STAGE TO SCREEN: Condon on ‘Chicago’ and the ‘Shadows of Motown’

STAGE TO SCREEN: Condon on ‘Chicago’ and the ‘Shadows of Motown’ Can it be? Is Chicago really about to see the inside of a movie theatre? Have screenwriter Bill Condon and director Rob Marshall succeeded where Nicholas Hytner, Larry Gelbart, Wendy Wasserstein, Bob Fosse himself and countless others failed?

Can it be? Is Chicago really about to see the inside of a movie theatre? Have screenwriter Bill Condon and director Rob Marshall succeeded where Nicholas Hytner, Larry Gelbart, Wendy Wasserstein, Bob Fosse himself and countless others failed?

(Note: When I say “succeed,” I don’t necessarily mean artistically—my opinionated lips are sealed until the movie opens Dec. 27, although I will say I’m expecting a lot of very enthusiastic moviegoers. I mean “succeed” in the sense that people have tried for 27 years to bring to the big screen Fosse’s jaw-droppingly cynical look at homicidal chorines, slick lawyers and all that jazz. )

Condon, who won an Oscar in 1999 for his “Gods and Monsters” script, is just as surprised as everyone else. He’s read a lot of the previous attempts, and he maintains that this “Chicago” isn’t much different from several of the others. He believes “Chicago” finally got off the ground because his and Marshall’s conceit—the notion that all of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s songs are being performed in the mind of Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) as a series of musical fantasies—dodged many of the pitfalls inherent in bringing the 1975 show to the screen.

“A lot of past scripts tried to take something in the style of ‘Cabaret,’ where the songs are sung by performers on a stage, and put it into the ‘Oklahoma!’ generation, where characters burst into songs in the middle of scenes,” Condon says. “I think a lot of the point of ‘Chicago’ goes away when you do that. A lot of the bite goes away.”

Movie audiences used to seeing their lead characters presented in as sympathetic a light as possible may be a bit shocked by the venal, amoral world of Roxie, Velma and the gang. “The hardest thing about writing the script was Roxie,” Condon says. “And to anyone who knows Chicago, it would really be a betrayal to sentimentalize or soften her, the way so many protagonists are in Hollywood.” He hastens to add, though, that he never received any pressure from Miramax, the studio releasing “Chicago,” to do so. The only real shift in her character comes not by making her nicer but by making those around her nastier: The opening scene, in which she kills Fred Casely (Dominic West), has fleshed out Fred’s less-than-exemplary personality. In fact, the day Condon and I spoke, Condon was still tweaking one of Fred’s nastier lines in the hopes of gaining the coveted PG-13 rating instead of an R. As far as filmed versions of Broadway musicals go, “Chicago” is extremely faithful; for the most part, the songs are in the same order, sung by the same people and surrounded by much of the same dialogue. There are a few changes, though: Little Mary Sunshine’s character has been all but completely excised, a handful of songs have been cut, and the trial scene is quite a bit different, with a few tricky new plot twists. Condon points out that the songs-in-Roxie’s-mind context made the onstage trial scene all but impossible. “Once you have this conceit of reality vs. fantasy, you can’t just say, ‘Oh, it’s all sleight of hand’ and be absurdist about it all.” He says the main concern was “finding the balance between getting a resolution and not becoming a movie about a trial.” Instead, a new ending gets both jazz babies into the courtroom—and gives Richard Gere (as Billy Flynn) a chance to show off his dancing feet.

Condon was especially sorry to lose a doctor vaudeville sketch—“real low comedy”—that immediately followed Roxie’s announced pregnancy, complete with an actual rabbit and Roxie as a beleaguered nurse. “You do get brutal in terms of cutting,” he says, “both within scenes and overall.”

The only song that was filmed but didn’t make it past the final cut was “Class.” But it wasn’t from lack of interest, Condon says: “Marty Richards [co-producer of the original musical] loved it, [Miramax co-chairman] Harvey Weinstein loved it, and we kept trying to find ways to fit it in.” One approach had Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Mama Morton (Queen Latifah) watching Roxie do a filthy onstage bump-and-grind; in another attempt, Roxie sees Velma as she’s led back to her cell and internalizes how the two women must feel about her. (The latter was rejected as a bit too self-aware for Roxie.) Condon was especially sorry to see the song go because it retained a particularly racy Fred Ebb lyric that was cut back in 1975. However, he says, “Class” will be offered on the DVD.

Condon, who directed as well as wrote “Gods and Monsters” (and will also do double duty on the upcoming biopic “Kinsey,” starring Liam Neeson and Laura Linney), was happy to sign on solely as screenwriter for “Chicago.” “This was the exception, because how many opportunities do you get to work on such a good musical? Also, I couldn’t direct it. I wouldn’t know how. One of the reasons I agreed was to watch Rob and learn from him.

“‘Chicago’ was the most fun I ever had. The tone is always set from the top, so a lot of that has to come from Rob. And even though it was a hard movie, everyone had such a good time, probably because there was always music around.”

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If and when "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" gets to your town, be sure to seek it out. It’s an American "Buena Vista Social Club"—a look at a hugely talented group of musicians (in this case, the Motown sidemen collectively known as the Funk Brothers) who changed popular music before drifting into obscurity. In addition to the film’s many joyous interviews and great concert footage, theatre fans will see two familiar names in the credits: The narration was written by playwright Ntozake Shange (for colored girls...) and Walter Dallas, artistic director of Philadelphia’s acclaimed Freedom Theatre.

The idea for the film originated with Allan Slutsky, a Philadelphia musician who wrote a biography of one of the main Funk Brothers, bassist James Jamerson, and then began securing funding for a documentary on Jamerson’s fellow musicians. Slutsky had performed at the Freedom on a few occasions in the past, and he originally offered Dallas the first rights to a theatrical production based on his material. Once the piece got further along and Slutsky had conducted several interviews, he asked Dallas—who had never heard of the Funk Brothers before becoming involved with the project and who refers to Slutsky as "a saint for having done this"—to write the connective material.

It quickly became clear that the focus would be on the musicians. "Everybody knew that it wasn’t going to be about the narration, that the Funk Brothers should tell their own stories," Dallas says. "What I wrote was a bridge between those stories."

Dallas, who has several family connections in Detroit and "would have been raised there if things had gone another way," headed north with Slutsky and spent some time hanging out with the musicians to get a better feel for the period. While there, "I got a sense not just of the Funk Brothers but also of the rhythm and feel of the piece." All told, his involvement with "Standing in the Shadows" lasted about two months.

It wasn’t until fairly far into the process that Shange became involved, according to Dallas. "There was a section that I really felt I needed some collaboration with, and that was the 1960’s and civil rights section. Condensing that period into a few pithy sentences isn’t easy, and that’s when I called ’Zake," as he refers to the playwright. The two have had a long working relationship: Shange has been a resident artist at Freedom, which has developed several of her new works, and her daughter even studied in the theatre’s training program.

In fact, Dallas and Shange collaborated recently on a stage adaptation of the 1976 film musical "Sparkle," about three sisters looking to sing their way out of Harlem in the 1950’s. Freedom staged a popular production of the stage version in 2001, and Dallas is in the final stages of securing the stage rights from the film’s producers. His hope is to have a national tour of Sparkle up and running by mid-2003. That won’t be the only tour to pique his interest next year, though. "Hopefully, we’ll be bumping into the Funk Brothers in a few cities," he says. The Funk Brothers appear to be stepping out of Motown’s shadow: They’ve signed on with a booking agency and plan to start touring in the spring.

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One of my favorite tasks each year is to thank all the writers, directors, actors, producers and composers who gave of their time this year to talk to “Stage to Screen.” In alphabetical order, hearty thanks to Peter Ackerman, David Arquette, Mike Burstyn, Michael Cacoyannis, Bill Condon, Walter Dallas, Elliot Goldenthal, David Jones, Michael Kantor, Harvey Keitel, Edie Landau, Billy Morrisette, Tim Blake Nelson, Oliver Parker, Clare Peploe, Julian Schlossberg and Mira Sorvino.

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“The Guys” will get one of those one-week qualifying runs in New York and Los Angeles on Dec. 13. But the film (starring Sigourney Weaver–Anthony LaPaglia) adaptation of Anne Nelson’s play won’t open nationwide until Feb. 14, so I’m reserving comment until then. Also opening Dec. 13 is “The Jimmy Show,” an adaptation of Jonathan Marc Sherman’s Veins and Thumbtacks directed and adapted by Frank Whaley (Emily Watson’s ill-fated suitor in “Red Dragon”). Ethan Hawke costars with Whaley. “Chicago” junkies can find their Amos and their Mama Morton in other films, too: John C. Reilly has supporting roles in “Gangs of New York” (Dec. 20) and “The Hours” (Dec. 27), while Queen Latifah can be heard as one of the English-speaking characters in Roberto Benigni’s “Pinocchio” (Dec. 27). “Nicholas Nickleby” features such theatre notables as Nathan Lane, Christopher Plummer, Alan Cumming and Barry Humphries; it also opens Dec. 27, as does “The Pianist,” written by Ronald Harwood. And I saved the best for last! I have only sought out and fawned over two celebrities in the last few years. One of them is the sublime Dana Ivey, who will prepare for her just-announced spring performance in the Roundabout’s A Day in the Death of Joe Egg with a part in “Two Weeks Notice,” opening Dec. 20. Go get ’em, Dana.

Your Thoughts: Weigh in with your “Chicago” thoughts, everyone. What works? What doesn’t? What do you think about the changes? Any chances of it replicating the success of “Moulin Rouge” in terms of awards?

—Eric Grode is a 2002-2003 American Theatre Affiliated Writer, an assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage.