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GIVE THEM THE OLD RAZZLE DAZZLE…..
As Fred Ebb’s brilliant lyric puts it,
“Give ’em an act with lots of flash in it
And the reaction will be passionate
Give ’em the old hocus pocus
Bead and feather ’em
How can they see with sequins in their eyes?”
But the genius of the elegantly stripped-back production of Kander and Ebb’s 1975 musical CHICAGO that has become Broadway’s longest running American musical of all time in its 1996 revival production (and whose 25th anniversary performance I attended in New York last night, Playbill pictured above) is that it DOESN’T give us lots of flash, but plenty of dazzle at the sheer ingenuity and prescience of the writing. (The most spectacular moment — and the biggest relief from the prevailing black and white aesthetic of the design — is a silver mylar curtain that reflects the light and changes colour accordingly towards the very end of the show).
This is a musical that anticipates, with deadly accuracy, how celebrity is a great enabler of any behaviour you care to mention; you can do anything, just as long as you’re famous. (And that’s exactly what Trump said on the notorious Access Hollywood tape, when he tells Billy Bush about groping women without their consent, “When you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything.”
This production began its life lean: it was staged and designed for a short concert run as part of the annual Encores season in May 1996, then only in its third year, in which revivals of neglected classics of the Broadway stage are brought back for short runs at CIty Center (I’ve already booked tickets for two of next year’s slate of titles, THE TAP DANCE KID `and INTO THE WOODS — even if the latter is hardly a neglected show).
But the canny producers Barry and Fran Weissler not only spotted that it was a relatively cheap show to produce, but they also were able to invoke their already-then existing trademark routine of throwing stars at it and trading in the public’s appetite for celebrity that they’d already employed successfully in a revival of Grease (As a song in Jason Robert Brown’s The Last 5 Years has itl, “these are the people who cast Linda Blair in a musical”, which they actually did of The Exorcist child star when she took over as Rizzo in Grease on Broadway in 1997, pictured below); and in an unexpected match of form and content, it turned out be perfect for a show which is all about exactly that.
CHICAGO has, in turn, over the last quarter of a century on Broadway featured such luminaries as Grammy winner Brandy Norwood, telenovela star Jaime Camil, NFL running back Eddie George, country stars Jennifer Nettles and Billy Ray Cyrus, and not to mention Jerry Springer (yes, THE Jerry Springer!) — none exactl known for their musical theatre prowess.
In a 2020 Playbill interview with their casting directors Stewart/Whitley, Duncan Stewart commented, “Some people call it stunt casting. We firmly call it star casting.” The feature explained the way it happens: “Contrary to popular assumptions, Chicago is not an open door for any A-lister to come play. Three or four times a year, the casting directors create a list of hundreds of names for potential celebrities. Then they decide—with the producers, creatives, and marketing team—which stars they want to audition. ‘From that, maybe you get eight people in a year who express interest, who we audition and see a tape on,” says Stewart. ‘And maybe two or three end up getting cast during the year.'” And his business partner Benton Whitley add, “On a yearly basis, we get the true honor of giving a handful of people their Broadway debut. It’s part of passing on this deep, rich tradition of musical theatre and Broadway. It never gets old.”
Neither does CHICAGO. A show that was ahead of its time when it first premiered in 1975 — with a stellar cast led by the late, great Fosse muse Gwen Verdon as Roxie Hart and Chita Rivera as Velma Kelly — it only ran for just over two years; but with the spirit of Fosse’s work recreated by another of his muses (and lovers) Ann Reinking, who also played Velma in that Encores presentation, it became a glitteringly dark portrait of the American dream morphing into nightmare.
At last night’s gala, the brilliant Broadway dancer Charlotte d’Amboise (whom I saw play Roxie in 2017 when I last saw the show in New York, opposite Leigh Zimmerman’s Velma) paid generous tribute to Reinking that included a lovely video montage of her in action in Chicago and other shows.
Last night a spectacular line-up of Latin principals led the cast: Ana Villafañe and Bianca Marroquín as Roxie and Velma respectively (pictured below), and Paulo Szot as Billy Flynn. Also in the company: Tony winner Lillias White as Mama Morton and long-standing R. Lowe as Mary Sunshine (he’s been in the role for 15 of those last 25 years).
We also learnt from supervising musical director Rob Fisher that three of the onstage band have been in the show from the very beginning.
They clearly never tire of it; neither do I. I reckon I must have seen this production well over 20 times over the years, from London to Broadway and elsewhere.
It has now, rightly, become an emblem of Broadway, and nothing suggests Broadway is back more vividly.
(All pics except Ambassadors Front of House are by Bruce Glikas / @bruglikas / @broadwaybruce_)
CABARET RETURNS TO LONDON….
Meanwhile, another Kander and Ebb masterpiece CABARET has this week returned to London, this time to a reconfigured and reconceived Playhouse Theatre (where it began previews on Monday) turned into an immersive playground for director Rebecca Frecknall’s new production, starring Eddie Redmayne as the Emcee and Jessie Buckley as Sally Bowles, (Photo montage below features pics by Marc Brenner)
I’ve seen some truly great CABARET’s in my life — though I didn’t see the 1966 Broadway original, I did see a Hal Prince directed revival on Broadway in 1986); but I simply adored Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall’s 1998 Broadway revival (inspired by Mendes’s earlier 1993 production at the Donmar Warehouse) that became a long-running hit, first at the Henry Miller Theatre before moving to Studio 54, and also Rufus Norris’s 2006 production for producer Bill Kenwright at the Lyric, and subsequently revived a few times since. So I can’t wait to see the new one at the Playhouse.
TODAY’S THEATRE BIRTHDAYS
Theatre birthdays (NOV 17): Danny de Vito, 77 (pic: in THE SUNSHINE BOYS at the Savoy Theatre in 2004 with Richard Griffiths); Elizabeth Mastrantonio, 63; Martin Scorsese, 79
SEE YOU TOMORROW
See you in your inbox tomorrow (around 1pm UK time). But if you can’t wait that long, you can find me on Twitter (though not as often on weekends)