With two major Broadway productions—the 1996 Tony-winning revival still running at the Ambassador theatre—and an Oscar-winning movie adaptation, Chicago has one of the most memorable scores in musical theatre history. The musical continues to resonate with audiences, as it holds the title of the longest-running American musical on Broadway—and the second-longest running musical ever, just behind The Phantom of the Opera.
The musical’s writing team, John Kander and Fred Ebb, looked to real-life vaudeville figures for musical framing, like the brassy, bold stylings of Sophie Tucker influencing “When You’re Good to Mama” and Bert Williams’ haunting “Nobody” inspiring “Mister Cellophane”. But even for babes of jazz, some of the 1920s references and phrases may get lost nowadays.
Check out our list of Chicago terms that will help take your understanding of the musical—and Ebb's lyrical gifts—to the next level. Want to listen along while you read? Check out the Original Broadway Cast album with Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera or the 1996 Revival Original Broadway Cast album with Ann Reinking and Bebe Neuwirth. The latter is also embedded below from Spotify.
“All That Jazz”
A whoopee spot: A place to have fun, with sex usually implied (in this case, Velma is singing about a nightclub).
Bunny hug: A dance popular in early 20th-century nightclubs that scandalized polite society due.
Father Dip: Most likely a nickname for Louis Armstrong, one of American’s founding jazz artists.
Skidoo: From the phrase “23 skidoo,” meaning to leave in a hurry.
Hotcha: A word popular in the era to indicate delight, one of many generic 1920s references that litter this song.
Lucky Lindy: Charles Lindburgh, the first pilot to successfully complete a solo transatlantic flight in 1927.
Sheba: A woman.
Cock and bull story: A lie, often ridiculous or implausible, someone tells to get out of trouble.
Chiseler: A con artist or swindler.
Floozy: Someone who has casual sex often and with multiple partners.
“When You’re Good to Mama”
Tit for tat: An equal injury given in return, or an in-kind retaliation
This hand washes that one too: A riff on “one hand washes the other,” meaning there will be mutual benefit from helping each other or exchanging favors
“Cell Block Tango”
Cook County Jail: One of Chicago, Illinois, oldest prisons. The penitentiary is still in operation to this day in the Windy City’s downtown.
Translation of Katalin Hunyak's verse: “What am I doing here? They say my famous lover held down my husband while I chopped off his head. But it's not true. I am innocent. I don't know why Uncle Sam says I did. I tried to explain to the police, but they didn’t understand."
The spread eagle: A sexual position in which the receiving partner extends their legs outward in a V-shape as wide as possible.
“All I Care About”
Cravats: A large necktie that generally covers the entire clavicle region from the neck to the V-shaped space between a shirt and vest.
Studs: Cufflinks, or removable metal pieces that are used to button dress shirts.
Spats: A protective covering that is worn over a pair of shoes to prevent mud, spilled drinks, etc. from damaging footwear.
Vanderbilt: An American family dynasty that rose to prominence during the Gilded Age by leading the shipping and railroad industry.
“A Little Bit of Good”
Rose-colored glasses: A phrase that indicate one sees things from an optimist's point of view.
“We Both Reached for the Gun”
The Convent of the Sacred Heart: A Catholic all-girls school in Chicago founded in 1876 (it closed in 1993)
Foxy: Very attractive
Vaudeville: A popular form of stage entertainment from the early 20th century that focuses on cabarets and comedy acts.
Lavalier: A type of necklace that generally ends with a central dangling pendant, consisting of a gem or stone. Also sometimes called a Y necklace.
Humdrum: Boring, dull.
Sophie Tucker: One of the earliest 20th century’s biggest stars, Tucker was a stage and film star and recording artist.
“I Can’t Do It Alone”
Cat’s Meow: Attractive, enticing
Ding Dong Daddies: Most likely a reference to the 1928 song “I’m A Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas,” written by Phil Baxter about a visit to Dumas, Texas. See the lyrics here.
Two-bit Johnnies: A cheap or insignificant man
“My Own Best Friend”
Three Musketeers: Three inseparable soldiers first introduced in an 1844 novel by Alexandre Dumas and popularized on film several times.
“I Know A Girl”
Smell a rat: Suspicious about a person or situation
“Me and My Baby”
Yuk: An expression of laughter in regards to a joke or gag
A powder keg: A dangerous situation
“When Velma Takes the Stand”
Give ‘em hell: A motivational expression to beat one’s opponent
Splendiferous: Strikingly magnificent
Vociferous: Clamorous and passionately vocal
Flim flam flummox: A deceptive trick that involves clever cheating and skillful manipulation
Double whammy: Two incidents that happen back to back
Methuselah: A biblical patriarch and a figure in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam
Bambooz-a-ler: A trickster; someone who deceives using flattery
Girder: A big iron or steel support beam used in construction
Snake in the grass: A deceitful person who first appears harmless
A deuce: A $2 bill
“Nowadays/Hot Honey Rag”
Killer-diller: Something truly exceptional.