Ragtime may have declared Stanford White’s murder to be the “Crime of the Century,” but a different case has proven to be the real true-crime sensation. John Kander and Fred Ebb’s Chicago, the longest currently running musical on Broadway, derives its characters from Maurine Dallas Watkins’s play of the same name, based on the real 1924 trial of Beulah May Annan, who was accused of shooting her lover. 100 years on, the tawdry tale of crime and corruption continues to fascinate audiences, long after Annan’s death has faded from public memory.
At the center of the story is Billy Flynn, the smooth-talking sleight-of-hand lawyer based on Annan’s attorney, William Scott Stewart. As cunning as he is charming, Flynn’s slick demeanor and performer's spirit is now embodied by Tony nominee Max von Essen, joining the company just in time for the centenary of the Annan murder case. A devotee of the American musical, von Essen finds himself in awe of Chicago’s unerringly relevant brilliance nearly 50 years after it first hit Broadway.
“We’re not doing old timey accents, everyone's in black, the stage is very simply designed. We know it's about these two women in the 1920s, but Chicago is sort of timeless,” says von Essen. “You could relate it to so many stories in the news now, but it’s really 100 years old.”
Chicago has played a pivotal role in von Essen’s career: When the revival went out on the road in the late 1990s, von Essen played Mary Sunshine, the countertenor sob sister Billy Flynn charms to garner public support for Roxie Hart. Says Essen: “One of my first gigs ever was that first national tour. It’s a great featured role, and the show has kind of lived in me ever since.”
Kander and Ebb may have composed Chicago in the 1970s, but for von Essen, it surpasses the confines of its era. “It's one of the greatest musicals to ever exist. Some shows, you go, ‘Oh, yeah, that was written after 2000’ or, ‘Oh, that was from the ’80s’…Chicago, if someone walked in and wasn't aware, I don't know that they would know when it was written, because the style is timeless.”
The “show within a show” vaudeville premise is Flynn’s bread and butter. A performer as much as he is a legal advisor, all three of Flynns songs exist in the hazy world of fifth-wall performance, where a character turns to the audience to act within the larger performance of the show itself. From the moment Flynn enters with a cloud of feathered showgirls, he’s putting on a show, something that feels awfully familiar to von Essen.
"Billy is the magician, he's the puppeteer. And there's so many things he does that trigger these simple movements that are dance, but they feel nothing like a dance step because it's just Billy manipulating everyone," von Essen smiles, easily and instantly presenting the polished facade of a star from vaudeville’s golden age.
Even Flynn’s dialogue feeds into his puppet master persona, says von Essen. “He is always performing. In the courtroom, there are a couple of lines that are so difficult to get on my tongue, and I realized that that's the point. They're supposed to be difficult lines because Billy already wrote them. It's a unique thing as an actor because Billy had already chosen his words. He isn’t speaking naturally, he's already rehearsed.”
As von Essen returns to the stage, he’s been thinking long and hard about the real-life realities that have fed into Chicago’s landmark success. “It’s our obsession with true crime paired with our obsession with reality stars. This musical first premiered in 1975, and these women are based on women from 1924, long before television, but they were the reality stars in the papers of their day. And they had their sob sisters like Mary Sunshine, who always found the more human side of them, pushing to give them another chance.” Von Essen rolls his shoulders back, squaring himself before continuing on. “We still do that now, when a reality star or a celebrity will make a major mistake, and then they go on an apology tour trying to do damage control… It's the same as it was 100 years ago. We're still humans, dealing with that fascination with celebrity and redemption.”
As von Essen contemplates his full circle return to Chicago, he can’t help but smile. “When I was Mary Sunshine on the road, I would try to get into all my makeup really quickly, so I could stand around the wings and do all of ‘All That Jazz’ with the cast. The energy is just infectious. It's a truly unique and wonderful place to be working, and I’m so happy to finally be back.”