so cliche. It's weird to say it. Now, of course, I say that I don't even know I'm saying it. I was really nervous that first day on "Annie." But the second day I wasn't nervous. I felt really at home. I guess it's because as a choreographer — starting as a choreographer, there's something about doing things in small pieces and perfecting them, like a mosaic and then putting them together. It really makes me so comfortable, and I just love the medium. I know a lot of people don't. I know people find it tedious, people find it very long. This whole process of "Chicago" has taken over two-and-a-half years. It takes a long time, but I really found myself very at home. Who knows why?

Why do you think you saw things in terms of film when you were choreographing for the stage?
RM: I guess, I realized — sometimes you don't step back from your life and think about why — I do realize that I grew up on the movie musicals. It's funny, when I was a teenager, "That's Entertainment" came out, and I'd been watching all the old musicals anyway. And there were musicals still at my time. "Mary Poppins" was the first movie I ever saw. And "My Fair Lady" and "Oliver!" and "Sound of Music" — all of those were big events in my life. But, the older musicals, the Fred Astaire-Gene Kelly musicals would come on television — you know, there was no video then. And "That's Entertainment" — that movie opened me up to so many other musicals that I didn't know. I'd never heard of "Meet Me in St. Louis" until I saw Judy Garland sing a little piece of it in "That's Entertainment." I just sort of inhaled all of that, and maybe that's why. Movies are, in some ways, the most freeing, imagination wise, because you can do anything really. It's funny that in this movie all the numbers take place on stage. [Laughs.] But how you shoot them and the device of being able to go back and forth, that's something that you can only do in a movie. You can only cut back and forth like that so quickly in two different worlds in film. That was the joy of "Chicago" — finding the conceptual idea that really — it made us all nervous because it was very bold; it wasn't something we could just kind of hide behind. It was like, "Wow, that's a big concept." It's either gonna work or it's not gonna work. [Laughs.] But it was a very exciting time for me, putting this together.

How involved were Kander and Ebb in the project?
RM: They were unbelievably involved. First of all, Kander and Ebb are like my uncles. My first Broadway show as a dancer was Zorba with Anthony Quinn. My second Broadway show, where I was the dance captain, was The Rink. My first Broadway show as a choreographer was Kiss of the Spider Woman. My first sort of directorial direction, co-direction, was with Sam [Mendes] on Cabaret. And, my first feature film is, you know, "Chicago." [Laughs.] It's just too weird. I've known them over 20 years, and they're like family. So, of course, it was very important to involve them. And, I feel comfortable with collaboration because that's what I come from in theatre. So, Bill Condon and I put together an outline and we'd go to them. We would go to Miramax, Marty Richards, Kander and Ebb, and hear what they had to think and say.

[Kander and Ebb] were so unbelievably generous. They're so happy it's being done. They come from this great positive place. There were things — I remember Fred Ebb said. There's one line in the Roxie monologue that wasn't in [the screenplay], and he said it's something that he felt really, really strongly about. It's the line, "Now I'm gonna tell 'ya the truth, not that the truth really matters." He loved that, you know what I mean? Because it's what it's all about. It was wonderful to involve them all the way through. And, then, of course, they came up and worked with the cast in Toronto, which was the seal of approval for [the cast] . . . The little things that they said to them were all these wonderful . . . little insights about the pieces. They did it with such positive reinforcement, so gentle, they're just great. And then we did a screening for them early on, while we were still working on the editing . . . We took some liberties, obviously, to make it work for film. The most painful part, of course, is when you have to eliminate a piece of the score. It's, like, beyond painful because I love every moment of the score. But, you know, when you look at something like Cabaret, Bob [Fosse] had to actually eliminate two characters, two lead characters — Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider — and eliminate seven or eight songs from that film. Because you have to serve the film, otherwise this is not going to work. But they've been unbelievable.

What are you working on next?
RM: You know what, I haven't decided yet because I'm trying to give birth to this and then stop for a moment, fill up again. I think what I'll probably end up doing is, if I had to guess, I think I would probably do another movie [a non-musical film] right away only because it's still new to me in a way. Having learned so much with this, I'd like to do it again, and then go back to the theatre.

Whatever happened to Rent?
RM: It's interesting, we never actually spoke about Rent after, but Spike Lee was developing Rent, and Spike Lee ended up working on it, and that fell through. I'm not too sure why, but it's a tricky one to do.