Pigs and Whores
See How Chicago Gets the Movie Musical Right. Almost.
dir. Rob Marshall
Now playing at various theaters.
Who's Fred Casely?
In the 1975 Kander and Ebb musical Chicago, Casely is a furniture salesman who's cheating on his wife with Roxie Hart, a washed-up, middle-aged, ex-wannabe showgirl. When Casely abruptly breaks things off with Roxie, she pulls a gun. "Nobody walks out on me," Roxy says. Then she shoots Casely dead.
In director Rob Marshall's film version of Chicago, Roxie Hart (as played by Renée Zellweger) is a young, pretty wannabe showgirl. Fred Casely gets into Roxie's pants by promising to introduce her to some people he knows in show business. When Fred abruptly breaks things off, he launches into a tirade about how talentless Roxie is, and when a weeping Roxie reaches out to Casely, he throws her across the room, slams her into a wall, and threatens to break her arm. Roxie--half in anger, half in fear for her life--pulls a gun and shoots Fred Casely dead.
Talk about not trusting your material.
The musical Chicago is about not one but two unrepentant, egotistical, guilty-as-hell, and completely charismatic murderers. In addition to Roxie, there is Velma Kelly, a vaudeville performer who kills her husband and her sister when she catches them in bed together. With the assistance of a slimy lawyer, Billy Flynn, Roxie and Velma not only get away with murder in Prohibition-era Chicago, but get rich and famous in the process.
The original production of this 1975 musical comedy was directed and choreographed by Broadway legend Bob Fosse, with Broadway legends Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera as Roxie and Velma. In Fosse's Chicago, sympathy for Roxie isn't ginned up with some lame battered woman defense. Watching the film Chicago, I couldn't help but wonder what Marshall and his screenwriter were so nervous about.
Why didn't Marshall trust the material? I have a theory: What has always worked in a live theater and once worked on movie screens--people bursting into song--just doesn't work in film anymore. There are two reasons for this. First, it's just not realistic for people to burst into song walking down the street, and today's film audiences demand realism--even in movies featuring preposterous things like enchanted rings and boy wizards and Madonna.
But what really killed the movie musical was Awkward Silence Syndrome. In a live performance, the cast members look out at the audience, they sing, they dance. A number will build until the singing and dancing reach a crescendo and... then... the performers hit their marks, look straight out... and stop. The whole show stops. If the show is good, the audience fills what would otherwise be dead air with cheers and applause. Essentially the audience restarts the musical, upping the energy level while letting the cast know that, yes, we love what they're doing up there. As a show progresses, the ongoing back-and-forth between the cast and the audience results in the musical gathering an exhilarating, dizzying momentum.
But in movie theaters the audience simply doesn't respond when a number ends. The audience sits there, chewing Junior Mints and sipping Cokes--and, really, why should it respond?
The director of one groundbreaking movie musical essentially solved the awkward silence problem. That would be, uh, Bob Fosse. In his film version of Cabaret--which won eight Oscars in 1972 (Godfather won Best Picture, but Fosse beat out Francis Ford Coppola for Best Director)-- Fosse cured Awkward Silence Syndrome by setting all of the numbers in... a cabaret. On screen, an audience watched the numbers, laughed, clapped, and interacted with the performers. Energy builds throughout Fosse's Cabaret, much as it would watching a musical live on stage.
At first, Marshall's film version of Chicago seems to be using the Cabaret solution, i.e., the opening number is set in a vaudeville theater. Five minutes into the film, however, Marshall shifts gears, and number after number is set in Roxie's imagination. Combining the two solutions makes sense and it works... for as long as Marshall sticks with it, which isn't long. Soon people start bursting into song walking down the street, in the common room in the women's prison, in court--basically, the last hour of Chicago is a mess. In addition to not trusting his material, Marshall doesn't appear to trust either of the two movie-musical solutions he picks.
Nevertheless, I recommend Chicago. If you didn't get to see the Broadway revival, you should catch the movie. You'll have to endure Richard Gere as Billy Flynn, of course, but it's a small price to pay to watch the Fosse-inspired choreography and Catherine Zeta-Jones' star turn as Velma Kelly.
It's just a shame to watch what could've been a movie musical on a par with Cabaret succumb to Awkward Silence Syndrome.