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.
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.
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.
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.
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