"I've always loved musicals," admitted the actress who recalled seeing productions of Timbuktu! and The Wiz on The Great White Way. "Yeah, the bug bit me," continued Latifah, also crediting influences to "The Sound of Music, just watching television, all the stuff Bing Crosby would do, Danny Kaye and those guys. All that kinda stuff, it was fantasy for me. Growing up a kid in the projects, [musicals are] the escapism that you love. You get to go into this world. I don't care what you do or where you live, these were fun shows to watch."
Latifah joked about her hiring for "Chicago" at a recent press junket for the movie, which is directed and choreographed by Rob Marshall and written by Bill Condon. "I put a gun to the guy's head and said 'Give me the freakin' role. [Laughs.] No. That would have been more exciting, huh?" She then seriously revealed, "[Miramax producer] Harvey [Weinstein] and those guys wanted me for the role, but I went in and earned it with [director] Rob [Marshall]. I auditioned three times, three times to get it: Went in, sang Mama the first time, showed them 'I can sing this man, I can do it honest!' And then worked on the dialogue the second time and then the third time I went up to the set and worked with Catherine [Zeta-Jones] on a scene and they gave me a job that day."
With a background in rap, hip-hop and some jazz, Latifah expressed a respect for the show's tunes.
"To me, the songs like the stuff Kander and Ebb write, these Broadway tunes, are interesting; just clever writing, the way they put them together. I've been singing this 'Understandable' for days. There's like a passion, a drama in it, that you just don't get listening to regular songs these days. I love the way the words are put together. I love the way singers back then, use to try to make their voices sound like instruments. You don't get that stuff any more. So, for me to listen to it, and to actually get to sing it, it's fun. People just don't write these melodies just for a regular song, to be able to sing this kind of stuff is fun."
In the movie "Chicago," the musical numbers are an offshoot of showgirl wannabe Roxie Hart's imagination, who lives in the film's reality-based setting of 1920s Chicago. As such, Marshall perhaps took some color-blind liberties with casting. Latifah responded, "You know what, you gotta put some flavor in the movie, man. You gotta mix it up. To me, it would be boring if you don't throw a little color on that screen. Splash it with [singer] Mya, then throwing Taye [Diggs] in as the bandleader." The actress had already been at work on another film with the Rent original cast member. "It was funny because Rob was like 'What do you think about Taye?' and I was like 'Taye's good.' We were shooting 'Brown Sugar' at the same time. Taye's like 'Should I do this 'Chicago' thing?' I'm like 'Do it, man, do it.' I think he brings a great element to it. His voice is such a smooth, calming sort of voice."
Diggs wasn't the only person involved with "Chicago" who made Latifah feel at home in a new moviemusical experience. "They showed me a lot of love in this film, everybody: the whole cast, everybody at Miramax, Rob Marshall — who's the best in my book. They helped me out. There was one day a scene was just kinda feeling funny to me and Renée [Zellweger] kinda picked up on it. She's like 'Is it feeling like you're reading it, feeling too wordy?' I said 'Yeah.'
"So, we stopped and they cleared the set and we worked on it for maybe 15 minutes and it started to feel good, then we shot it." The humble artist explained, "Things like that for an up-and-coming kid like myself makes it a lot easier, when people don't really think 'Hey, I'm the big star here.' They think about 'Let's make a good movie and let's do what feels good.' And there was a lot of that going on. It's nice to be part of an ego-less movie; nobody's fighting with the director and he's not fighting with the star. Everybody really put their heads together and put their hearts into it and we had a lot of fun. We worked hard, but it was fun work."
While she did have fun, Latifah also admitted difficulties she had with lip-synching while filming her big number "When You're Good to Mama." "It was crazy, I had to get my lips synched and it drove me crazy. I'm not even going to lie. Understandably, because they wanted it to really look like you sang it, because we did sing it. But then you have to nail it with the performance as well. But the dancers — who are all these Broadway people, really professional dancers — they were there and they were like 'Good job.' So, getting them coaching me on just boosted me up. I felt like if I got their approval and this is what they do, then I'm doing alright."
Mama Morton's other big number "Class" — a duet with Velma [Catherine Zeta-Jones] — was cut from the film as it did not fit with the dual realities and pacing of the film. "I was a little disappointed but I wasn't hurt. It was 'Whatever's best for the film.' If they felt like this is slowing down the pace or this is losing something by taking this big moment, my thing was 'Whatever you guys think is best.' I really wasn't in a position to just go fighting and throwing a tantrum about it. I wanted it to be in there and I love the song. Catherine [and I] really had fun singing it. It was really a team effort, it wasn't about ego, it's about whatever helps make the movie a great movie."
Her highness was proud to note her excitement over the decision of making the number available to Chicago fans on the DVD version. "Then I'll get to enjoy it too... [Laughs] over and again."
The Miramax movie version of the John Kander-Fred Ebb-Bob Fosse musical — which debuted in select markets Dec. 27 and opens in more and more theaters this month.