It wasn’t supposed to work out this way. The current revival of “Chicago,” unlike the underdog original version of the 1975 Broadway season, is now the longest running American musical on the Great White Way.
“The show was too far ahead of popular culture for it to succeed when it was first produced,” says Charlotte Canning, director of the Oscar G. Brockett Center for Theatre History and Criticism at the University of Texas. “Its original run was not stellar, although respectable. It didn’t really enter the public consciousness — as speaking to a moment — until the 1996 revival, which led to the film and the live show as a (touring) staple.”
The slinky musical about crime and vaudeville in the 1920s — with foreshadowing of cultural reverberations decades later — arrives Tuesday in a Broadway Across America version at Bass Concert Hall.
The darkness and even cynicism of the show — composed by John Kander and Fred Ebb, then directed and choreographed by the incomparable Bob Fosse — limited the first Broadway run to 936 performances. Back then, too, it competed with “A Chorus Line” for rave reviews, long lines and Tony Awards.
“‘A Chorus Line’ so beautifully encapsulated the historical moment of the both U.S. culture and the experience of show people that it became an instant classic,” Canning says. “It is a warm, poignant, moving and ultimately very sincere love letter about the quotidian experiences of the ordinary cast members of a musical.”
That musical about auditioning for a musical ran 6,137 performances, then was revived briefly. Unlike the Oscar-winning movie version of “Chicago,” however, the film of “A Chorus Line” bombed big time.
“‘Chicago’ is worlds away from ‘A Chorus Line,’ Canning says. “It is cynical, wry and indicts the audience as complicit in the many manipulations the characters make of the world around them. Identify with the characters in ‘A Chorus Line’ and you are seeing yourself as a genuine believer trying to make a life for her or himself. Identify with ‘Chicago’ and you’re a liar who sees cheating and exploiting the people around you as the only possible way to succeed in a corrupt world.”
The 1996 revival of “Chicago” — following a well-received Encores version at the New York City Center — came at just the right social and cultural time.
“Popular culture underwent a massive shift toward celebrity adulation and fixation,” Canning points out. “Reality shows became the norm. We saw the manipulation in the creation of celebrities and bought the image as simultaneously genuine and manufactured. Truth seemed to emerge from manipulation, while winking at us that it wasn’t true at all.”
Like Paris Hilton or the Kardashians, the two murderers in “Chicago” become famous enough to sustain vaudeville careers.
“Roxie and Velma’s love of bling, etc. mapped perfectly onto what was happening in the larger culture,” Canning says. “Increasingly, ‘celebrity’ has become about being famous for being famous, rather than a sense of superior talent. Nothing has become more ubiquitous and clichéd than Warhol’s ‘in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes,’ first said in 1968. Yet we now accept this as pretty much stated fact.”
The 1996 revival, which included choreography by Ann Reinking in the style of Fosse, won six Tony Awards in 1997, including Best Revival of a Musical. The marketing campaign for the revival featured sleek dancers staring straight into the camera in a frankly sexual manner, which updated the way that Fosse shows like “Sweet Charity,” “Pippin,” “Damn Yankees” and a movie version of “Cabaret” were sold.
“I think Fosse’s aesthetic — with its angular gender-blurring movement and costuming — perfectly works with the idea that we invent ourselves,” Canning says. “His movement vocabulary is sexy but ambiguous about who is being hailed by whom — hetero/homo/bisexuality all seem possible in his stagings.”
The recharged “Chicago” has since run more than 7,000 performances on Broadway, not counting countless replicas in other theater capitals and on the road. It will likely pass up the British import, “Cats,” which closed on Broadway in 2000 after 7,485 performances. It would have to develop serious legs to outlast another British musical, “The Phantom of the Opera,” which has reached almost 8,000 Broadway performances — and, crucially, is still running.
“I think the 2002 movie gave the Broadway staging a significant boost,” says Russell M. Dembin, associate editor of the Sondheim Review and a Ph.D. student at UT. “If I’m remembering correctly, producers were thinking of closing it, but then the film increased ticket sales.”
Dembin, a fellow in the program named after famed theater historian Brockett, quotes composer Stephen Sondhiem on why Kander and Ebb (they also wrote “Cabaret,” which like “Chicago” has thrived through three major interpretations) are treasured alongside other Silver Age Broadway teams like Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock (“Fiddler on the Roof,” “She Loves Me”) and Charles Strouse and Lee Adams (“Bye Bye Birdie,” “Annie”).
“We all explored the new territory with playwrights who happily accepted the notion that musicals could be more than constructs of block comedy scenes and novelty songs leavened by the occasional ballad,” Sondheim wrote in “Finishing the Hat,” “or lightly cynical cartoon shows.”
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday, and 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: Bass Concert Hall, 2300 Robert Dedman Drive
Cost: $25 to $85.
Information: 512-471-1444; austin.broadway.com