As a show, Chicago is a city of two tales: Its first run on Broadway (June 3, 1975–Aug. 27, 1977) lasted a respectable 936 performances, which was a tad too respectable for a musical about murderers becoming media stars in The Windy City's Roaring Twenties. (Back then, that notion qualified, quaintly, as comedy.) In 1996, when Chicago tippy-toed (if one can do that in stiletto heels) back to Broadway via City Center's Encores! series, it was modestly budgeted, yet it's still going strong at the Ambassador Theatre, marking a full decade on Nov. 14 with performance no. 4,164 — The Eighth Longest-Running Wonder of the Broadway World!
What separates these productions is An Idea Whose Time Had Come, and it was spotted by Walter Bobbie when he was the artistic director of Encores!.
Newton had his apple; Bobbie had his television remote, which he wielded with one hand while, with the other, he leafed through scripts for his next Encores! season. Suddenly, he found himself weighing, like scales of justice, Chicago with the TV coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial. Eureka! "I went, 'Oh, my God, this script seems like it's being written now,'" recalls Bobbie. "This used to be a satire. Now, it has become a documentary. Social history had caught up with the show's point of view. Celebrity trials, the use or abuse of celebrity, the manipulation of the court systems — all of this was, suddenly, quite vivid in the public consciousness."
Producer Barry Weissler, who with his wife Fran bankrolled Chicago's big jump from a five-performance Encores! showcasing at City Center to a 10-year run on Broadway, remembers the '75 original — as something he didn't want to repeat. "It was more on the cartoon level of social commentary," he recalls. "It didn’t have the hard edge or the crispness and darkness we found in 1996. Of course, it had Bob Fosse's signature dancing and structure. And that great John Kander– Fred Ebb score. But I just remember the way they threw it more to comedy than what we achieved with our cynical, tongue-in-cheek, sexy, dangerous attitude. I wanted to do this show before Encores!, but the style eluded me. Then this situation arose serendipitously with Encores!. I saw they captured the right style — this deconstructed, minimalist style — and the right cast. It was a Christmas present."
Ann Reinking was the last Roxie Hart in the original production and the first in the revival — talk about a simple Hart-to-Hart transplant! — and she came with all the right Fosse moves, taught to her by the master himself and by the role's originator, Gwen Verdon. This qualified her as choreographer, and Bobbie took over the directing duties.
"Having worked with Bob for 15 years, there was an osmosis that happened, and I’m grateful for it," she says. "He left a great legacy of loyalty in people who admire his work, understood it and could pass it on, so it shows through and he is properly honored by it."
Starting small at Encores! was a blessing, she believes. "Because of the bare bones of the show, the work shone through. We were lucky we had little money when we did it there. That encouraged it to be as minimal as it was. And we were also lucky everybody who was right for the roles was available — Bebe Neuwirth, James Naughton, Joel Grey and Marcia Lewis." They and Reinking pass in review Nov. 14, along with scads of others who have played Roxie, Velma, Billy Flynn, Amos and Mama Morton over the decade.
The reason so many ex- Chicago stars signed up for this return strut is simple, in Bobbie's view: "People lend their individuality to the show. If Huey Lewis or Marilu Henner come in, we try to find the lawyer or the killer in them. You don't try to replicate Ann's or Jim's performances. You go back to the soul of what the character means inside of you. As a result, there's great ownership of the show."
Weissler, a veritable Energizer bunny at keeping revivals bouncing along on brand-name players, always has his options and star-turnstiles wide open, and sometimes his eccentric casting rises to inspired (i.e., Reba McEntire in Annie Get Your Gun, Brooke Shields in Wonderful Town). "New stars keep the show fresh," he says, "and keep us in the papers."
The sweetest thing about Chicago's spectacular second coming is that, unlike "Cell Block Tango," the creators didn't know they had it coming. Thirty years ago, the "Razzle Dazzle" concentrate of the original was no match for the glitz and kicks of A Chorus Line. Out of its 11 Tony nominations, Chicago was left incredibly winded and winless.
"I don’t think John and Fred realized how good it was until this revival," says Reinking. "That happens. You get so immersed that you're not really sure. Even the greats suffer insecurity and questioning. It's wonderful this came back and got the credit it was due."
Bobbie recalls his first huddle with Kander and Ebb in Ebb's apartment. "Fred just wanted to know who the cast was, and he sorta let us do what we wanted to do. All he did was show up on opening night at Encores!, and he was stunned by what had happened. He couldn't believe how it rolled out afterwards, that it was muscular enough to knock the property off the shelf and finally get made into a film. It was thrilling and moving for him to see a great piece of writing get the focus and importance and praise it deserved."
Neuwirth, who inherited Chita Rivera's role of Velma Kelly, thinks Fosse and Ebb scripted the show with subtle sleight-of-hand: "It's not about gimmicks — but, ironically enough, it's a show about how gimmicks win. 'Razzle dazzle 'em, and they'll make you a star.' Yet it's a show that is completely devoid of any gimmicks. I think that's brilliant."