CHICAGO, CHICAGO: A Helluva Play (1926)

Perhaps one of the few Broadway musicals with a fan base that extends far beyond the realm of theatre aficionados (thanks to a financially successful and artistically solid film adaptation), Chicago, with a score by the great Kander and Ebb, has a history that goes back further than the musical’s opening in the summer of 1975. Chicago: A Musical Vaudeville, which starred Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera, is based on a 1942 Ginger Rogers vehicle entitled Roxie Hart, which in turn was adapted from a 1926 play written by reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins. Watkins, who found inspiration in the real life murder trials of Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner, used these notorious “merry murderesses” to craft a wicked satire of the performative nature of the American judicial system (particularly in Chicago) and the ways in which sinful girls were able to manipulate their ways to acquittal. Long familiar with both the 1975 musical and the 1942 Ginger Rogers film, I made it a personal mission to seek out the text of the original 1926 play (which ran under the title Chicago but was known earlier in its development as Play Ball!). In today’s post, I’m going to share with you some of the major differences between the play and the musical.


What will strike readers as the most substantially different about the play is the role of Velma, who is presented much closer to her Gaertner roots. Not a vaudevillian with a sister act and a cheating husband, this Velma is charged for the murder of her estranged husband. While Gartner (like Annan) was charged with shooting her lover, both she and this incarnation of Velma have trouble remembering what happened. Lacking the grit of the musical’s depiction of Velma, the character comes across here as a refined, glamorous, and slightly airy charmer. Furthermore, she’s definitely not the major player that she would become in the musical and the film adaptation of the musical. The 1926 play is all about Roxie Hart, whose story is taken almost directly from the real life case of Beulah Annan. While Gwen Verdon’s Roxie claimed that she and her lover “both reached for the gun,” this Roxie insists that they “both grabbed for the gun.” The flip-flopping of her story, also detailed in the musical, is literally ripped from the headlines — and one can imagine how amused audience members in early 1927 must have been to see such a pointed satire.


The play also makes time for Jake, a male reporter with more prominence than Mary Sunshine and Billy Flynn, who serves to hammer home the point that all of these cases are driven by the media and that in order to earn exoneration one must simply “play ball” with the press. The musical was smart to eliminate his character and streamline his existence into the two aforementioned characters. He isn’t needed, especially since the musical uses the vaudeville numbers to enhance the ways in which these ladies perform their innocence, using every trick in the book to con a jury and public that hungers for a good story. The musical, even more than the play, makes it clear without being overbearing: it’s all a show. And that’s principally where the musical succeeds over the play. It streamlines the plot (which isn’t a hinderance) and enhances the satire (without grating on our nerves).


What the musical doesn’t quite capture, especially in modern day productions, is an actual sense of 1926 Chicago, in which this play is positively dripping. From the dialogue to the characterizations, there’s no doubt that this was a 1920s show intended to be as modern as it could be — finding its success precisely in its audience’s recognition of the ways in which their city and some of its recent events were being mocked. In this way, there’s no doubt that Watkins’ piece is way more authentic than any other iteration of the story. Of course, this is to be expected. It is of its time. And that’s precisely why it’s a good read. In fact, I would recommend that theatre companies who plan to produce the musical read the play — particularly for a sense of the atmosphere. Roxie Hart, especially, comes alive in this text in ways that the musical’s Roxie only does in the numbers. And I think a study of Watkins’ Roxie will undoubtedly do wonders for all of those amateur productions that use the 2002 musical film adaptation as a reference. Renee Zellweger is so far from this Roxie, it would make your head spin. This Roxie isn’t a spoiled brat. She’s a multi-dimensional wrongdoer. And it makes for interesting reading. (I’d also like to add that the 1927 silent film adaptation of the play has been released on DVD. It’s highly recommended for the comedic performance by Phyllis Haver  — although the screenplay foolishly refocuses its emphasis onto Roxie’s relationship with Amos, whose mission to get her lawyer’s retainer’s fee is a significant plot point that distracts from the original play’s satire.)


Of course, I don’t think any interpretation of the role will ever be able to surpass the love I have for Gwen Verdon’s. Let’s close this post with a live audio (from opening night on Broadway) of Gwen Verdon slaying with “Roxie.” This is musical theatre magic.



Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in tomorrow for more Xena!

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