For the better part of three decades, “Chicago” producer Marty Richards believed that the Kander & Ebb musical, brought to vivid life on Broadway by the legendary Bob Fosse, would make a great movie. “What Bob was talking about was a condemnation of our celebrity culture,” Richards says.
Trouble is, “Nobody else believed that would work as a movie,” the intrepid producer admits.
While that is perhaps a slight exaggeration (moviemakers as varied as Frank Yablans and Dino De Laurentiis expressed interest over the years), only the Weinsteins were willing to make a firm commitment. With Fosse attached, the movie went into pre-production (with Goldie Hawn and Madonna envisioned as Roxie and Velma) shortly before the director’s death.
John Kander recalls the acute irony, not to mention disappointment. He had just run into Fosse at a memorial in New York City, and the director was excited about the upcoming movie.
“I’ve just figured out how to do the film version of ‘Chicago,’ ” he told the show’s composer. “And when Fred gets back from California, we’ll talk about it.”
The three men never had that momentuous meeting. “And then Fosse died,” says Kander. “I didn’t know his concept. He was tickled about it. He was going to spring it on us.”
Richards says he later offered the project to director Baz Luhrmann, who was loath to take on a project so closely identified with one of his idols. “So I put it in a drawer,” the producer says. And he took it right out again after witnessing Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall’s acclaimed Broadway revival of “Cabaret.”
With Mendes busy directing “American Beauty,” Richards turned to Marshall, who wanted to embrace the theatricality of “Chicago” and present all the songs directly to the audience, utilizing the device of having the musical sequences take place in the mind of Roxie Hart. But he wanted to go even further, maintaining the stylization for the nonmusical sequences as well. For that idea, he took his cue from the masters.
“In ‘Chicago,’ Kander and Ebb created a very Brechtian musical in which the musical numbers all comment on the action. They did that a lot,” says Marshall. “They were pioneers in stepping outside the piece and commenting on it.”
That’s a concept that “Chicago” shares not only with “Cabaret” but another Kander & Ebb musical, “Kiss of the Spider Woman” (which Marshall choreographed on Broadway and believes has screen potential).
To help achieve his vision, Marshall brought in Oscar-winning screenwriter Bill Condon, who found it “the easiest experience I’d ever had working on a movie script,” he says. “Rob’s mantra is that musicals are always about collaboration.”
One collaboration Condon found particularly fruitful was working out scene transitions with the film’s choreography team. “What I discovered is that choreography is almost identical to writing,” he says. “We took script pages for the trial sequences and turned them almost entirely into dance, which was great, because you don’t want to bog a musical down with courtroom dialogue.”
In 2003, “Chicago” walked away with six Oscars, including best picture, and went on to be the most successful tuner since “Grease” (1978), grossing more than $300 million worldwide.
The one big difference between “Chicago” onstage and on film may be the key to its success. “Bob Fosse had a very dark sensibility, and Rob must be one of the sunniest people I’ve ever met,” Condon says. “The movie ended up somewhere in the middle. What might have been a kind of poison-pen letter if Fosse had directed it became more of a valentine under Rob.”