By Marc S. Sanders

When you are a sexy, sultry lady killer, infamy can just about save you from a hanging.  That’s what Rob Marshall’s Oscar winning adaptation of Bob Fosse’s Broadway jazz musical capitalizes on in Chicago. The movie is hot, steamy, dazzling and blazing with magnetic song and dance numbers that are easy to follow while getting your pulse racing.  The design, direction, music, and choreography are magnificent.  The cast is outstanding too.

During the glitzy 1920’s in the Windy City, Roxy Hart (Renée Zellweger) is a wanna be night club performer who gets arrested for the murder of her extra marital lover (Dominic West).  She’s thrown in the pokey where the well known warden Matron Mama Morton (Queen Latifah) oversees all of the other murderesses, and often profits off of their sensationalistic crimes.  Roxy’s loser schlub of a husband, Amos (John C Reilly), manages to hire the hottest defense attorney in town, the handsomely slick and underhanded Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), to represent Roxy at trial.  Billy has never lost a case because his specialty is to manufacture drama for his accused clients, generating sympathy in the papers and among the jury.  In the film, there is a scene where Billy is literally pulling the strings on his puppets, particularly a marionette appearance of Roxy on his lap while he does the obvious ventriloquism.  A memorable moment for both Gere and Zellweger.  On the side is Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a double murderer of her husband and performing partner/sister.  Velma owned the public outcry until Roxy’s name was splashed along the headlines.  Now, the spotlight is quickly moving away from Velma.

Rob Marshall choreographed and directed Chicago.  He demonstrates the fun that can be had with murder.  Call it a new kind of excitement that normally we take jubilant delight with episodes of Murder She Wrote or Agatha Christie tales. 

The theme of this picture is how the story is narrated in a colorful reality.  On a parallel level it is performed on a stage nightclub with a bandleader (Taye Diggs) introducing the players who then breakout into their own testimonial song amid large choruses and dancers to enhance the attraction of headlines and sleazy, operatic narratives.  Christine Baranski is the reporter whose front and center, trying to collect the next big chapter development of whoever leads the hottest storyline at any given moment. 

Marshall will turn a courtroom proceeding led by Billy Flynn into a three-ring circus, while at the same time he’ll cut away to the nightclub.  Billy will be on stage, but he’s now wearing a glittery three-piece suit and doing a ragtime song and dance with a chorus of scantily clad, Burlesque women to apply a little Razzle Dazzle for the judge and jury.  Richard Gere is not who you think of for stage musicals, but he is positively charming.

Queen Latifah has a scene stealing moment to show off her entrance into the picture.  Mama Morton is in a skintight evening dress, complete with a swanky boa while performing When You’re Good To Mama on stage at the nightclub. Frequent cut aways have her dictating her powerhouse tune to the inmates.  John C Reilly performs Mr. Cellophane. He lays out certainty that there’s nothing inauthentic about the pushover loser husband he really is.  Both actors got well deserved Oscar nominations.

Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renée Zellweger are a perfect pair of competitors.  They each have their individual moments and they act with such solid gusto; tough broads not to messed with.  The confidence they exude on screen with character acting, singing, and dancing is second to none.  The script will offer moments when Roxy and Velma think they are high and mighty, and winning the court of public opinion.  Then it will be undone when their hotshot attorney, Billy Flynn, knocks some sarcastic sense into them and a dose of reality sets in.  Roxy isn’t so fond of wearing a conservative black dress with a white collar in court until she sees a fellow cellmate lose her last motion of appeal, and there’s nothing left but to be punished by hanging.  She might be putting on a helluva performance, and signing autographs while souvenir dolls of her likeness are selling on the streets, but none of that ain’t gonna mean a thing if the jury finds her guilty of murder.

Just like I began this article, infamy is the word that kept coming back to me while watching Chicago.  Infamy bears celebrity.  Granted, it’s enhanced for a lively musical motion picture and stage show.  However, there’s a very, sad, and no longer surprising truth to that ideal.  A few years back, I recall news reports about a criminal’s sexy mug shot where he had donned a tattooed tear drop below his eye.  This guy was prime for runway modeling.  However, he was proven to be a violent car thief. He actually got signed by a talent scout following his bail out.  (I think the agent posted the bond.)  Later, he got arrested for some other crime. 

I never saw the reality program Chrisley Knows Best, about a God loving family who proudly live among the finest that money can buy.  Recently, the ultra-vain mother and father were sentenced to over a decade in federal prison for fraud and tax evasion.  Yet, their brand is stronger than ever, as the gossip columns can’t get enough, and their adult daughter’s podcast has millions of listeners.  Word is that a new program is being designed as a follow up to their prison sentences. 

Infamy bears reward.

Chicago pokes fun at the obsessions adhered by the media, the public, the courts and within the penal community.  The well known musical is now decades old, but the topics contained within clearly identify how news is not reported in a simple, objective Walter Cronkite kind of way, anymore.  Everything is heightened.  Everything is dramatized.  It’s not enough that Roxy kills her lover.  That will get her only so much mileage, until the next lady killer comes along (in the form of Lucy Liu, for example).  Roxy must stay relevant.  Announcing she’s pregnant will keep her on the front page (It could help that she faints while doing it). Velma knows all too well that the public favoritism she once had, accompanied with Billy’s sleazy promotion, is even further away. 

Rob Marshall presents a film where any song can be pulled out of context just for its sizzling entertainment.  Try not to forget the Cell Block Tango with solos from Zeta-Jones, as well as her fellow inmate chorus girls, each proudly describing how their guy “Had it coming!!!”.  All That Jazz is arguably one of the best opening numbers to a show, and Catherine Zeta-Jones owns the performance.  Individually, these songs and the performers win my attention in the car or the shower or during a workout.  Assemble them together with the overall storyline, and Chicago becomes a fast paced, kinetic roller coaster that makes you think while you smirk at all the scruples and vices being dismissed. 

The last time I saw Chicago was in theaters in 2002.  I had also seen a stage production of it before then.  I loved it both times.  Rewatching it recently gave me such a jolt of energy.  It is why theatre is a vital source of escapism. Here is an example where you can feel positively entertained while reflecting on a sad truth.  It might be sad, but you’re smiling all the way through while you mouth the brilliant lyrics and tap your feet.

Roxy Hart, Velma Kelly, Billy Flynn and the rest of the cast of characters make Chicago red hot and gleefully sinful.


By Marc S. Sanders

Is it possible for a musical to be disturbing? Maybe Bob Fosse’s Cabaret favors that argument.

Liza Minnelli won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1972 for her portrayal of Sally Bowles, a carefree, happy go lucky performer at the underground Kit Kat Club located in Berlin, 1931. She is the lead attraction among a company of dancers doing a different kind of stage vaudeville with its colorful emcee played amazingly by Joel Grey, also an Oscar winner.

The musical numbers are outlandish with caked on makeup and outfits that could make Victoria’s Secret seem like a children’s shop. I gathered from the film that Fosse, who choreographed the numbers as well, offered up the escape of life first, before showing the harsh reality of Berlin in its historical context.

Sally and the Emcee’s performances are first on hand, depicted as silly and showstopping. Thereafter, Sally encounters an English gentleman named Brian Roberts (Michael York) who is a professor of English study attempting to complete his doctorate. As Sally and Brian become closer as friends first, he must reluctantly admit to Sally that he’s a better bed companion with a man than with a woman. Sally doesn’t understand why he didn’t say that in the first place as she attempts to come on to him.

Herein lies the dilemma many faced as the Nazi party was gaining traction in Germany. How necessary is it to hide your true natures to preserve your life? Sally’s underground lifestyle at the club clouds her vision of what’s gradually happening in the world. Nevertheless, they eventually develop a relationship as Brian appears to be bisexual, more specifically.

A side story concerns Brian & Sally’s relationship with a baron named Maximillan (Helmut Griem), who will wine and dine them at his estate only to later abandon the respective relationships he sets up with them to more or less make them feel as cheap as prostitutes. I wasn’t sure what to gather from this extension, however. The irony is that unbeknownst to Sally and Brian they have both been sleeping with Max. Eventually, Sally reveals she’s pregnant but does not know who the father may be, Brian or Max, and an abortion is considered.

An additional side story concerns a wealthy Jewish German heiress named Natalia who falls in love with a German Jew named Fritz living under the guise of a Protestant.

Cabaret is a loose adaptation of The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood (the Brian character) and his experience with stage performer Jean Ross (the Sally character). Isherwood’s stories gradually formed into different iterations of stage plays and short stories before making it to Broadway and Fosse’s celebrated film.

Though Fosse apparently took some questionable liberties and departures from Isherwood’s writings, I think it depicts the personal struggles of love and self identity while the world around them is quickly changing into a scary reality where your own self identity could get you killed.

Fosse gives terrifying glimpses of how the Nazi party seeps it’s way into a decadent Berlin of underground showmanship. Though apparently Berlin really wasn’t so decadent as the film has you believe. Ross and Isherwood have gone on record describing Berlin was a more destitute and poor environment, actually.

In Fosse’s film, a Nazi youth is seen early on being kicked out of the Kit Kat Club. A few minutes later, the night club manager is being beaten in an alley. Fosse juxtaposes scary moments like this against the silly debauchery depicted on stage. It’s as if the Gypsies, homosexuals and Jews in the area are unaware of the evil practice that is gradually taking over outside.

Soon, Fosse makes the swastika more apparent in the streets with propaganda handouts. Most telling is when a young boy is seen at an outdoor beer garden gathering singing a number selfishly entitled “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” Fosse is frighteningly effective at showing this boy from the neck up. Eventually, he moves the camera down to reveal the boy’s swastika wrapped around his sleeve. The song which seemed to champion beauty and nature now evolves into a march of grandstanding fascism. It completely shocked me. Just as people like Brian and Fritz are reluctant to reveal their backgrounds, both sexually and religiously, the Nazi party is proud to announce their mindset in a converse manner. By the end of the film, the audience at the Kit Kat Club more predominantly shows Nazis in the audience as opposed to just the one shown in the beginning of the film. Hatred has spread its disease.

While Minnelli shines in her role, her showstopping moment really comes at the end when she dangles her carefree attitude while belting out the title song with “Life Is A Cabaret.” Along with Joel Grey’s Emcee closing out the film with the “Finale,” this musical goes against the grain of most musicals’ cheerful close outs or romantic theatrics. Fosse’s mirror image of the Nazi party taking in Sally and Emcee’s performances are chilling. We sense the characters’ time is at an end and wisely the film runs its closing credits among frightening silence with the cold, blurred images of Nazi soldiers staring right at us.

I had never seen the film of Cabaret until now, but I had attended two different stage productions; neither of which I liked. Bob Fosse’s film seems more clear with its content than I ever got from a stage performance. Perhaps it is because the Oscar winning art direction is more apparent than a stage set. We can see the bustling of Berlin change amid a political climate that at first is not taken so seriously. As hurtful and harrowing the relationships of love between Brian with Sally and then with Max, as well as Fritz and Natasha are, none of this will eventually compare to the upcoming demise for Berlin.

As Miguel noted in our recent podcast that focused on musicals, Cabaret won the most Oscars without winning Best Picture (losing to The Godfather). It’s clear how deserving it was of its accolades. The musical numbers are very engaging but the fear of fascism is well developed too. So there is a roller coaster of emotions to absorb from Fosse’s film. I believe in that podcast I noted that Francis Ford Coppola won Best Director. I now realize I was wrong. It was in fact Bob Fosse who took home that prize, and it’s truly evident how deserving that honor was for him.

Again, while I’ve yet to find a stage production I’ve liked, I was terribly moved by the film. Cabaret, the film from 1972, is a sensational and frightening production.