The Genesis of Chicago, Part II
By Peter Filichia
Because the current revival of Chicago recently passed Cats to become the second-longest running musical in Broadway history, I decided to go back forty-one years and look at the script that John Kander, Fred Ebb and Fosse had on August 3, 1973. This was coincidentally twenty-two months to the day before the original production made its Broadway debut on June 3, 1975.
Faithful readers know that I tackled Act One last week, leaving Act Two for this week. Shall we jump right in?
Now that Roxie’s announced (and lied) that she’s pregnant, Velma still starts the act with the same “I Know a Girl” that we know and love. But many of us came to know it only from the revival and London revival cast albums. In the days of so-called “long-playing” records, there was no room for this nifty tune on the original cast album.
If you do know the song, you’ll notice some different lyrics in the 1973 script: “I know a girl, a girl with so much spunk / You could bind and gag her in an iron trunk / And abracadabra! She’d be free / How she does it, sure beats me.” And, as if she were part of a vaudeville act, Roxie was written to do just that.
When the doctor confirms that Roxie is indeed pregnant, Billy’s line “Button your fly” is in place – but in a slightly different context. The script says “BILLY (very quietly): Listen … uh … Button your fly.” Notice that in performance from 1975 till now, Billy has always said it with a matter-of-fact delivery that is so much more in keeping with his character.
Cavin Cornwall on the London album sounds as if Roxie had just performed on him the sex act that Bill Clinton said isn’t really sex. Frankly, the way he says “Oh, yeahhhh” is alone worth the price of the disc.
“Me and My Baby” has a verse that would be discarded: “I had a secret / But the secret is out / And now that it’s out / I’m happy to spread the wonderful word / ‘Cause I want you to know / That a perfectly marvelous thing occurred.” The song then follows verbatim. (“Perfectly marvelous” must have been a phrase that Ebb liked, for of course he used it as a song title in Cabaret.)
Granted, vaudeville – which Chicago has always proclaimed itself to be in subtitle – did have blackface as a tradition. But 1975 would have been awfully late for a performer to appear in this condition. Nevertheless, the first draft shows that when Amos prepared to become “Mister Cellophane,” he’d go to a make-up table and apply blackface. Certainly the decision to instead have him dress in his clown outfit was an improvement.
Hunyak, the Hungarian murderess, then talks to her lawyer and an interpreter. The scene is four pages long with many exchanges of Hungarian dialogue. Asking an audience to wade through all that doesn’t seem wise — a conclusion that Ebb and Fosse obviously reached as time went by.
“Razzle Dazzle” has a few differences. The “finagle/bagel” line is reversed. There’s “Trot out a trick that’s unbelievable, and your accounts will be receivable.” Finally, “and they’ll make you a star” isn’t here, but “and you got a romance” is in its stead.
“Class” is almost word-for-word the song we know now, although one of the lines that now gets the biggest laugh isn’t here: “Now no one even says ‘Ooops’ when they’re passing their gas.” Even those who find that lyric in dubious taste might reconsider when looking at the wan one Ebb originally wrote: “Now ev’ry crude little crud is impossibly crass.”
Has anyone of you reading this NOT seen Chicago? If so, you might choose to skip this paragraph, for it certainly contains a spoiler. As hard as it may be to believe, in this script when Billy Flynn announces to the court and jury, “Things are not always as they seem,” he does NOT unmask Mary Sunshine as a female impersonator – she isn’t — although a mere chorus boy has been pretending to be a woman. There’s nothing in the script that says that Mary Sunshine would be played by anyone but an actress, which, of course, is what eventually happened via Christine Baranski in the Oscar-winning film. But changing Mary to a man for the stage version has provided Chicago with one of its best coups de théâtre.
Chicago virgins (if such people exist) had best skip this paragraph, too. One of the most delightful aspects of the original and current productions occurs when Billy Flynn asks for “My exit music, please” – followed by the chorus girls entering and singing as the orchestra plays a riff of “All I Care about Is Love.” That’s followed by Amos Hart’s asking for HIS exit music — only to hear nothing at all. But in this first draft, neither Billy nor Amos asks for exit music, but as each departs, his own theme plays. Having silence for Amos is much better.
For that matter, when theatrical agent Henry Grossman (who was excised in Philadelphia) leaves, he too gets his theme “Ten Percent” to mark his departure. Before Henry does, however, he urges Roxie to do “something new” – which spurs her to team up with Velma in their vaudeville act.
The song they sing here is “It,” in an obvious reference to silent screen star Clara Bow (1905-1965), who was dubbed “The ‘It’ Girl.” Roxie and Velma sing, “We wanna get ‘It’ / Please give us some ‘It’ / The girls without ‘It’ / Might just as well quit.” Of course, we don’t know what Kander’s melody was, but based on this lyric alone, I prefer “Nowadays,” just as much for Ebb’s lyric. Indeed, in 50 years or so, entertainment certainly has changed, you know.
But we do know the melody of “Loopin’ the Loop,” the final song that Roxie and Velma were to do; it was set to the music that now begins the overture. Readers, let’s all sing it together: “Start to wriggle under the Wrigley Building / Watch your spirits rise and your worries drop / Spreadin’ a jar of joy / All over Illinois / Loopin’ the Loop / Loopin’ the Loop / Loopin’ the Loop.”
What the first draft also proves, of course, is that famous bromide, “Musicals aren’t written; they’re rewritten.” Even a cursory glance at most any page of this 136-page script proves that much work was still ahead of Bob Fosse, John Kander and Fred Ebb. They were the type to do it, however, which is why Chicago has survived and thrived.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at http://www.kritzerland.com/filichia.htm and at http://www.mtishows.com. His books on musicals are available at http://www.amazon.com.