Good Girl Motifs Begone!: Theatrics as a Form of Manipulation in Chicago (2002)

By Koby Hrynkiewicz

“It’s all a circus, a three-ring circus… these trials, the world,” stated the inimitable Billy Flynn in Chicago’s climactic court scene. “It’s all show business.” 

And he’s right. If there’s one thing to take from the sleazy streets of the jazzy, 1920s setting of Chicago, it’s that the world is the stage, and the actors know how to perform their parts. 

“It’s all a circus, a three-ring circus… these trials, the world. It’s all show business.” 

Chicago (2002) puts its audience in the shoes of Roxie Hart (played by Renee Zellweger), a sweet-faced, blonde starlet on the rise in the Midwestern Vaudevillian circuit. That is, until she kills her paramour and gets thrown into the slammer for her crime. Hence, the musical revolves around this bombshell anti-hero and her plight for a “not guilty” verdict as she encounters a plethora of devious cynics, including the seductive murderess Velma Kelly (played by the legendary Catherine Zeta-Jones), the corrupt, albeit fair matron of Murderess’ Row, Mama Morton (played by Queen Latifah), and the smooth-tongued criminal defense lawyer Billy Flynn (played by Richard Gere). Together, this ensemble of deceitful frauds characterize the oft amoral “Windy City,” manipulating the system not only for legal acquittal, but public stardom. Yet, it is not necessarily the direct plot of Chicago that reveals the two-faced and duplicit qualities of these characters, but rather over-the-top musical numbers that deviate from the gray and grimy setting of 1920s Chicago. Through the elaborate stage composition, specific lyricism, and intentional hyper-focus on choreography featured in its show-stopping musical numbers, Chicago reveals the enticingly manipulative nature of its captivating cast of crooks. 

Firstly, it is important to distinguish how Chicago differentiates its linear plot from the inclusion of musical numbers. Unlike the broadway stage, where musical numbers are interwoven into the present stage setting, the Chicago film employs two different settings to tell its story: the first being the dark, sullen atmosphere of the city itself, and the second being a changing theater stage, always decked with ornate lighting, luxurious wardrobes, and glamorous detailings. The film employs the city atmosphere primarily for dialogue and plot progression, while utilizing the theater stage setting for its dynamic musical numbers.

We can deduce that this theater setting utilized in the film exists outside the physical realm of the Chicago universe. Instead (or rather, intentionally), the stage setting acts as a conduit for the characters in the film to present themselves to the world in the way that they choose to be seen. In employing this setting technique, we can identify how the film utilizes its identity as a stage musical to develop its characters, seeing as each number and its glamorous contrast to the gloomy world of Chicago allows the audience to see a glimpse into the facade worn by the film’s characters. As such, the show’s numbers can almost be considered an insight into the mind of a criminal, as through the character’s lyrics and performance, we get a front row seat to their internalized identity.

The dichotomy between Chicago’s plot development and number inclusion is perhaps best realized in one of the film’s first performances: “Funny Honey.” Prior to the transition into the number, we witness Roxie after committing the murder as her husband Amos attempts to take the blame for the killing. As Amos provides his faulty account to the police, the film fades into the dark theater setting, featuring Roxie adorned in a peach satin evening dress atop a grand piano. As the musical number segment ensues, we witness an interpolation between Roxie’s jazzy, seductive performance and Amos’ diegetic testimony. Despite the two sequences occurring in entirely different realms, the number still acts as an externalized depiction of Roxie’s internal monologue. The Roxie in the number, who presents herself as the fragile, endearing wife of Amos during his testimony, sings of her husband’s praises: “He loves me so / And it all suits me fine / That funny, sunny, honey hubby of mine.” However, as the diegetic testimony shifts when Amos realizes his wife’s infidelity, Roxie’s performance tone does as well: “I can’t stand that sap / Look at him go / Rattin’ on me.” Evident through the climactic shift, this performance is quite literally Roxie’s demeanor as Amos testifies to the police. As Fred Ebb’s lyrics expertly display the shift from a wooing, awe-filled wife to an angry, manipulative fraud when exposed, it is more than apparent that the musical makeup of Chicago acts as an image of its characters’ manipulative and deceitful facades.

Renee Zellweger in “Funny Honey” (Chicago, 2002)

It’s not just the lyricism in musical numbers that conveys the internal deceptiveness of these characters, either; Velma Kelley’s “I Can’t Do It Alone” employs intense Bob Fosse choreography to demonstrate her manipulative goals. The number occurs slightly after the film’s midpoint, following Roxie’s climb to notoriety adjacent to Velma’s fall from relevance. In an “act of desperation,” we witness Velma plead with Roxie in this number to start a two-woman show once they are both acquitted. This number differs from “Funny Honey,” as unlike Roxie’s performance as the shaken-but-steadfast wife, Velma centers her performance around her dancing and performance prowess. The number consists of a multitude of dancing sequences as Zeta-Jones springs into styles like jazz, cha-cha, swing, salsa, and Middle-Eastern-inspired movement – all of which with near perfect precision, coordination, and timing. The powerhouse performance of this choreography is exactly what establishes the manipulative irony of the number as well, as we have quite literally witnessed Zeta-Jones’ character do “it” alone. Furthermore, the flashy, neon stage design of the number only adds to the vivacity and enticement of this number, essentially drawing in the audience (and Roxie) with bright, Las Vegas marquis-like lighting atop Zeta-Jones’ stellar movements. As such, the choreographic composition of the number acts as the primary communicator of Velma’s character as she actively seeks to profit off of Roxie’s sudden rise in popularity. 

Catherine Zeta-Jones in “I Can’t Do It Alone” (Chicago, 2002)

Now, with all this corruption and deceit, how can anyone come to be fond of this show and its characters? Simply put: the performances. As previously distinguished, the musical makeup of this show is the front-row ticket to a world of manipulative enticement. Through the glamorous wardrobes and set designs, exciting jazzy influences, and a whirlwind of flapper-esque choreo, the world of Chicago is surprisingly exciting for a bleak and dismal city. The haze of glitz and glamor in the show’s numbers lures us deeper and deeper into caring about these characters, being captivated by the snares of jazz, sex, and liberation. As such, with each successive deceit and sabotage, we can’t help but indulge by rooting for Chicago’s collection of cons. With that being said, it only makes sense that this curveball nomination in the 2003 Academy Awards would go on to win six Oscars, including “Best Picture” and “Best Supporting Actress” for Zeta-Jones’ career-defining performance. Chicago is, for lack of a better term, the good guy’s vicarious ride on the wild side, giving into the temptations of subconscious desire, sexual allure, and all that jazz. 

Rent (2005): Eight Crazy New Yorkers, All Defined by Love

By Koby Hrynkiewicz, Shahar Hartman, & Elisa Maknojia

While experiencing Rent and its timeless themes of love, acceptance, inclusion, and living life to the fullest, we decided as a group that no written assignment could do justice in explaining the importance of this musical and how it transcends the concepts of social barriers of race, gender, and sexuality. With that being said, we came together with our own unique backgrounds to discuss in podcast form how this musical, through its blurring of social barriers among the ensemble, is an homage to the lost artists within the 1980s and 90s New York City AIDs Crisis.

You can find the podcast here.

Below is an interactive slideshow to accompany the podcast experience and contextualize several points discussed. Photos in the slideshow include screen grabs from Rent (2005), images of the Lower East Side in 1990s New York City, anti-AIDs and anti-gay publications, pro-gay protests, firsthand evidence of New York artists lost to AIDs, and two podcasters measuring their year in cups of coffee.

“Don’t Rain on My Parade”: How an Iconic Number Washes Away Character Development

By Koby Hrynkiewicz

With a true New York wit and a voice like buttah’, Barbra Streisand’s breakout performance in Director William Wyler’s Funny Girl remains one of the best performances in any film musical. Not only did her role as Broadway pioneer Fanny Brice give way to the iconic phrase “hello, gorgeous,” but also to an unprecedented tie for Best Actress alongside Hollywood titan Katherine Hepburn at the 1969 Academy Awards. With so much iconography emerging from this classic musical film’s titular comedic lady, I would expect that it also pay a certain reverence to the story of Fanny Brice — which it does, but only for the film’s first half. The film falls victim to the stereotype of the worrisome lover (then wife, in the film’s latter half) by placing Streisand’s character amid male-centric songs . While the film remains one of the most important musical performances ever made, numbers like “Don’t Rain on my Parade” render Streisand’s Fanny Brice a poorly-developed character whose desire for male validation surplants her identity as an unparalleled Broadway star. 

Now, I am not questioning the legendary status of “Don’t Rain on my Parade,” which is arguably one of the most pervasive and iconic musical songs ever to emerge. However, it is important to interpret the song’s context within the film. The performance occurs near the midpoint of the film while Brice and the Follies complete their touring engagement in Baltimore. However, after a week-long love affair with the enigmatic Nick Arnstein, Fanny – in her typically Fanny way –  spontaneously leaves the tour to follow Nick to Europe. Perhaps the most crucial detail within this scene is her co-stars’ attempts to persuade Fanny to stay, stating lines like “you’re making a fool of yourself” and “haven’t you any pride?” These moments lead Streisand to burst into “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” with the film’s director William Wyler compelling the audience to view the Follies as the conflict, despite the actuality of their efforts to support a fellow female castmate. As such, the outburst into “Parade” – detailing the ways in which Brice will not be swayed from living out her true passions – feels like a slap in the face to Fanny’s character development. Sure, she’s standing up for what she believes in, but this sudden need to justify her want for male validation feels awkward. Throughout the film, Wyler has oriented us to Fanny’s daring, won’t-take-no attitude, but in this moment – the film’s most iconic performance, may I add – reduces her personality to appeasing her desires for a man. 

Bob Merrill’s lyrics, however, are strikingly empowering. Simply put, Fanny’s not letting anyone ruin her high – evident when she belts “I gotta fly once / I gotta try once” and “I’m gonna live and live now / Get what I want, I know how.” Only aided by the amazing range and emotion in Streisand’s vocal display, this song encapsulates a sense of go-getter aspiration and pursuit for Funny Girl’s protagonist. Yet, it is the full-bodied, reverberating crescendo of, “Hey, Mister Arnstein, here I am,” that ultimately reduces this empowerment anthem to a surface-level coo for the attention of a man. The fact that this singular lyric is the “highpoint” of the number indicates that this – the affections of a man she has been romantically involved with for only a few days – is the definitive motivator for her passions and aspirations. Throughout Act I, Fanny had been a shining beacon of pursuing her professional dreams, and has done so without once requiring the consultation of a male suitor. As such, this grandiose number ultimately waters down the vibrant aspirations Fanny pursues throughout the film’s former half. 

Yet, it is the full-bodied, reverberating crescendo of, “Hey, Mister Arnstein, here I am,” that ultimately reduces this empowerment anthem to a surface-level coo for the attention of a man.

What makes the “Mr. Arnstein” lyric all the more shallow is the fact that “Don’t Rain on My Parade” shares its melodic buildup and lyricism with “I’m the Greatest Star.” Unlike “Parade,” “Greatest Star” lets the audience see the go-getter mantra in a Fanny-centric way. In this previous number, Fanny pursues acknowledgment of her stage presence and raw talent. “I’m the Greatest Star” indicates Fanny’s celebration of herself through lyrics like “Some ain’t got it, not a lump / I’m a great big clump of talent,” unlike the way  “Parade” reduces her personal ambitions to a measly, little crush. The “Hey Mr. Keeney, here I am” lyric feels more powerful here, because Fanny knows she’s good enough on her own. Her call for Keeney is a sign of her boldness rather than a meager cry for validation. As such, the juxtaposition between the “Hey Mr. [insert surname here]” lyrics just hurts the authenticity of Fanny Brice in Funny Girl. The emphasis and dynamism Wyler placed on the “Parade” number rather than “Greatest Star” asks audiences to see Fanny’s pursuit for male validation as superior to her pursuit for talent recognition and the fulfillment of her dreams. 

As for the choreographic performance of “Don’t Rain on my Parade,” there is not much notable movement, but rather a series of long shots following Fanny as she makes her way back to New York and subsequently into Arnstein’s room on the ship. Many of these shots depict Streisand running frantically with her luggage and employing a multitude of transportation means to get to Nick. Within this supercut of Fanny’s unprompted return, I can’t help but notice how much this performance differs from the film’s prior numbers, those multitude of grandiose performances whether on the elegant Follies stage or wandering between street lights on Henry Street. This number feels small in comparison. Given what we know about Fanny Brice thus far – whether it be through Merrill’s audacious lyrics or Streisand’s zest-filled performance – small is not an appropriate adjective for describing this character. In most shots – specifically the train window shot and the shot of the taxi arriving to the seaport– viewers can hardly even make out Streisand’s bodily and facial characteristics. Wyler’s use of a supercut assumedly attempts to empower the audience alongside Fanny while she undergoes this triumphant return to her “love,” but I cannot help but feel a disconnect through this distanced orientation. For being such a bold and booming act closer, “Parade” undoes the nerve and excitement of earlier performances like “Roller Skate Rag” and “His Love Makes Me Beautiful.” Unfortunately, the lack of grandiose choreography or cinematography only prolongs the song’s vapidity. 

With all that being said: I love Barbra Streisand, and I personally think she should have edged out Katherine Hepburn for that Best Actress win. I can’t even count the times I passed a mirror on the way out the door and thought to myself “hello, gorgeous.” Funny Girl is – whether you like or not – a piece of cultural iconography. However, it is important to acknowledge the inherent flaws present in this adaptation of Fanny Brice’s revolutionary role in the formation of modern musical theater culture: Brice is a standing column of inspiration, not only for women, but for first-generation Jewish individuals, and her role in the theater industry should be immortalized with total reverence and respect. Despite the powerhouse performance of Barbra Streisand in this film, the unfortunate hyper-fixation on her romantic obstacles takes away from the wondrous qualities which should have been the focus of this biopic.