“You are a phony celebrity. You’re a flash in the pan, and in a couple of weeks, no one is going to give a shit about you. That’s Chicago.” -Billy Flynn

“KYLIE IS PREGNANT,” “KIM AND KANYE ARE GETTING DIVORCED,” “KENDALL SHOWS OFF HER MODEL FRAME;” these are just a few of the many headlines that circulate mainstream media. Although all of these headlines revolve around the Kardashians (which is no accident, as they are frequent headline occupiers), many of the more gossipy, scandalous, and therefore more entertaining stories involve female celebrities. The motive of any magazine is to produce the headlines and stories that society wants to read or hear about, reflecting women’s role in entertainment and what society wants or even expects from women. Though headlines and celebrity gossip are seemingly unimportant, after watching Chicago, I’ve realized it is a greater reflection of societal norms and values since it corresponds to the information that people seek, which is inherently influenced by their biases and preconceptions about societal structures, including but definitely not limited to the patriarchy. 

Chicago reflects this big, and quite frankly scary, idea in a profound, comprehensive way that resonates strongly with the viewer. Chicago is the “longest-running American musical in Broadway history;” it was revived on the stage in 1996 and has carried strong ever since. Written and first debuted in 1975, Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb transport audiences to the roaring twenties in the roaring city of Chicago. There is no shortage of flash, booze, and jazz—John Kander writes bluesy hits that I can’t seem to stop humming. Fosse’s choreography brings these numbers to life, as do Ebb’s lyrics, all of which create an incredible, theatrical spectacle that later was translated into a cinematic masterpiece. Created in 2002, Rob Marshall directs the three main characters to perfection—Velma, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, Roxie, played by Renee Zellweger, and Billy Flynn, played by Richard Gere, beautifully portray this infamous story of crime, scandal, and celebrity. Both Velma and Roxie shoot someone and are being tried for murder. Locked up in their jail cells, they rely on the help from Billy Flynn, a famous lawyer, to figure out how to set them free and ultimately save their lives, mostly by figuring out ways in which to appeal to the (conveniently) all male jury. Through its plot line and theatrical numbers, Chicago captures the longstanding perception of women as props meant solely for entertainment value with little other purpose or worth, highlighting one of the many ways in which women are objectified. The film argues that they are to be looked at or observed, but not to be taken seriously—their lives don’t really matter. This idea is exemplified through the plot thread of the actual lives of these women being at stake, and to save their lives, they must make the jury want to keep them alive by giving them what they seek and putting on a “show.” 

Fosse and Ebb use performance as a medium for illustrating a woman’s purpose of entertaining and serving the needs of men. They capture this by having some of the numbers, that represent a moment in a character’s life, be an act on the jazz club stage, with the announcer, intricate costuming, and a glamorized performance depicting the act. This is most prominently displayed through “the Hungarian Disappearing Act,” which was essentially a casual, glorified way of depicting her hanging, revealing that this woman’s life was purely for entertainment in society’s eyes. “It’s show business,” as Billy Flynn would say.

This line opens the number, “Razzle Dazzle,” which prominently displays women as entertainment and the inherent misogyny within that that the musical proclaims. The number occurs simultaneously with Roxie’s trial; the film cuts back and forth between a circus-like performance taking place in the trial room and the actual trial (one of the benefits of cinema), once again highlighting the idea that the trial itself is a performance that Roxie and Billy are putting on. Billy even mistakes the jury for the “audience” by calling them that and then quickly correcting himself, solidifying the idea that these women’s lives are a spectacle for the “audience’s” viewing pleasure. They both put on quite a show during the trial itself—they are very theatrical in their movements and expressions, with big swooping arms, raised voices, crying, and fainting. Billy preps her to do this during the number—he emphasizes the importance of theatrics and “dazzl[ing]” the men in order to win her case and have her life be saved. 

This highly androcentric perspective is portrayed in the characteristics of the number itself. Billy—who is conveniently the star of the number while Roxie does not say a word—is surrounded by scantily-dressed women in gold jewels and red feathers posing around him. They seem to be on display without an ounce of autonomy, only moving with an occasional delicate twist of the arm or graceful leg lift or swirl from the ceiling on silks. They serve no purpose except for visual aesthetics, “complementing” Billy and the male jury members and acting as props. All of this is to point out the misogynistic undertones of the number itself, beyond the obvious messaging through the song’s sexist lyrics. Most of the lyrics place the responsibility on the woman to “razzle dazzle” the men in order to get what they want; this involves stunning, shocking, blinding, and wowing them, assigning men the power in this dynamic. He describes women as shiny objects that they can use to their advantage in order to distract these men (“How can they see with sequins in their eyes?”), showcasing the blatant objectification that existed in this world.

…speaking of distracting…

To add to this idea of women distracting men, the composition illustrates this well by incorporating high hats. A lot of high hats. These stick out and are very consuming to the ear, representing this “flash” or distraction objective Billy describes through his lyrics. There are also many chimes that paint an image of sparkles or “sequins” falling around these women with men left agape, reflecting an all-too-prominent standard in society of the man staring at the woman as the woman does something with her body to impress him. This outdated image is also backed by the old-fashioned instrumentality of the song. Upon hearing the piano, brass, and trumpets, my mind instantly thought “old-timey, feel good, American jazz”—verbatim from my notes. This era of musicality is a reflection of the outdated standards and expectations of women at the time, that have still carried over in many ways.

Through its plot line and theatrical numbers, Chicago captures the longstanding perception of women as props meant solely for entertainment value with little other purpose or worth, highlighting one of the many ways in which women are objectified.

It works, though! Roxie is found not guilty! Smiles and cheers fill the screen until—bang!—another woman has shot a man. The reporters move right along to the next headline, leaving Roxie in the dust. Roxie is upset and frustrated rather than joyous and relieved that her life has just been saved, revealing how she has internalized this need to be the headline that without, her life has little value. Ultimately, we see how female performers and celebrities, like Roxie, internalize the harmful stereotypes and behaviors that show business as a capitalist enterprise perpetuates. People are just looking for the thing that will make headlines and make them the most money, which ultimately means appealing to the wants of society, reflecting society’s misogynistic views of women. This is applicable not solely for show business or for headlines but in many aspects of life. Women having to act or appear a certain way to appeal to a certain audience in order to achieve what they want is something that I think about often, especially when thinking about eventually entering the workforce in a field, STEM, that used to be heavily dominated by men. It is easy to get caught up in these ideas in order to get ahead, but after watching Chicago and writing this blog post, I’ve realized the importance of staying true to yourself and values. And even though Velma and Roxie get somewhat of a happy, successful ending, I wouldn’t say the journey was worth it. Definitely one I’m not willing to take. 

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.