Chicago rocks Gotham

Roxie and Velma's return engagement plays 10 -- count 'em 10 -- killer years

What: “Chicago” revival’s 10th anniversary gala
When: Nov. 14
Where: Ambassador Theater, New York City
Charity: Safe Haven
Performers: Obba Babatunde, Joel Grey, Melanie Griffith, Gregory Harrison, Huey Lewis, James Naughton, Bebe Neuwirth, Ann Reinking, Chita Rivera, Brooke Shields and Ashlee Simpson, among others.

A little more than 10 years after the fact, John Kander can’t quite remember if it happened at the invited-dress or on opening night. Regardless of the exact night in early May 1996, the composer does remember the occasion with fond and otherwise total recall:

“It was the most extraordinary experience Fred Ebb and I ever had in the theater,” the composer states without equivocation. “It was totally unexpected. We had some nice things happen to us in our career, but this was unique.”

This was the Encores! concert production of “Chicago,” the duo’s 1975 musical that had first been brought to the stage by Bob Fosse with Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera originating those two publicity-starved killers, Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly.

That initial Broadway stint enjoyed a respectable but hardly spectacular run of 936 performances, after which the tuner pretty much proceeded to languish for 21 years — until director Walter Bobbie and choreographer Ann Reinking joined forces to revive the show.

At the time of the Encores! revival, Kander and Ebb were auditioning dancers for their new show, “Steel Pier,” and one of those hopeful hoofers mentioned being in “Chicago” over at City Center.

“So what’s it like?” Ebb asked the dancer.

“I think you’re going to like it” was the reply.

As Kander recalls, “Basically, we just showed up. They kept us posted about casting, but we weren’t involved with the show.”

Two hours later, as the lyricist and composer made their way into City Center, Kander and Ebb were treated to the most pleasant shock of their career. “It was like a rock concert,” Kander says. “There was an electricity in the air I hadn’t anticipated and still don’t understand to this day. Everything that happened onstage got these huge hands.”

Bobbie and Reinking, who played Roxie to Bebe Neuwirth’s Velma in the revival, didn’t do good. They did great, and against rather daunting odds.

“The show did not have a great life following its Broadway premiere, and the (Encores!) board was not all that enthusiastic about our staging it,” says Bobbie, who at the time was the org’s artistic director. “But the score deserved to be re-examined. There are no mediocre songs in that score.”

Equally important, Bobbie knew what he wanted conceptually and what he didn’t: “I wasn’t interested in reviving the 1975 production so much as making this ‘Chicago’ an homage to Fosse, a singular stylist.” When Reinking, who had replaced Verdon in the original production, came aboard the project, she and Bobbie decided to “glean images from Fosse’s entire career,” says the helmer, “and as we expanded those ideas, we came to realize that, as Fosse grew as an artist, he became more and more a minimalist.” As the director points out, “By the time he did his last show, ‘Big Deal,’ there was nothing on that stage.”

Nothing, as it turned out, is what the Encores! budget afforded the director and choreographer.

“Circumstances played a great gift to us,” Reinking recalls. “We didn’t have any money. The show you see (on Broadway) is almost exactly as it was at Encores! A lot of it came out of people’s closets.”

Reinking replicated much of Fosse’s original choreography, as best she could remember it; other pieces, however, had to be adapted: “Like in ‘Cell Block Tango.’ In the original, they were behind bars, but we couldn’t afford the bars at Encores!, so we put them on chairs, like they were being interrogated. Bob did a lot of work on chairs.” And so on.

“As we paid tribute to Fosse as an artist, the more we honored him without doing his production,” Bobbie says.

Producers to the rescue

Like Kander, Reinking remembers something “crackling in the air” during that very limited run of “Chicago” at City Center. In the end, that electricity could have been unplugged after the final and fifth curtain — if not for some keen commercial interest in the project.

“We’d been trying to put together a revival of ‘Chicago’ for a number of years,” says Barry Weissler, who produces with his wife, Fran. “I didn’t think when I walked into Encores! that night that this would be the production I’d been looking for for five years.”

Indeed, it was. And even more to their astonished delight, the Weisslers, who expected to enter a bidding war, found themselves in competish with no other producers. “I couldn’t believe it,” Weissler says.

There were the usual number of naysayers in Shubert Alley: One prominent columnist, for instance, doubted in print that many Broadway theatergoers would pony up $75 a ducat to see a concert version of “Chicago.” As in all Encores! stagings, the orchestra sat onstage, which is just the way Bobbie envisioned the Broadway transfer as well.

“I wanted the band to be trapped onstage, just like these characters are trapped in their ambitions. So we put the band in a jury box,” he says.

Marketing guru Drew Hodges ran with the production’s inherent pared-down mise en scene.

“We like to take a negative and flip it around to a positive,” the Spotco topper says. While the rest of Broadway was still applauding hydraulics and falling chandeliers, he took a different approach: “We were looking to make the black and white of ‘Chicago’ an asset.”

And to that end, Spotco hired fashion photographers to shoot the cast. Equally important, “We always wanted the women to be aggressive, in command, never a victim,” Hodges adds.

As Ebb himself once remarked about the show: “Nobody is having sex in ‘Chicago.’ Billy Flynn is not banging Roxie Hart. Roxie Hart is not banging anybody. And yet the show is sexy, because it is uses sex as a commodity.”

Trials and press heat

Kander says he has “not a clue” why the original “Chicago” barely broke two years on Broadway while the current revival, which opened in November 1996, continues to run after 10 years, having grossed nearly $300 million, with the worldwide take over $900 million.

Reinking feels that “A Chorus Line” in 1975-76 grabbed up all the press heat that season. Many others have pointed to the 1990s trials of the Menendez brothers and O.J. Simpson as having made the public more receptive to the show’s dark take on American mores.

“But what is more cynical than Watergate?” asks Kander, referring to the mother lode of all political scandals, which concluded on the eve of the show’s first Broadway run.

Often overlooked in this box office comparison is Ebb’s sex-as-a-commodity thesis. Back in 1975, Fosse was continuing to burnish the “divine decadence” afterglow of his “Cabaret” triumph, and in effect imbued the original “Chicago” staging with a lot of gender ambiguity that had the chorus boys dangling long tassels off their nipples — “Those hurt!” jokes Kander — among other femme accoutrement. The revival is definitely more mainstream in its taunts across the sexual divide.

“In the last 10 years, we’ve had more musicals that men like, too: ‘Producers’ and ‘Spamalot,’ ” Hodges says. “There is a theory that the ‘Chicago’ campaign provides something that’s provocative and sensual for women as well as men.” Or as “Chicago” costumer William Ivey Long once put it, “My favorite colors: black and flesh.”

“Chicago” easily remains the sexiest, most adult tuner on Broadway. Regarding its staying power, the legit show has enjoyed the Viagra of the movie version, which only helped to pump up its visibility worldwide. And unlike a “Producers,” the show appears to accommodate an amazing roulette wheel of performers, ranging from Brooke Shields and Melanie Griffith to Huey Lewis and Kevin Richardson.

“Every once in a while I’ll see an announcement that such-and-such is playing a part,” says Kander. “You think, Whaaaat?! Then they turn out to be really interesting.”

The show’s current casting director, James Calleri, recently put Ashlee Simpson and Usher into the production to lower the aud’s demos. It helps, he says, that “there’s such a strong core company to keep the temperature of the show, regardless of whom you’re dropping in for a certain amount of time.”

Unlike “The Phantom of the Opera,” every three to six months there’s at least one new star performer in “Chicago,” giving the production a new hit. “But from the beginning,” says the show’s publicist, Pete Sanders, “the show was the star, not the stars, regardless of how many of them we’ve had.”

Having played Roxie, as well as training a lot of Velmas, Reinking says “Chicago” gives performers of various stripes the necessary support: “It gives you confidence to know you’re dancing good choreography and singing good songs, and it brings out the best in you.”

In the end, it comes down to quality. Bobbie uses the word “inevitable” to describe the deceptive simplicity of Kander & Ebb’s art. “You think, ‘I could have written that’ — until you try to write it,” he says. “When you hear their songs, I often wonder, ‘Why didn’t someone bother to write that before?’ “

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