This is me BEFORE I saw Chicago on stage


This post is slightly premature, since I won't be seeing Chicago until March, but I've made a promise to you, dear reader, that for every CAN'T YOU SEE THE CONDITION MY HUMAN CONDITION IS IN post, I give you one that has nothing to do with my personal life! Or at least a post not written past 10pm or under the influence of alcohol! Ain't I good to you? I just like to look out for you, that's all.

So I'm setting up how I'll feel before seeing Chicago on stage for the first time. First, I should tell you (if you don't already know) that I LOVE Bob Fosse. And I HEART Kander & Ebb. And I seriously respect and admire Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera (though I ADORE Liza Minnelli, who took over for Verdon in the original 1975 run when she needed throat surgery and/or she swallowed a feather. Mixed stories). When I saw Cabaret on stage, I was worried that my familiarity with the movie would ruin the stage show. Fortunately that production knocked my socks off (even if their Sally Bowles didn't. Someone said that when Liza Minnelli became Sally Bowles, Sally Bowles became Liza Minnelli, and I wholeheartedly agree.)

This instance is switched. This time, I'm hoping that the stage show will blow the film out of the water. Because as you may know, a Chicago (2002) fan, I ain't. What I wrote about it in May 2008:

A huge tragedy: Hugh Jackman was considered for the role of Billy Flynn. And they gave it to Richard Gere. Moment of silence, please. If only Richard could give us more than a moment. Perhaps the biggest tragedy: When the film rights were originally bought by producer Martin Richards in the 1970s, Bob Fosse was to be involved with the film project, and Goldie Hawn, Liza Minnelli, and Frank Sinatra were announced as the stars; but Fosse's death in 1987 ended that attempt at a film version. Oh, what could have been... I honestly think Fosse's version would have been even better.

UGH. It still stings. LIZA AND SINATRA. With Fosse. And who do we get instead? Renee Zellweger, Richard Gere, and Rob Marshall. Catherine Zeta-Jones receives a get-of-jail-free-card because she did all that dancing after recently having a baby (or she was pregnant. Again, mixed stories).

Here's the thing. To copy from Cabaret, Marshall had all the musical numbers take place in a stage-setting, juxtaposed with the 'real life' happenings in the plot (with a few exceptions that I'll get to). Perhaps this is even how it's done in the Broadway production of Chicago, but that's fine, because it's actually taking place on a stage. I honestly believe it works for Cabaret because the Kit Kat Club is in itself, an actual setting in the show, and it's MC is our narrator. The lines are already blurred between Sally actually performing there as her job, so for all her musical numbers to take place in a performance-in-the-club manner make SENSE.

Ahem. Chicago (2002) opens just fine, with Velma Kelly actually performing on a stage to an audience. But when Roxie starts singing "Funny Honey," she's imagining herself on a stage with a piano singing to an audience, while we keep cutting back to her husband being interviewed by the police. Then we he starts saying the wrong thing, stage-Roxie starts acting pissed at back-at-home Amos. Soon he's on stage as well, and when the song ends what's happening on stage segues straight into 'real life.' For me, this cuts out the heart of a musical: that people are singing about their desires and feelings right in the moment they are having them, not out in a fantasy stage. I want to see Roxie singing "Funny Honey" in her apartment as her husband is interviewed. Otherwise, it's just a music-movie (i.e. Purple Rain). Sure the song is about what's happening, but it's not taking place in the moment.

I like that "Cellblock Tango" and "I Can't Do It Alone" take place in the actual jail, and "Nowadays/Hot Honey Rag" are performed from an actual stage. I think that the reason this movie is acceptable for non-musical lovers is that very tactic: to remove the people bursting into song as they experience life, and to put those 'awkward' moments into a performance. That way there's none of the need to transition from story to song. They're just kept apart! And as a musicals lover, this leaves me cold. It's not easy to make the transition from dialog to song, but when it's done right, it's like nothing else.

I wish that was my only complaint (and I bet you do too). But it's not. Chicago is a dancing musical. "But Maryann!" you might say. "Isn't there dancing in all musicals?" Or you'd say, "Duh." The point is, musicals like My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, Annie Get Your Gun, Funny Girl, Meet Me in St. Louis, South Pacific, etc. do not rely on the actors' abilities to dance. Sure, they might contain some light choreography here or there, or a troupe of dancers to fill out big numbers, but the lovers will not be falling in love as they dance together. A dancing musical is West Side Story. Or Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Or An American in Paris. So when you cast non-dancers in a dancing musical, we've got a problem. A problem that Hollywood has dealt with in varying ways.

First, there's the Oklahoma!/Singin' in the Rain approach. You hire someone else entirely to do the dancing for the main characters, and hope that it doesn't ruin it for the audience. Oklahoma!, bless it's heart, failed at this for me. I HATED the ballet scene in Oklahoma! for "Out of My Dreams." WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE? Why aren't Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae dancing?

Oh, it's Bambi Lynn and James Mitchell. I always cast other people in my fantasies too. What the what. I understand that they'd either have to compromise the singing/acting or the dancing if they'd done otherwise, but it's still too weird. The best choice would have been to send Hugh Jackman back in time to the 50s. At least that's my solution:

The Singin' in the Rain team decided on a slight alteration. According to Debbie Reynolds, Gene Kelly had no choice in who his leading lady was--Louie B. Mayer had picked her and that was that, so he'd have to teach her how to dance. And she did! (Dick van Dyke had no dancing training before Mary Poppins and look at what he did!) So that's one option--actually teach your leads to dance--but clearly Gene was able to take a little liberty for his fantasy sequence, or rather, the end of the Dueling Cavalier (as if anyone believes that would actually be the end of that movie). He called in then non-star Cyd Charisse to be his dancing partner for the long dream sequence about the Broadway hoofer. Which is a DOUBLE toss-over, because he had the choice between Debbie, or his actual leading lady in the Dueling Cavalier, Lina Lamont (played by Jean Hagen), and still chose Cyd! Fortunately, I think it worked. Yes, it was confusing to me as a child, but the fantasy is so far removed from the actual story, I knew it existed purely as a showcase for Gene and Cyd's dancing, rather than some way of furthering the plot.

I would like to note that there are only 10 cuts in total for the dancing you see here. ONLY TEN. Why is that of note? Chicago (2002) not only serves to the non-musicals loving public by cutting between 'real life' and the stage, it also serves its non-dancing stars. Richard Gere is not a tap dancer. During "A Tap Dance" they try to hide it by showing 2 and 3 second shots of him dancing at a time, often of his upper body (useless), and it's not satisfying. It's boring.

These two people did this dance in ONE TAKE:

Granted, these two people are Eleanor Powell and Fred Astaire. But if you can't handle the dancing, get out of the dancing musical, I say!

And don't even get me started on "Hot Honey Rag." There are more cuts during this scene than I can keep track of. I realize that's the current fad in editing for musical content, but come the eff on. This is a dancing musical. Why couldn't you hire dancers? Or if you believe that you did, LET US SEE THEM DANCE for longer than 5 seconds! (Another way of dealing with non-dancers is the Seven Brides for Seven Brothers approach, where you just have the non-dancers sit out--see Benjamin during "Goin' Courtin").

Finally, the nitty-grittiness of Cabaret was apparent on stage, and especially on film for me. For a story about criminals in the 20s, Chicago (2002) feels neither dirty nor dark. It feels wealthy and shiny and star-studded. Oh, and worst of all, it feels choreographed by Rob Marshall, not Bob Fosse. For the love, touring U.S. production, please be of the Fosse.


Anonymous said...

Hugh has said often that his only regret, if he has one, is that he turned down Chicago. He thought he was too young for the role at the time it was offered. Now, he wishes he had done it.

His/Trevor Nunn's Oklahoma! is my favorite version of that show. It was thrilling to see the principle actors doing the dream ballet scene. The DVD is the star of my home collection of musicals.

You're right about Rob Marshall trying to be a choreographer. They should have hired a real one and stayed true to the original Fosse style.

Maryann said...

Hugh turned it down? *bursts into tears*

I need to get his Oklahoma! on dvd, stat.

Whoever you are, thanks for the comments!!!

Kj said...

I strongly dislike dream ballets...

Maryann said...

Duly noted! Wherein lies the rub?