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‘Chicago’ Pops the Cork on 25 Years of Razzle Dazzle

When “Chicago” had its debut in 1975 no one expected it to become the longest-running American musical in Broadway history.

The reviews were mixed. Walter Kerr wrote that it was “altogether too heavy to let the slender, foolish story breathe.” And though the show had a two-year run, it was dwarfed in impact by “A Chorus Line.”

It “seemed too chilly, in those days, to be truly loved,” Ben Brantley wrote two decades later, reflecting on the show’s themes of “murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery.”

But then came the “Encores!” production, in 1996 at City Center, a streamlined reworking that bubbled “like vintage Champagne,” Brantley wrote.

The delirious reception to the concert staging was “like ice cubes down your back,” John Kander, the musical’s composer, recalled recently. “The original production was not exactly what you’d call a blockbuster.”

That four-night concert event propelled the show back to Broadway, where the revival opened 25 years ago, on Nov. 14, 1996, at the Richard Rodgers Theater. (The same theater in which the show debuted in 1975, though back then it was known as the 46th Street Theater.)

“This new incarnation,” Brantley wrote in his review, “makes an exhilarating case both for ‘Chicago’ as a musical for the ages and for the essential legacy of Fosse.”

Six Tony Awards, three Broadway houses, an Oscar-winning film adaptation and over 30 international reproductions later, this Jazz Age satire has become both a cultural touchstone and a New York City landmark. And the show has continually renewed itself through headline-grabbing cast replacements, which have included Broadway veterans (like Norm Lewis and Jennifer Holliday), singers (Patti LaBelle, Usher and Mel B), screen actors (Brooke Shields and Patrick Swayze) and even media and reality TV figures (Wendy Williams and NeNe Leakes).

Adapted from the journalist Maurine Dallas Watkins’s 1926 play, based on the sensationalist murder trials she covered, the vaudeville-style musical follows the ascent to fame of the down-on-her-luck chorine Roxie Hart after she murders her lover. She soon becomes a media spectacle, thanks to her sleazy lawyer, Billy Flynn; but her husband, Amos, and the vaudevillian, Velma Kelly — in the same jail as Roxie for double homicide — are none too pleased.

A stable of frequent collaborators made up the creative team: John Kander and Fred Ebb wrote the music and lyrics; Ebb and Bob Fosse wrote the book; and the choreography, of course, is Fosse’s.

Ann Reinking, Fosse’s protégée and romantic partner, played a vital role in keeping his legacy alive. Reinking, who died last year, adapted his work for the revival; she also filled in as Roxie in the original production (replacing Fosse’s wife, Gwen Verdon), and starred, again as Roxie, in the revival.

In advance of the anniversary, which will be celebrated Nov. 16 with a special performance, I spoke about the musical’s history and legacy with several important figures. Here are edited excerpts from our conversations.

JAMES NAUGHTON (played Billy Flynn, Roxie’s lawyer, in 1996 and 2004) That first opening night at Encores! left a tremendous impression on me. I was standing backstage and, at the end of the first number, “All That Jazz,” the audience exploded. It was the kind of sound you just don’t hear very often in the theater, or certainly not often enough.

JOHN KANDER (composer) I had never experienced anything like this. Fred [Ebb] and I didn’t know much about what Encores! was going to do, so we were totally unprepared.

JOEL GREY (played Amos Hart, Roxie’s simpleton husband, in 1996 and in London in 1998) I remember standing next to Jimmy Naughton backstage, and we looked at each other in pure amazement and joy.

WALTER BOBBIE (director) I thought the score deserved to be heard again because “Cabaret” had kind of eclipsed it. I was watching the O.J. Simpson trial at the time I started reading the script and thought it felt completely newly minted. It is astonishing to me that the show is almost 50 years old, yet it doesn’t feel that way. It still feels vital: it has theatrical muscle, the characters are vivid, and its issues are ongoing in our public discourse.

FRAN WEISSLER (Broadway producer) Barry [Weissler] and I were so blown away by the Encores! production that we ran home to call Kander and Ebb and ask for just a little piece of it. Fred Ebb finally told us we could have the whole show. He said, “To tell you the truth, no chandelier is dropping, there’s no French Revolution, or a helicopter onstage; nobody wants to do it.”

BEBE NEUWIRTH (Velma Kelly in 1996; Roxie Hart in 2006; and Matron “Mama” Morton in 2013) Pretty much every time you do anything onstage, there’s talk of it going to Broadway. When these talks happened, I was like, “Yeah right,” but then it really transferred, and just kept going and took on a life of its own.

NEUWIRTH The strength and longevity of this production would not have been possible without Annie. She had such respect for Bob, and was incredibly attuned to his very specific style.

WEISSLER There was nobody like her. She was not only stunning and amazingly talented, with the greatest legs I’ve seen in my life, but she was so kind and giving in her direction to the performers.

NAUGHTON I don’t think there are many pieces that are as focused on performers as “Chicago.” Given Walter and Annie’s decision to keep the brilliant, bare-bones Encores! staging when we went to Broadway, when you look at this show, it is pure performing.

BOBBIE I said this when I gave my speech at the reopening performance on Sep. 14: “Chicago” has turned into the legacy of Ann Reinking. She really carried the legacy of [Fosse’s] choreography through to this production, which sort of sharpened the aesthetic of his work.

BARRY WEISSLER (Broadway producer) The word “stunt” really comes from the unexpected. The onlooker doesn’t believe that a singer like Usher can play Billy Flynn, so they start calling it a stunt. It’s not a stunt: We don’t take anyone that can’t fulfill the stage work. And there have been people — even important people in the music world — who couldn’t cut it onstage, so didn’t make it into the show.

KANDER No matter how bizarre the casting might seem, it always seems to fit right into our original intentions. You could cast a Bulgarian tap dancer as Billy Flynn and, if intelligently cast, it will still be that character, but with whatever personality that performer brings.

LILLIAS WHITE (Matron “Mama” Morton, jail matron, in 2006 and 2021) The show is very clear; you see who’s who, and what’s what, from the very beginning. It’s lasted this long because its numbers, with great music and stunning dancing, come up very quickly, so if you like musical theater, you’re going to love this. It’s simple: when you’re good to Mama, Mama’s good to you.

CHITA RIVERA (Velma in the 1975 production, and Roxie on the U.S. tour in 1999) Liza Minnelli joined our original production’s cast because she realized it was a wonderful piece, and that it would be great for her. When Gwen [Verdon, the original “Roxie”] got sick, she expressed that she would like to take on the role, and people ate it up.

BRANDY NORWOOD (Roxie on Broadway in 2014 and 2017; Los Angeles in 2016; Washington, D.C., in 2017) I didn’t want to be the new R&B chick that comes in and messes everything up. It was the music that sustained me; these are the kind of solid, jazzy numbers I saw myself singing, and I knew I could put my own flavor into them without disrespecting their very Broadway style.

GREY When they called me about Encores!, I thought, “No, I can’t play Amos: that’s a big, seven-foot, overweight mechanic.” I didn’t see myself in that. But, after Annie [Reinking] called me, I realized the show just has these great solo spots that could be tailored for each actor.

PAULO SZOT (Billy Flynn in 2020 and 2021) I saw [“Chicago”] on Broadway years and years ago, and then, after seeing a production in Paris, knew I had to do it. People just love the script, and the choreography. I’ll be starring in a São Paulo production next year, and I know everyone there will relate to its message and humor.

BIANCA MARROQUÍN (Roxie in Mexico City in 2001 and on Broadway, on and off, from 2002-2018; Velma on Broadway in 2021) There was a similar case to the plot’s going on in Mexico when I played Roxie there 20 years ago: Gloria Trevi, a pop star who was in jail at the time, popped the big news that she was pregnant — it’s the same thing! When I’d say the line about how I was going to have a baby, people would lose it.

WEISSLER At one point, we wanted to have a Japanese presence in New York, and Japan wanted an American presence in their company. So we brought in Ryoko Yonekura and taught her Roxie, phonetically, and Amra-Faye Wright learned Japanese phonetically and played Velma in the Japanese company. You don’t get that with most Broadway shows.

BOBBIE I’m very pleased that we’ve never had issues with ethnicity, going back to our first national tour, which was headed by Obba Babatundé and Jasmine Guy. We have been really vigilant about this for 25 years, and it was not something that we went talking about, we just did it. [When the show reopened after the shutdown, four of its five leads were played by Latinx and Black actors.]

ANA VILLAFAÑE (Roxie in 2021) This show is still incredibly relevant, especially after the pandemic, when we’ve been living on our phones in a completely different way. Roxie has this famous line — “You want to know something? I’ve always wanted to have my name in the papers” — but now it’s not about your name in the paper, it’s about how many followers and likes you have online. I started reading the script on my phone and realized its themes of fast fame, and this obsession with who we are versus who we appear to be, immediately translated to what I am usually looking at on my phone.

NORWOOD You fall in love with these characters who are always doing what they want to do, even if it’s dark. Roxie never stopped dreaming, and it didn’t matter if she was just hanging around in bars, she was going to turn that whole world into her own vaudeville. That was her way of coping with the fact that she wasn’t everything she dreamed she was.

KANDER We were certainly aware of the piece’s darkness when we created it. There are two ways of dealing with catastrophe: One is that you can pick up banners and yell about it, and the other is to do the same thing by simply holding the evil up to ridicule, and making an audience feel entertained before they realize what it is they’re seeing.

RIVERA It seems to be an American thing where, much later, somebody else says something’s brilliant, and critics come back and agree. I go, “Why couldn’t they acknowledge it?” when thinking about the original, but the revival just came along at a better time. Kander, Ebb, and Bob Fosse are true artists, and something that’s really great will last forever.

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