All That Jazz:
A Review of Chicago
by Tony Phillips
The musical Chicago promises "Murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery." Miramax's hijacked, big-screen version delivered all that and more at the 9am Essex House Hotel junket alone. Broadway hounds remember Chicago opening in 1975 to tell the story of relative innocent Roxie Hart (Gwen Verdon) who offs her lover and eclipses death row superstar Velma Kelly (Chita Rivera). Both women employ super-slick lawyer Billy Flynn (Jerry Orbach) to get them off and in the process work every vaudeville trope as they rocket to the top of America's consciousness. Running 898 performances with 11 Tony nominations couldn't save it from the shadow of A Chorus Line which also opened that year. But a triumphant return twenty years later, first at City Center Encores!, then later at the Shubert Theater where it still runs, nabbed six Tony awards. In the middle of this renaissance, Miramax began their decade long struggle to bring the property to the big screen. Talk to Goldie Hawn, Madonna, or Award-winning director Nicholas Hytner to start the body count, but ask hotshot director/choreographer Rob Marshall, who marched into Harvey Weinstein's office with a treatment for Rent and Brandy's TV Cinderella to his name, for the last word.
Renee Zellweger leans her wire-rim glasses sitting on that trademark squinched up, makeup-free face into the table to proclaim her love for Marshall in one long, breathy whisper ("He was such a pure spirit I thought I could not walk away from this man"). His revolutionary concept for filming the unfilmable? Roxie Hart as Ally McBeal imagining big vaudeville numbers accompanying her murder trial. This led to long dinners where Marshall taught Zellweger showtunes ("I knew 'Over The Rainbow'"), outsized dance studios where the two rehearsed steps in the fading light ("I tried out for Hair in college") and blissed-out marathon calls to create her character Roxie ("I'd never seen Chicago and didn't know the show"). Wondering how the hell she landed the single most coveted role this year? Don't worry, she is too. "I'm such an impostor," Zellweger confesses, "I'm an impostor on that stage. There's bound to be somebody else who worked a really long time and deserved this beautiful experience."
Two women who did just that, and also walk away with the movie, are Catherine Zeta-Jones as Velma Kelly and Queen Latifah as Mama Morton. Their screen-time together is priceless, ditto the DVD containing their cut duet "Class." Zeta-Jones explains, "I knew Velma sang 'All That Jazz' so I went for it." She'll also cop to being related to producer Marty Richards through marriage to her husband, Michael Douglas, whom she also mentions a lot. It's easy to forgive as she completely nails her part. Latifah, who vamps through her role as prison matron Mama Morton like a butch, blonde Pearl Bailey, didn't feel any extra pressure as the movie's only remaining gay element. Mary Sunshine's — played by Christine Baranski — is now a woman. No more infamous courtroom wig snatch, it's excised with all of Sunshine's extra bits. But even the Queen will hedge to help Disney move this movie. "You get the feeling she might be, but then you don't," Latifah conjectures of Morton's sexuality, "I didn't want to play her too far either way. I know she has to be a tough old broad, but it wasn't really overt like Cleo in Set it Off where I had to tongue a broad down."
Richard Gere plays legal lothario Billy Flynn. He looks hot in his "Press Conference Rag" face full of makeup, but his big tap number sums the nervy "reconceived" Fosse choreography: the camera zooms into feet, pulls back wide, zooms back in on face, etc. Marshall is MTV's smash-cut answer to some pretty amazing extant movement. "Fosse is up here at the top," Gere explains, motioning way overhead. If he means out of the frame, he's right. "Demeaning to both Fosse and himself," is his response to leaving the movement alone, "a strict recreation isn't alive." But neither is Fosse. No rewrites to the still kicking Kander and Ebb. In fact, they even penned a new end credit song just for Oscar. When Ann Reinking remounted Chicago on Broadway, she garnered a Tony for what she gently described as "choreography in the style of Bob Fosse." Now he's a credit somewhere down near catering in the roll. A quick call for comment found Reinking unable to do so because she hadn't seen the film yet. Practically the widow Fosse, but queued up with everyone else on Christmas Day. Maybe. What a shame Fosse's last piece of choreography will be rolling in his grave.