Cabaret (in 1972) might have been the last truly satisfying musical transfer from stage to screen, largely due to Bob Fosse’s vibrant direction and Liza Minnelli’s spectacular performance. Moreover, the last musical to win the Oscar was the British import, Oliver! in 1968, directed by Sir Carol Reed.
In 1996, after the successful Broadway revival of Chicago, which is still on the boards, Martin Richards, now partnered with Miramax, approached Australian director Baz Luhrmann to direct, but he declined. Luhrmann had shown flair for the Aussie romantic musical, Strictly Ballroom, which played all the major festivals in 1992 and Miramax released in the U.S. Five years later, Luhrmann would be responsible for bringing the musical back to Hollywood with his avant-garde, post-modern musical rendition, Moulin Rouge.
Then British director Nicholas Hytner tried to mount a production, but couldn’t come with a workable concept. Accomplished writers, such as Larry Gelbart and Wendy Wasserstein), and a horde of talented performers (including Barbra Streisand and Goldie Hawn) came and went.
Richards and Weinstein almost gave up. But then, out of the blue, a young choreographer but inexperienced director, Rob Marshall, 42, came up with a new concept and a new script. By that time, Marshall was known for doing a 1999 TV version of the musical Annie, but he dreamed of becoming a Hollywood filmmaker. Marshall brought with him Oscar-winning screenwriter Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters), who shared his vision of how to translate a very stagy and stylized musical into a satisfying, mass-oriented Hollywood extravaganza.
It’s a dazzling song-and-dance extravaganza that audiences can watch over and over again. Richard Gere as Roxie’s conceited attorney, Billy Flynn, avoiding even a snippet of him crooning or tap-dancing. The teasers don’t play up Catherine Zeta-Jones, cast as sister killer Velma Kelly, belting out loud “All That Jazz,” which opens the movie.
Though proud of the film, Miramax wanted to protect their investment. Moulin Rouge may have brought the musical back, but, despite Oscar nominations, it was not a smash hit, grossing only $58 million domestically (the film did better internationally, with $115 million in box-office receipts).
The impact of the huge Hollywood failure of the Broadway hit A Chorus Line, which was misdirected by Richard (Gandhi) Attenborough in 1985, is still felt in Hollywood.
And the current demographics don’t help either. It’s a known fact that the most frequent moviegoers in America are male teenagers, and it’s after them that Miramax is going because they are, as Weinstein says, “hard on anything that doesn’t have some action or comedy.” The promotion and marketing model that Miramax has adopted for Chicago, which proves to be successful, judging by the result (over $100 million in the U.S. alone) is that of their more ambitious Oscar-winning films: The literary and multi-layered The English Patient in 1996, and the witty comedy Shakespeare in Love, in 1998.
As always, nostalgia plays a factor in the Oscar race. Chicago is a reminder of Hollywood’s golden days, when such dazzling teams as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. The new movie continues the reinvention of the movie musical, one of the most cherished and uniquely American genres.
By honoring Chicago with the top Oscar prize, the industry is also honoring Bob Fosse, who, among other achievements, is not only the director of the stage musical Chicago, but responsible for the last musical to receive a Best Picture nomination, the appropriately titled and personal meditation, All That Jazz, back in 1979. At the center of Chicago is a tale based on a 1920s true story, which had spawned a number of plays and movies in the 1940s. The show enjoyed a solid two-year run on Broadway, but it was not an audience favorite. Chicago had the misfortune of opening just weeks before A Chorus Line, a then more timely show (about the confessions of Broadway dancers), which swept all the Tony Awards that year.
The Fosse version starred Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera as Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, lady-killers on trial, who compete with each other to turn their sensational acts and tabloid notoriety into legit theatrical careers, with the help of a flimflamming lawyer, Billy Flynn. But this was in the pre-Rodney King and especially O.J. Simpson’s trials, when the public still held some respect for its authority figures, be they cops or lawyers. But in the wake of O.J.’s highly publicized trial and its still dubious verdict, the cynicism displayed by Chicago toward the American legal system is very much in tune with the zeitgeist.
There has always been mutual fertilization between New York and Hollywood: Most movie musicals have been based on Broadway hits. By recognizing Chicago, the industry will show that Broadway is once again in the arms of Hollywood.
Bill Condon deserves kudos for his hilarious screenplay that seems most of the musical number from Roxie’s point of view, as fantasies of how to escape the jail’s cold and cruel world. The musical sequences are intercut with the parallel and dreary reality, narrated by the songs.