A Video Glossary to Chicago

Like the movie Natural Born Killers, John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Bob Fosse's Chicago takes the form of the thing it criticizes, and it implicate us along the way. Chicago literally turns crime into entertainment, and then catches us being entertained by it. We prove Chicago's very cynical point by enjoying Chicago.

Unfortunately, the wildly successful, current revival short-circuits much of this, by pretty much eliminating the vaudeville metaphor.

Fosse knew vaudeville intimately. Though he wasn't born until 1927, when he came of age as a performer in his teens, the people he learned from were all vaudeville veterans, and many of the performers he shared the stage with in the sleazy burlesque theatres he worked were old washed-up vaudevillians. He danced old vaudeville numbers himself. He knew this world. And perhaps it's his teen years in those burlesque houses that created in him a profound distrust of show business, even though it was his chosen profession. He hated it even as he worshipped at its shrines.


Before the song “Razzle Dazzle” in Act II, Billy Flynn says to Roxie, “These trials -- the whole world -- all show business.” And he's right, after all. The trials, his and Roxie's whole world, is all a musical called Chicago, and even beyond that, they're all vaudeville acts. They are literally just show business. And yet, they're also far too real.

Every song and scene in Chicago is modeled on actual vaudeville acts and stars. When New Line produced the show in 2002, we wanted to make it as clear as we could that this story would be told in the form of a vaudeville bill. So I listed the songs this way in our program:

ACT I

The Big Open
And All That Jazz . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Velma, Ensemble
The Torch Song
Funny Honey . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Roxie
The Tango
Cell Block Tango . . . . . . . . . Velma, Ladies of the Ensemble
The Star Turn
When You’re Good to Mama . . . . . . . . . . . . . Mama Morton
The Fan Dance
All I Care About is Love . . . . . Billy, Ladies of the Ensemble
The Operatic Number
A Little Bit of Good . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . Mary Sunshine
The Ventriloquist Act
We Both Reached for the Gun . . . . . . . Billy, Mary, Ensemble
The Soubrette
Roxie . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Roxie, Gentlemen of the Ensemble
The Sister Act
I Can’t Do it Alone . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . Velma
The Anthem
My Own Best Friend . . . . . . . . . . . . . Roxie, Velma, Ensemble

ACT II

The Lament
I Know a Girl . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Velma
The Kid Act
Me and My Baby . . . . . .  Roxie, Gentlemen of the Ensemble
The Comedian
Mr. Cellophane . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Amos
A Dramatic Tableau
When Velma Takes the Stand . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Velma, Men
The Flash Act
Razzle Dazzle . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Billy, Ensemble
The Classical Number
Class . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Velma, Mama
The Headliners
Nowadays/Hot Honey Rag . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Roxie, Velma

In “All That Jazz,” Velma is playing Texas Guinan (also the model for Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes), inviting the audience in to drink and have a good time. She is our host for the evening.



“Funny Honey” starts out being an imitation of torch song queen Helen Morgan's song “Bill” from Show Boat, a song about an ordinary man, who's nothing special, but she loves him anyway. She even sits atop a piano, like Helen Morgan often did.


But then Kander & Ebb turn the Helen Morgan torch song on its ear, as Amos finds out just who the murder victim is and rats Roxie out. As Roxie gets drunker and drunker, as Amos finally tells the cop how it really happened, the lyric changes its tone and it ends with her calling Amos “That scummy, crummy dummy hubby of mine.” A perfect Fosse moment.

The “Cell Block Tango” is a tribute to the ethnic dances that were sprinkled throughout a vaudeville bill, but with a dark twist. And Latin dances were the most popular.


When Matron Mama Morton enters, with a big ring and a fur stole, she's playing one of the biggest stars of vaudeville, Sophie Tucker, and she sings “When You're Good to Mama,” a conscious parody of Sophie Tucker's equally racy “You've Got to See Mama Every Night.”


In scene 6, as Roxie metaphorically tap dances around Amos, lying through her teeth, trying to get him to pay for her lawyer, four male dancers enter and do a literal tap dance throughout the scene, in tribute to the hundreds of tap dance specialty vaudeville numbers.


Billy's “All I Care About is Love” is in imitation of band leader Ted Lewis, who would begin his act by saying “Is everybody here? Is everybody ready?”



As Billy sings the song, he strips, while chorus girls dance around him with giant feathered fans, รก la the famous fan dancer Sally Rand. Rand would dance nude with two giant feathered fans, strategically choreographed to keep her covered, with just quick glimpses of flesh to tantalize the audience. She was, needless to say, a big hit.



Mary Sunshine and her song “A Little Bit of Good in Everyone” are a direct imitation of Julian Eltinge, an extremely famous turn-of-the-century drag queen and vaudeville star, and Bert Savoy, his less classy successor.



“We Both Reached for the Gun” recalls vaudeville's requisite ventriloquist specialty acts.


“I Can't Do It Alone” recalls sister acts and acrobatic specialty acts.



Velma continues her role as Texas Guinan as she opens the second act with Guinan's famous line, “Hello Suckers!” “Me and My Baby” is sung in the manic style of Eddie Cantor..


“Mr. Cellophane” is a conscious imitation of Bert Williams, the well-known Black vaudeville and Ziegfeld Follies star, and his famous song “Nobody,” right down to Williams' over-sized clothes and white gloves, and unusually minimalist staging.



“When Velma Takes the Stand” and the entire courtroom scene are an imitation of the many courtroom comedy sketches, a staple of vaudeville and burlesque.


“Nowadays” and Velma and Roxie's dance number “Hot Honey Rag” are tributes to Ted Lewis and his band. Lewis was a jazz clarinet player and band leader, known for his battered top hat and his cheerily forlorn songs.


The famous Broadway revival strips away almost all these period references, which is such a shame. The show in its original form is so much darker, funnier, more disturbing, and more satisfying. The revival is running on half a metaphor. The masterful score keeps the audience engaged, but most of them have no idea how much more they'd be engaged if it were done right.

The revival kept Fosse's dance vocabulary and style, but not his ideas.

When we did the show, even though we were in a blackbox, our set designer Justin Barisonek built a gold proscenium with a red velvet curtain. Most people who see Chicago now don't know what's missing, and they don't know how much funnier and more intense it can be.

I'd like to challenge anybody producing the show regionally to return to its brilliant, insightful, aggressive roots. It's worth it.

Long Live the Musical!
Scott

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