Their Kind of Town: Neuwirth, Naughton and Grey Recall the Rebirth of Chicago

Special Features   Their Kind of Town: Neuwirth, Naughton and Grey Recall the Rebirth of Chicago A triumph of ten years standing began on May 2, 1996.
Bebe Newirth as Velma in the original company of the revival of Chicago.
Bebe Newirth as Velma in the original company of the revival of Chicago. Photo by Max Vadukul

On that night—the first performance of the third offering of the third season of the then-new Encores! series of musicals in concert at City Center—New York audiences got a good look at the John Kander and Fred Ebb musical Chicago for the first time since the original production closed on Aug. 27, 1977. Perhaps the crowd knew how much they missed the Bob Fosse-directed show, which during its time had been perpetually overshadowed by the phenomenal success of A Chorus Line. But if there was any doubt, it evaporated with the opening number "All That Jazz."

"We thought it was good and fun and everything," remembered Joel Grey, who played hapless cuckolded mechanic Amos in the presentation, "but we didn't know the opening number would stop the show. And then the second number stopped the show, and then the third number stopped the show. And we looked at each other as if to say, 'It's going to be a long time, brother.'"

 

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Everyone involved in that four-night stand—which transferred to a Broadway run which marks its 10th anniversary on Nov. 14—recalled the stunning reception the musical received. The show was pared down by director Walter Bobbie to simple costumes, dramatic lighting, an on-stage orchestra, a black-and-white color palate and performances of pure, undiluted theatricality. The top flight cast featured Bob Fosse acolyte Ann Reinking as publicity-seeking merry murderess Roxie Hart, Bebe Neuwirth as her equally cold-blooded cell mate Velma Kelly, James Naughton as suave and slippery legal eagle Billy Flynn, Marcia Lewis as favor-trading prison matron "Mama" Morton, Grey as Roxie's duped hubby and D. Sabella as Pollyanna-ish newspaper columnist Mary Sunshine.

"Every single number the whole night long, the audience roared back at us," said Naughton, who won a Tony for his performance. "They literally roared. It's the most wonderful sound I've ever heard in the theatre. And what became apparent that night, and what I thought at the time, was this audience is starved for this kind of performing. All that we're doing is the most basic kind of in-your-face performing. There weren't any falling chandeliers or helicopters. It was just what actors, singers and dancers do best." "I knew I liked the show," laughed Neuwirth, who also won a Tony Award. "I remember our entrance, the girls and I, into the 'Cell Block Tango.' We come down on the side and stand there with chairs in our hands. Then Michael Berresse stands up and says, 'And now, the six merry murderesses of the Cook County Jail in their rendition of the 'Cell Block Tango.' The audience screamed and we didn't even do anything yet."

"We were just presenting the material," she added, "and the audience was so grateful to hear that Kander and Ebb music and see that brilliant Fosse concept of an evening of vaudeville which described the legal system."

Producers Barry and Fran Weissler noticed the ovations, too, and began to entertain a novel notion: could a spare concert presentation be transferred intact to Broadway? "It was during the Encores! run that we started to hear about it," remembered Neuwirth.

Naughton wasn't surprised. "I thought, 'Oh my God, somebody ought to take this to Broadway.'"

Naughton showed his complete faith in the show by not only signing on for the Broadway run, but investing in the production.

"I put my money where my mouth was. I've never invested in any other show. On the other hand, I've never had the advantage of seeing what the audience reaction was. I'm among the happiest people you know about how this show has lasted as long as it has."

Naughton had heard of the coming Encores! production early on. "Someone told me that there was a terrific show called Chicago coming up at Encores!, and it had a great part for me. I had never seen it. A few months later, Walter Bobbie called me at home and offered me the part of Billy Flynn. He told me they were doing it in May, and so I protected that time."

Neuwirth didn't wait for a call. "Oh good lord, no. I asked Walter Bobbie, 'Can I play Velma? Have you got someone for Velma?' I heard it was being done. I loved the show Chicago."

When plans to take the show to Broadway, Neuwirth had to make a choice. But, as she tells it, it wasn't an especially difficult one. "I actually had a very tense couple weeks there because I had done a pilot for a television series," told Neuwirth. "And while I was waiting to hear if it would be picked up or not, we did Chicago at City Center. The same weekend they were deciding if any of the networks were going to pick up the pilot, it was all getting solidified if Chicago was going to Broadway. As much as I thought the pilot was terrific, there was nothing that I would have wanted to do more than play Velma on Broadway in that production. I had to feign disappointment when the producer called me and said nobody picked up the pilot. 'Awww. That's really a shame.'"

Grey almost didn't do Chicago at all. "I fought it tooth and nail," he admitted. "I did not want to be in it. I was in Los Angeles, on one of my occasional sojourns out there to work in television, and I got a call from Walter Bobbie, who said he wanted me to play Amos. I said that's very flattering, but I'm wrong for the part. I saw its original production. The part was conceived for a big, dumb mechanic. I'm not big. I'm not dumb, or at least that's not what I'm good at on stage. And I'm far from a mechanic. I can't put together a simple puzzle."

Then a close friend called him and all but told him to take the role. "He said, 'You're crazy. You'd be great as Amos.' He insisted I do it." So Grey flew east, still wondering how he was going to make Amos work for him. "For me the truth of the character is everything. I talked with Anne and Walter, and we found a way for Amos not to be dumb, but just so blinded with love that he stays with Roxie forever. So that was my adjustment."

All three actors will take place in the celebratory anniversary performance, in which several performers will perform each role. Naughton will handle Billy Flynn's entrance, singing "All I Care About." Neuwirth wouldn't reveal which segment of Velma's role she would enact, but it's a cinch she will sing and dance the opening number "All That Jazz."

After that gala evening, the show's original principals will go back to their post-Chicago careers. But at least one is not through with the show just yet. On Dec. 31, Neuwirth will return to the production for a three-month stint not as Velma, but Roxie.

"It was my idea," she laughed. "I'm the one who keeps asking for work. A few things happened. I perform concerts. Half the program is Kurt Weill and half is Kander and Ebb. They work very well together. One of the things I do in concert is the Roxie monologue and I sing "Roxie." I was really fascinated by it and enjoying it so much. The other thing is it's been five years since I've been on Broadway last, and I was itching to get back. Also, five months ago I had a total hip replacement surgery. These were all things that were making me hungry to come back and do something."

And so, the hunger for Chicago continues, on both sides of the footlights.