The International Writers Magazine
:Musicals v Film

Film directed by Rob Marshall or l?
Musical directed by Walter Bobbie (2005)
Kate Maskell

rom true story, to play, to musical, to academy award winning film, Chicago is a story that has been told time and time again, and after 80 years is still a well known name! The incredible history of the story all started in 1924 when the real life Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart "both reached for the gun"!

March 12th 1924, cabaret singer, Belva Gaertner, (Kelly) was arrested after Walter Law was found dead in her car. Then on April 3rd 1924 Beulah Annan, the real life Roxie, phoned her husband claiming she killed a man who "tried to make love to her" (Harry Kalstedt). Apparently due to the help of a slick lawyer and vast media attention both were released later that year. Journalist Maurine Dallas Watkins took an interest in the story and created a comedy play called Chicago which hit the Broadway stage in 1926 (August 2005, Chicago: Show Brochure).

These true life events influence the plot for Chicago, the musical, about two young ladies imprisoned after committing crimes they didn’t believe to be wrong. The two find their only hope is for the master of media manipulation, Mr. Billy Flinn, to turn them into celebrities and gain the sympathy of the masses. But is Rob Marshall’s academy award winning film really successful in comparison to the stage musical, currently directed by Walter Bobbie at the Adelphi Theatre in London?

Marshal appears to add more to the plot, for example, in the film after Velma’s cabaret act the police appear. Yet on the stage the show opens with the famous "All That Jazz" and the audience only know of Velma’s imprisonment through the "Cell Block Tango" where we discover the nature of her crime. The main problem, according to executive producer Neil Meron, was how to integrate musical numbers into the film without stopping the action, so Marshal used Roxie, to "see life through musical sequences" (Marshal, R. 2002, Chicago: Behind the Scenes). Marshal also added extra parts to the musical’s original storyline, by John Kander and Fred Ebb. At the end of the musical in the Adelphi, the show closes as Roxie and Velma reunite for the grand finale as a cabaret duet. For the film, Marshal incorporated a brand new scene where Roxie auditions unsuccessfully then Velma appears after being released and they become a double act. This use of added scenes provides a detailed explanation of events, whereas in the musical this is done through song, but some numbers were cut for the film. Instead of using the song "When Velma Takes the Stand" Marshal actually shows her taking the stand at Roxie’s trial, which gives more action to Catherine Zeta Jones, which may please a modern audience (well…the men), and like with "Class", Marshal felt it couldn’t fit into the "show within Roxie’s mind" (2005, IMDB: Trivia for Chicago). Cleverly Marshal incorporates the song "My Baby and Me" through underscoring when Roxie announces her pregnancy.
Interestingly enough, despite the fact that Marshal adds extra parts to the plot, he leaves the Hungarian prisoner Hunyak’s crime to the imagination of his audience, whereas in the musical we learn that she is hanged for, apparently, killing her husband with an axe!

In the Adelphi production, Mary Sunshine (Alex Weatherhill) plays an extremely important role as the target for Flinn’s plans of manipulation because she always sees "The Good in Everyone", and towards the end of the show it is revealed to the audience that she is actually a man. Yet this idea is very pantomime and didn’t fit in with the realistic scenes in the film, so wasn’t used.

Despite this Marshal uses a great deal of spectacles for the "performances in Roxie’s mind" (Marshal, R. 2002, Chicago: Behind the Scenes). Due to this idea, every number was performed "on stage" which created the atmosphere of a theatre performance, and after watching it at the cinema the audience even clapped, proving that Marshal created this atmosphere successfully. One of the best visual moments on stage is the "Cell Block Tango", the dancing is incredible and the lighting sets the scene perfectly and fits the mood of the song as light and shadow are used to create prison bars. It was pleasing to see that Marshal also uses this technique in the climactic part of the song. He also uses the idea of Roxie as a ventriloquist’s dummy for the number "Both Reached for the Gun" which is a technique used on stage and in both cases looks so effective and is extremely well acted.

Of course bigger spectacles can be used in film, such as a huge ROXIE sign, but the simple spectacles created in the stage version were just as effective. One of the best sequences is during "All I Care About is Love", the dancers had huge feathers which created amazing patterns including "long raven hair", and a rotating circle of fluff around Billy Flynn (Terence Maynard). Despite the few changes that Marshal incorporates he doesn’t take away from the musical experience, as Meron says "Rob comes from the theatre, those are his roots" (Meron, N. 2002, Chicago: Behind the Scenes).

Marshal has stayed true to the original story and many of John Kander, Fred Ebb, Walter Bobbie and Maurine Dallas Watkins ideas, but he has had to change moments to make the story more appropriate for film and a modern audience. This is not a hard task as Chicago is suggested to have been so successful after its re-release to the stage in 1996, because the themes it raises are relevant to our lives today, showing the manipulation of the press and public (Zelweger, R. 2002, Chicago: Behind the Scenes). The producer Marty Richards follows this idea when he says that "it is all about murder, greed and debauchery, everything we hold near and dear to our hearts, that’s what Chicago’s about, it’s everything that’s happening today in the paper, today’s headlines, the six o’clock news!" (Richards, M. 2002, Chicago: Behind the Scenes). So although he has put his own spin on the original musical, Marshal has created a film based on a story from the 20’s, kept it appropriate to society today and has played a big part in keeping the story of the real Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly alive. Chicago has made them truly famous for their crimes.
KM November 2005

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Anon is a creative arts major at the University of Portsmouth


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