1975: "Chicago – A Musical Vaudeville"
Posted by: reed23 10:45 pm EDT 08/24/21
In reply to: In this day and age does it feel like something of a dated "gag"? - portenopete 10:27 am EDT 08/24/21

I regard this discussion as evidence of the many ramifications of the 1996 Encores decision to strip CHICAGO of its original concept, which was to present the story as a series of 1920s vaudeville acts. It was titled and billed CHICAGO – A Musical Vaudeville.

The show was packed with allusions and recreations of famous vaudeville traditions and specific personalities and styles. It was the controlling principle of the bookwriting, the songwriting, the staging and the casting. To cite a few: Gwen Verdon performed her opening number "Funny Honey" perched on an upright piano, drinking booze from a flask and getting sloppier throughout, to the point of pouring some of it on the hapless pianist's head (a big laugh in the original.) The staging and style of the song were conceived as references to Helen Morgan, famous for singing hymns to her man (such as "Bill" in SHOW BOAT), and also for being an unfortunate alcoholic. This also set up Roxie's drunkenness in the following scene with the cop and Amos.

The inhabitants of the Cook County Jail are presented as an act called "The Merry Murderesses," doing a tango-inflected song. "Mama" Morton, a plus-sized older character, singing a song called "When You're Good To Mama," evoked Sophie Tucker, whose nickname was "The Last of the Red Hot Mamas." Billy Flynn was written as a slick song-and-dance man in the style of Ted Lewis; Fosse staged his song, "All I Care About Is Love," as a striptease in the style of Sally Rand, infamous for her strategic use of feathered fans; while the girls alternately hid Orbach with their fans, he removed his entire expensive suit and ended the number in his underwear – a set-up for the brief scene with a tailor measuring him for a new suit. The eternally optimistic "pushover" Mary Sunshine was given an operetta soprano song in the style of Marilyn Miller (and M. O'Haughey was both screamingly funny and utterly indistinguishable from a superior "real" soprano). Helen Morgan, tango acts, Sophie Tucker, Ted Lewis, Sally Rand, Marilyn Miller – all the stuff of vaudeville and 20s entertainment.

Ventriloquist acts were vaudeville staples ("The Press Conference Rag"). Roxie and Velma's description of their respective vaudeville acts (imagined and recalled in "Roxie" and "I Can't Do It Alone") speak for themselves – and, of course, sister acts like the one Velma describes were vaudeville regulars of the day. "Me And My Baby" was originally conceived in both writing and staging as a double-entendre buddy song ("sticking together" and all the lyrics were funny considering that she was singing about her ersatz pregnancy) - staged as an Eddie Cantor trouser number for Verdon. (Fosse cut most of it before opening, replacing it with "The Strut," a more standard showcase for Verdon's unique dancing style.) Before launching "Mr. Cellophane," an Amazonian dancer handed Barney Martin (as Amos) various costume pieces which left him dressed for the song as Emil Jannings in the final scene of "The Blue Angel," an obvious plot parallel, while the song itself referred to Bert Williams' "Nobody." The number "When Velma Takes The Stand" honors contortion dance acts – accompanied by a group of men in 20s collegiate-wear, singing into megaphones à la Rudy Vallee. Rope tricks? Another vaudeville tradition: "The Hunyak and her Famous Hungarian Rope Trick!" – the moment in the 1975 original when the audience, tricked into applauding a hanging, suddenly realized they were being had.

"Razzle Dazzle" was staged as a circus act, while Jerry Orbach completely changed his look, tousled his hair, put on glasses, and slumped, transforming before the audience into a Clarence-Darrow-inspired rumpled country lawyer, in which character he performed the entire courtroom defense presentation. A male ensemble member played all 12 jurors in sequence with an assortment of costume pieces and props – a vaudeville trick act (introduced in the curtain call as "The Man of Many Faces!"

And finally, all of this led to Clarence-Darrow-Billy-Flynn's final move in Roxie's defense, to demonstrate to the jurors that she might be completely different from their assumptions – unmasking Mary Sunshine as a female impersonator (Julian Eltinge was the highest-paid entertainer of his day, with a major Broadway theatre named after him – in recent decades literally rolled down 42nd St. to its current location as the AMC Empire.)

I wonder if the 1996 CHICAGO team, for purposes of their concert at Encores, decided to strip the entire show of all its vaudeville framing and period references to adhere to a budget and put everyone in black clothes, using noncommittal period-free sort-of-costumes to mask the budget problem; and perhaps they thought no one in the 1990s would remember or know anything about any entertainment history or traditions before 1950 (many of the 1975 audience knew exactly what the authors and concept were doing.)

But a lot was lost in the stripping of the concept. Why are all the songs being "announced?" Why are the songs "acts" and where and why? ("Velma Kelly, in an Act of Desperation.") What's the place and time (established in brilliant neon during the 1975 overture)? What's the framework, what's the new concept, what's going on and why? Stripping the vaudeville from CHICAGO makes a whole lot of it make no sense – why is Roxie singing a Helen Morgan song hanging from a PIPPIN ladder? Why is "Mama" Morton a trim, beautiful young-ish woman, singing a Sophie Tucker song? And – as this whole thread makes clear – one question looms large – why is a chirpy optimistic reporter played by a man singing operetta soprano in sort-of-drag?

Previous: In this day and age does it feel like something of a dated "gag"? - portenopete 10:27 am EDT 08/24/21
Next: Did the original London production keep the original staging concept ? nm - young-walsingham 01:37 pm EDT 08/25/21

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