CHICAGO’S STERLING SILVER ANNIVERSARY By Peter Filichia
Was the person projecting the lights onto the Ambassador Theatre show curtain making a prediction?
The word CHICAGO has been seen in red sequins on that scrim since this revival began in 1996. At this year’s Nov. 16th performance, however, the lights that shone on it made the seven letters appear to be not red but gold.
Shouldn’t the lights have made the word CHICAGO look silver? Gold, after all, commemorates fiftieth anniversaries and this was CHICAGO’s twenty-fifth.
If that person on lights was confidently prophesying that in 2046 CHICAGO will indeed celebrate a Golden Fiftieth, who’d care to bet that it won’t?
In the meantime, twenty-five years is pretty terrific. In the entire history of Broadway, only THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA has run longer.
(In a way, though, second place is fitting for a show that was named for what’s long been known as “The Second City.”)
Three performers who headed the revival when it opened at The Richard Rodgers Theatre took the stage: Bebe Neuwirth and James Naughton, each of whom won a Tony for this show (as Velma Kelly and Billy Flynn) and Joel Grey, already Tonyed from CABARET, who was the first to play Amos in this revival. Of course, we all hoped they’d perform, but we’ll just have to settle for the marvelous cast album they made way back when.
They shared memories instead. Grey recalled the phone calls he received from both choreographer-star Ann Reinking and director Walter Bobbie asking him to be Amos: “I’m not sure I’m right for this,” he said – and hung up.
Reinking called back, and it all worked out.
Naughton recalled how this production started at Encores! and how he and everyone else backstage were amazed when they heard that opening night audience explode after ‘All That Jazz.’”
The show was scheduled to play one week. It’s now played over 1,225 of them.
Neuwirth read the names of those who’d opened the production but were now sadly no longer with us. Naughton provided a cheerier note by introducing several in the audience who’d been part of the 1996 company when it became the town’s white-hottest ticket. That included Fred Ebb, who died seventeen years ago (on Sept. 11, yet). Happily, his virtually lifelong collaborator, composer John Kander, was there sitting sixth-row center on the right aisle.
Throughout the first act, we reveled in their purposely pastiche score. How smart of director-choreographer (and even co-bookwriter) Bob Fosse to know that a musical about an adulterous woman who shot her boyfriend who was dumping her would never succeed if it were done realitsically; we could never get behind her. That’s why CHICAGO became, as it’s always been advertised, “a musical vaudeville.”
So the score references entertainers of yore. What’s remarkable is that you don’t have to know who Helen Morgan was to enjoy Roxie’s “Funny Honey” any more than you need to know Sophie Tucker to savor Mama Morton’s “When You’re Good to Mama.” The Lewis that contemporary audiences know is Cleale and not Ted Lewis, yet they can easily appreciate the song that Kander and Ebb gave Billy Flynn “All I Care about Is Love” is yet another indication that lawyers don’t always tell the truth.
The way Naughton delivered the number on the original cast album was superb, but let’s not forget the actor who introduced it on the still-available original cast album: a pre-Lennie Briscoe Jerry Orbach.
Current New York Mayor Bill de Blasio sent a proclamation saying that we all should “rejoice for the return of razzle-dazzle.” It got sustained applause, but what didn’t as the night continued? We’re living in an age when we constantly use hand sanitizers, but after this performance, we all needed hand cream to soothe the delightful damage we’d done to our fingers and palms for two-plus hours.
If you’d have been there – if you’d have seen it – I betcha you would have done the same.
The performance went ideally even when something went wrong. Right after Bianca Marroquin finished her forceful tour-de-force “I Can’t Do It Alone” (where she did the work of two), a cell phone went off around Row C house left. Ana Villafane, playing Roxie, heard it, gave the offender a nod before saying the line that’s actually in the script: “Listen, I don’t want to hear it.” That got cheers that even outdid the applause.
After intermission, even incoming Mayor Eric Adams got into the act, making a quick speech of appreciation that Broadway is back. Then Rob Fisher, this production’s original musical director, came on to give an astonishing fact: three musicians have been with the show since Performance One. My, these people can hold a job!
So can Seymour Red Press, CHICAGO’s music coordinator who was introduced from the audience. “He’s ninety-seven and a half,” said Fisher. (You know that when you hear “and a half” added to someone’s age, he or she is either very young or very old.)
Charlotte d’Amboise, who’s done twenty-three separate stints as Roxie (and can be heard as Cassie on the 2006 A CHORUS LINE revival cast album) then came on. She gave a fine tribute to Reinking, who died last December. “Ann,” she said, “was the best mentor that anyone could ever have,” said d’Amboise.
That’s saying quite a bit, given that her father was Jacques d’Amboise, a Kennedy Center honoree for his twenty-four roles and seventeen choreographic assignments with The New York City Ballet.
Nevertheless, Ms. d’Amboise maintained that “I always wanted to be Ann Reinking.” We could see why, thanks to a montage of video clips that razzle-dazzled us. “Ann made a dance morph into a three-act play,” she said. (And where do you get those anymore?)
Act Two has always started with Velma’s looking directly at the audience and snarling “Hello, suckers!” It was the sobriquet of Texas Guinan, who ran speakeasys during Prohibition (which were located only a few blocks away from where CHICAGO plays).
Velma’s “I Know a Girl” took a long time to be recorded. There wasn’t enough space on so-called long-playing records, so Chita Rivera didn’t get to do it on the original cast album. Luckily, the CD era allowed Bebe Neuwirth to do her rendition on the revival cast album.
Kander and Ebb wrote for Amos, Roxie’s cuckold, a song in the style of Bert Williams. He was a trailblazing Black entertainer who was so good that theater owners and Florenz Ziegfeld, even at the turn of the twentieth century, just had to let him perform. His signature song was “Nobody,” which inspired “Mister Cellophane” for Amos, who feels like a nobody (and is treated as such).
After the show, the current cast was introduced during the curtain calls (a Fosse trademark) right down to the swings and staff. Also on hand were Fran and Barry Weissler, the only people to call after the Encores! sensation and offer to bring CHICAGO to Broadway. Ms. Weissler remembered that theater owners weren’t hot to book the show; one offered his theater for only nine weeks before a seemingly more reliable tenant would take residence.
CHICAGO played The Richard Rodgers Theatre for three months before it moved to the slightly larger Shubert for the next six years. Before heading to the Ambassador in 2003, it became the Shubert’s second-longest running show there.
In first place remains A CHORUS LINE, the musical that back in 1976 saw to it that CHICAGO wouldn’t win Best Musical, Actor in a Musical, Actress in a Musical (and they had a 50-50 chance with that one; Gwen Verdon and Rivera were both placed in that category). No, CHICAGO won none of its nine Tony nominations and had only sixteen months of life left in it. Good luck to you, Roxie, and goodbye.
Well, CHICAGO has now run a remarkable 10 years longer than A CHORUS LINE’s entire then-record-breaking stint as the longest run in Broadway history.
“This show’ll run forever!” exclaimed d’Amboise. That may be too much to ask, but hey, up there, you, up there on lights: keep those golden gels in good shape.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each month at
www.broadwayselect.com. He can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com.