By Jillian Fuller
Maybe I’m biased as a native Chicagoan, but when I first saw Chicago and was able to have a dance recital opening number to the soundtrack I was obsessed even at the mere age of nine. I was definitely too young to understand the cultural relevance, the historical significance and most of the adult situations flew over my little head. But I was infatuated by the world of jazz in 1920s Chicago. Booze, gangsters and jazz were what we were known for! Chicago debuted on Broadway at the 46th Street Theatre in 1975 with music by John Kander and book by Fredd Ebb and Bob Fosse. However, it is the 1996 run of this show that is most famous for being one of the longest running productions in Broadway history. Followed by my personal favorite, the 2002 movie musical adaptation starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellwegger, Queen Latifah, Richard Gere and a host of other A-List celebrities. Literally the entire cast is stacked, the production is as sensational and over the top as the story line. It was a very well done remake of a classic musical. Chicago is a story about criminal justice, the “celebrity criminal”, jazz, liquor, and I would like to argue – women’s empowerment. It’s a timeless classic and sends some important messages even if it is through the questionable dialogue and actions of the characters.
Everybody wants the same thing it seems in Chicago – fame. Roxie killed someone for it and Velma’s using her jealous rage that ended in a double homicide to keep her name in the paper’s whilst she’s on a “performance hiatus” if you will. While one could argue that the murders of Fred Casely, Veronica and Charley are fueled by women’s inability to control their emotions – both women, though they plead their innocence, also believe their actions could be justified if they were guilty.
The “Cell Block Tango” is arguably one of the most iconic songs from the musical and a piece that many dance teams recreate every year. While it can seem anti-feminist that every woman that enters the Cook County jail is in for a crime of passion (except for sweet Hunyak who was probably framed and didn’t really stand a chance due to the language barrier and unfortunately one of the women who is sentenced to death in the musical), these women are very adamant about what kind of treatment they deserve and refuse to accept anything less. Only two women assert their innocence – Hunyak and Velma. The other women admit to their rap sheet and explain exactly why what happened to them was the straw that broke the metaphorical camel’s back. They had their reasons, how could we tell them that they were wrong? Sure, maybe a sit down conversation would have been nice but these men approached these women aggressively, cheated on them, and purposefully aggravated them while contributing nothing to the home.
Roxie Hart dreams of life on stage with her name in lights. When her boyfriend Fred Casely doesn’t follow through with his promise of getting her her big break she freaks out and shoots him. She ends up in jail and is assigned infamous lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere). He’s the way to get her name in the papers and keep her there until he’s able to get her out. Billy Flynn approaches his law practice just like one would approach a performance. In the performance “We Both Reached for the Gun” we see Roxie take a backseat in some instances so that Billy can word her story in a way that’s more appealing to the press and makes her a much more sympathetic inmate. The song is prefaced by Taye Diggs, who is the Bandleader, “Mr. Billy Flynn and the press conference rag/Notice how his mouth never moves/Almost”. Here we see Roxie made up to be a ventriloquist dummy controlled by Billy Flynn himself. Sometimes she slips out of character (most notably when a news reporter asks if she’s sorry and she replies “Are you kidding?”). For a majority of the show we see these women relying on themselves to make things work while in jail, but when it comes to court appearances and remaining relevant, they suddenly have this man come into the picture (maybe it’s because women couldn’t practice law yet or women were practicing law and didn’t have the experience – either way, a man is Roxie and Velma’s ticket out of jail and into the spotlight.
Initially, I thought that this was kind of a reliance on men to get the tough jobs done, but then I went back and thought about Amos and Roxie and then Roxie and Billy. Roxie used both of these men to her advantage, even if Billy had the legal expertise that she didn’t have she was still using his power to achieve her goals.
Throughout the show, Velma and Roxie seem to be at odds with each other – competing for time with Billy Flynn, favors from Mama Morton, or attention in the press. It isn’t until the end of the movie/performance that these women come together to make Velma’s original double act better than ever. During the imagined performance of “Nowadays/Hot Honey Rag”, Velma and Roxie speak on how ever-changing society and culture is. They talk explicitly about freedom in relationships and freedom in living the life you like. Throughout their tenure at Cook County jail, Roxie and Velma have not only learned to rely on each other rather than compete, but they have also learned to experience life to its fullest however you please because things can change at any moment.
In terms of diversity, Chicago attempts to deliver as much as it can whilst also remaining true to 1920s society. Queen Latifah has the most screen time and pertinence to the plot compared to other Black actors cast in the show and Lucy Liu arrives to snatch the spotlight away from Velma and Roxie when her crimes are dubbed the “Lake Shore Drive Massacre”. Roxie is quick to attempt to snatch the spotlight back by telling everyone she’s pregnant – people feel major sympathy for mother’s to be in prison. Two of the women we meet through “Cell Block Tango”, June and Mona, are women of color (though I think the casting director was playing off of Mya’s bi-raciality when they cast her as Mona). The cast is predominantly white but it was refreshing to see Queen Latifah play someone who essentially has more power than most of the white women under her charge. In “When You’re Good To Mama” she talks about the intricacies of favors in life inside and outside of prison. “They say that life is tit for tat and that’s the way I live, so I deserve a lot of tat for what I’ve got to give”. She knows she has the ability to get these women what they want in exchange for favors. Matron Mama Morton is the glaring representation of corruption within the criminal justice system, but somehow she is still motherly (hence, “Mama”) and the one who helps the women adjust to life behind bars. To me, Chicago is an excellent “story of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery – all the things we hold near and dear to our hearts.”** These same issues of corruption, greed, and exploitation are why we see increased police violence in almost every city in America compared to the rest of the world, but especially in a city like Chicago. While I enjoy the plot and the performances (seriously the way they intermix jazz club scenes with prison scenes is amazing), I understand that this is the reality of Chicago history and current life with our criminal justice system. As budgets have increased, there is a higher chance that truly innocent people like Hunyak will be forced into false confessions. We don’t have many celebrity criminals here anymore that are able to create a life of acclaim AFTER they go behind bars, so I guess Roxie and Velma were right when they said things would change in 50 years “or so”.
quotes and lyrics are from 2002 soundtrack to the film version of Chicago unless otherwise stated
** this quote comes from the 1997 Overture for the Broadway production of Chicago, soundtrack which is found on Spotify or where you stream your music.