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‘Chicago’ dodges musical jinx

Helmer says preserving theatricality is the key

Any theater buff will tell you that no movie of a Broadway musical has been done right since “1776” 30 years ago.

The much-reviled “A Chorus Line” (1985) may be the most notorious example of a botched film from a great show.

So with rave reviews and awards talk already surrounding “Chicago,” the film version of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s 1975 musical about celebrity culture and media manipulation, the question is, how did this one manage to dodge the jinx?

According to director Rob Marshall, “It was really about trying to protect the theatricality of the piece.” He convinced Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein with his concept: The songs, which were designed as vaudeville numbers, needed to be performed on a stage and sung to an audience. But if they were interwoven with a parallel story that is part reality, part Roxie’s fantasy, the movie could have a single linear thread.

Shockingly, Marshall reports, before he and writer Bill Condon signed on to the project, most of the early drafts of “Chicago” threw out the Kander and Ebb score (with its classic numbers including “All That Jazz,” “The Cellblock Tango,” “When You’re Good to Mama” and “Razzle Dazzle”).

Kander and Ebb wrote a new song, “I Move On,” which is heard over the end titles (and is therefore Oscar eligible). It was originally designed as a possible replacement for “Nowadays,” the splashy finale for Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger, but when “Nowadays” seemed feasible for the film, “I Move On” became useful as a kind of epilogue.

Kander says his and Ebb’s involvement in the film was “very slight.” But they were confident in Marshall because they had often worked with him in the theater (Marshall danced in their “Zorba,” choreographed “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and directed a revival of “Cabaret”).

“The thing that is amazing to me is that he found a way to do a real movie movie and at the same time keep its theatrical roots,” Kander says. “It confounds me.”

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