An authoritative history of the “entire Chicago saga—a play, a silent film, a talkie, and only then the musical”—and beyond.
Does anyone know more about the Broadway musical than the prolific Mordden (When Broadway Went to Hollywood, 2016, etc.)? Now, instead of exploring another aspect of the genre’s history, the author focuses on the many iterations of one musical, the “fleet and ruthless” Chicago, a story of two women awaiting trial in a Chicago jail for murdering men. Like other satirical musicals, Chicago is “silly, loony, irreverent, and sexy, in the Offenbach tradition.” Mordden sees the “too easily underestimated show” as dealing with two of America’s “great myths,” the city itself and the 1920s. After opening chapters provide useful summaries of the city’s history, the author turns to Maurine Watkins, a Tribune reporter, and her 1926 play Chicago, which drew upon a pair of murder trials she reported on. Working in the “crook play-cum-courtroom drama” tradition, she “reinvents genre” in her play about the nature of power in America. Next came the silent movie version in 1927, directed by Cecil B. DeMille. Mating wicked doings with farce, his movie was the “tale of a troubled marriage. Of a decent and loving guy married to a user.” The second movie version, Roxie Hart (1942), directed by William A. Wellman and starring Ginger Rogers, was closer to the play than DeMille’s version. Mordden takes two chapters to discuss the brilliant 1975 Bob Fosse choreographed version of Chicago, starring Gwen Verdon, with its “razzamatazz” music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb. This multiple Tony winner, writes the author, was the “consummation of the musical satire.” Choreographer/director Rob Marshall won the Academy Award as Best Director for his 2002 Chicago, which captured Best Picture, one of few musicals ever to do so.
A theater history told with candor—critics Andrew Sarris and Clive Barnes are “idiots”—wit, and expertise. A distinguished investigation into the art form intellectuals scorn as “cotton candy.”