Chicago (2002): Hollywood Musical from Stage to Screen

“What’s at stake,” says Neil Meron, one of the co-producers of the new musical movie, Chicago, “is the reclamation of the American musical film as a popular form of entertainment.” Sounds bombastic? Not really, considering the checkered history of the Hollywood musical over the past three decades.

Meron and the other producers were therefore rejoiced, and their fears alleviated, when on February 11, Chicago swept the year’s largest number of Oscar nominations (lucky 13), including Best Picture, Best Director, and three acting nods, and is now taking the American box-office by storm.

Chicago may be one of the movies that suffered from the longest period of gestation, if you count all the efforts to transfer the 1975 Broadway musical, conceived and directed with great panache by Bob Fosse, with a terrific score by the team of songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb. Fosse was then at the height of his popularity as Hollywood’s most gifted musical filmmaker, having won the 1972 directing Oscar for Cabaret (defeating Francis Ford Coppola of The Godfather’s fame), which was also written by Kander and Ebb.

Initially, Fosse conceived the musical as a vehicle for Madonna, predicting that the singer would receive an Oscar nomination for the role of Roxie Hart (now played by Renee Zellweger), the showbiz wannabe-femme fatale, who kills her lover and now has to defend her life. Unfortunately, Fosse’s untimely death of heart attack in 1987 almost took the project to the grave with him. In the 1990s various directors and actresses were attached to the musical, among them Barbra Streisand and Golide Hawn.

Miramax was extremely nervous during the production process, putting a ceiling of 45 million dollars on the budget, and demanding that all the actors take major cuts in their usual fees.

If you look carefully at the TV teaser spots for Chicago, it’s almost impossible to say that they are advertising a musical with no less than twelve full-blown production numbers. The ads and trailers suggest that it’s a jazzy crime-courtroom drama, set in 1920s Chicago.

One element that Chicago didn’t have to worry about is its subject matter and glibly cynical tone.  The two actresses in the musical play killers seeking fame and fortune, and most of the musical is set in prison, where the two women meet, compete, and then join forces, with the help of a sleazy and corrupt lawyer (played in the film by Richard Gere).

Not since Bob Fosse’s Oscar winning Cabaret (in 1972) has there been a truly satisfying musical transfer from stage to screen. Moreover, the last musical to win the Best Picture Oscar was the British import, Oliver! in 1968, directed by Sir Carol Reed.

This, in contrast, to the 1950s and 1960s, in which no less than five musicals won the Best Picture Oscar: An American in Paris (1951), with a score by Gershwin; Gigi (1958), one of Vincente Minnelli’s masterpieces; the exuberant on-location shot West Side Story (1961), the classy and elegant My Fair Lady (1964), with a bravura performance from Rex Harrison (who created the stage role); and The Sound of Music (1965), dubbed in Hollywood “the sound of money,” one of Hollywood’s all-time commercial champions

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. Luhramann had shown flair for the Aussie romantic musical, Strictly Ballroom, which played all the major festivals in 1992 and Miranax 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 stylied musical into a satisfying, mass-oriented Hollywood extravaganza.

Recalls Richards: “Miramax was talking enough of a chance on a musical, so it was understandable when they wanted certifiable movie stars.” Never mind that neither Zellweger nor Gere are known for their singing or dancing skills. Zeta-Jones did some musicals in London, including 42nd Street, but she too was perceived as a dramatic actress.

Rapper Queen Latifah, who plays the prison matron, for which she received a Supporting Oscar nomination, is the only experienced musical performer in the cast. In pacaking the movie, the producers chose the kind of cast that would satisfy both the musical and box-office requirements. Though a labor of love, by all reports, Chicago was not exactly a smooth production. There were the occasional spats on and off the set between Richards and Weinstein.