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That Toddlin' Town -- and Terrific Musical

That Toddlin’ Town — and Terrific Musical

by Peter Filichia

Thirty-five years ago this week, Chicago opened in the era when the New York Times was still the be-all and end-all. If the Times daily critic Clive Barnes could like it, it was almost assured to be a hit. If Walter Kerr, its Sunday critic, approved as well, it would be virtually home free.

But on June 4, 1975, Barnes said that this new musical had “neither content nor substance,” and used these words and phrases: “very little,” “few final results,” “unfortunately,” and “But where does it all lead?”

Then, only four days later, Kerr made matters worse with the words “problem” and “wrong,” as well as the phrase “too heavy to let the foolish story breathe.”

That “foolish story” told of Roxie Hart, who murdered the lover who was about to abandon her. She then convinced her husband Amos to raise thousands of dollars so shyster (but effective) lawyer Billy Flynn could keep her out of prison.

Of course, both Barnes and Kerr had many good words and phrases for the new Bob Fosse musical, as well as its stars (Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera and Jerry Orbach) and its John Kander-Fred Ebb score. So although Chicago had the audacity to demand $17.50 for its best seats when every other musical was charging $15, it was bound to be Broadway’s hot show for a while.

And it was — for all of fifty-one days, until A Chorus Line played its first Broadway preview on July 25, 1975. Chicago was suddenly every musical theatergoer’s second choice, the show he’d attend when he couldn’t get a ticket to Michael Bennett’s new smash.

Matters got much worse for Chicago a mere nine days later, when Verdon found she had to leave the show at least temporarily. She’d accidentally swallowed a feather from one of her boas, and it lodged in her throat so that an operation appeared to be a certainty. Without Verdon, one of Broadway’s most beloved stars, Chicago was fast running out of steam and seeming terribly star-crossed.

Fosse then made one of the great masterstrokes of his career. He called Liza Minnelli, whom he made an Emmy-winner in Liza with a “Z” and an Oscar-winner in his revolutionary film of Cabaret. Besides, both properties had songs from Chicago’s Kander and Ebb, so Minnelli couldn’t say no.

However, out of deference to Verdon, Minnelli insisted that her name not be on the marquee, and that the Playbill wouldn’t include her name. There would simply be an announcement made over the loudspeaker that she’d be subbing for Verdon.

Minnelli started rehearsing on Tuesday, Aug. 5 and played her first performance on Friday, Aug. 8. Take it from a theatergoer who was there on the Saturday, August 9 matinee: She was brilliant. At twenty-nine years old, she was the right age for the young and reckless Roxie Hart. Her voice was perfect for the score; think of “Funny Honey” and you can easily imagine her hitting that important note in “He LOVES me so.”

What is regrettable, though, is that when the announcement was made before the show that “Gwen Verdon would not perform,” the audience made mock-groans and audibly phony “Awwwwwwwws.” Seconds later, when Minnelli’s name was mentioned – and the announcer said it triumphantly – the audience cheered wildly. Theatergoers can be fickle, can’t they?

Minnelli stayed nine sell-out weeks, and once Verdon returned, Chicago returned to soft-sellout status and second-class Broadway citizen. The true humiliation was to come the following year. Although Chicago did land nine Tony® nominations in March 1976, it didn’t manage to win even one of them a month later. Never before had a musical scored so many nominations without bringing home at least one. And speaking of the number “nine,” that’s the number of Tonys® A Chorus Line won.

Chicago did manage to run 936 performances – about 15% of the run that A Chorus Line would have. It was officially a hit, in that it paid back its entire investment to its backers, but no one got rich from it. And no one, especially Fosse, who died in 1987, would have ever expected that it would have a stunning and unprecedented renaissance in about twenty years, thanks to a 1996 revival that’s still with us.

To date, Chicago is the only musical to win more Tonys® for its revival (six) than for its original production. More impressive still, this revival, which has amassed more than 5600 performances, has about sixteen months to go before it passes A Chorus Line’s original run. It probably will. All this should inspire all of us when we think we haven’t succeeded as mightily as we thought we would. Maybe the real success will come later.

Although Minnelli did not record her own cast album, she did make pop versions of the score’s “All That Jazz” and “My Own Best Friend.” The latter cut can be heard on Chicago: The 10th Anniversary Edition, a marvelous compendium in a distinctive five-and-a-half-inch-by-ten-inch monolithic package that holds a booklet and three discs.

The first is the 1996 Broadway revival cast with Ann Reinking and Bebe Neuwirth. But the second CD gets into much rarer fare: Cuts that Lynda Carter and Melanie Griffith made when they came into the production; demos of two dropped songs played and sung by Kander and Ebb; selections from foreign productions, too. The third disc is a DVD that features interviews with the revival’s staff; Kander’s explanation why a certain song and character were dropped; and videos of “All That Jazz,” “All I Care About” and “Roxie.”

Independent of that ornate package, the seventy-four-minute 1996 revival cast is available singly, as is the slightly longer (seventy-seven minute) 1997 London cast album with Ruthie Henshall and Ute Lemper. And though the 1975 original cast album weighs in at a mere fifty-five minutes (which is about all vinyl records could hold in those pre-CD days) it offers the greatest star power. Here’s Verdon in her Broadway finale, Rivera in what would turn out to be merely mid-career, and Orbach, unaware that in a few years, Law & Order would make him a household name. He, Fosse, Verdon and Ebb are gone now, but their thirty-five-year-old cast album is still in print.

Peter may be reached at [email protected] He also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia