Chicago, winner of six Tony Awards including Best Musical Revival, is an institution created by the who’s who of theater legends. Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse wrote its book, while the music was created by John Kander, the lyrics by Ebb and the choreography by Fosse. For its revival, the choreography was done by Ann Reinking, who based it on Fosse’s work. The revival stripped down the set and costumes, giving greater weight to the singing and the choreography.
John O’Hurley steps into the role of Billy Flynn.
“This is one of the great leading man roles in the contemporary history of Broadway theater,” O’Hurley said. “He’s a very singular character in one of the most singular musicals written. Certainly one of the best Kander and Ebb ever wrote, musically and in book as well, combined with the best choreography that Fosse ever put on the stage. It’s a no-brainer.”
The choreographer for the national tour was David Bushman, whose responsibility was to restage Chicago and then inspire all the improv elements that are inherent in the show.
“My job, to come in and restage the show, of course, was to respect what Ann Reinking had originally choreographed in ’96, which is based on the original production she had done with Bob Fosse in ’75. It’s always about respecting the vision we have been brought up with.”
The last two numbers of the show, “Nowadays” and “Hot Honey Rag,” are original Fosse numbers.
“It’s really a piece of history,” Bushman said. “It’s kind of indescribable, because not only is it historical, there’s this wonderful link that I’ve been given the great opportunity to make and to continue keeping it alive, and doing my best, based on my experience with the show. So I’m flattered that I was asked, and I’m honored. You know when you work with people who have worked with the greats, they are keeping those styles alive, so to be a part of that history and that legacy is an honor. And the fact that we are able to offer it to audiences is incredible.”
The play Chicago was written by Maurine Dallas Watkins. It came from her experiences working at The Chicago Tribune. Watkins covered the trials of Belva Gaertner and Beulah Annan.
Gaertner and Annan would become Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, respectively, while Billy Flynn would be a composite character of each woman’s attorney.
Gaertner was a married cabaret singer accused of murdering her lover in March 1924. Walter Law’s lifeless body was discovered in the front seat of her car, and she was later found with her clothes covered in blood. Soon, she confessed to drunk driving and blacking out — nothing more.
She told Watkins after her arrest, “No sweetheart in the world is worth killing, especially when you’ve had a flock of them, and the world knows it.” Gaertner was acquitted.
Similarly, Beulah Annan was accused of murdering Harry Kalstedt in April 1924. After his death, she drank and listened to the Hula Lou foxtrot
album for four hours and then called her husband, Albert, and said
Kalstedt had tried to rape her. When her story changed over time, the
salacious drama made her infamous — and a star. She, too, was acquitted
and soon left her husband.
Watkins was convinced both Gaertner and Annan were guilty and wrote the play Chicago based on her coverage.
Gwen Verdon, Bob Fosse’s wife, had bought the rights to the Watkins’ play. Watkins had seen her play reach popular and critical acclaim, staged on Broadway in 1926 and later made into two films. As Watkins grew older, she became a born-again Christian and regretted writing a play that was no longer in line with her beliefs. When she passed away, the estate sold it and Chicago was on its way to being created. The original production was a modest success but was outshone by A Chorus Line. Reinking helped revive Chicago in 1996, and it has been electrifying audiences ever since.
Bushman has been doing the show since 2003 and was involved in the first French production, which was done in Montreal. He was the ensemble dance captain for both the French production and the national touring production.
“The great thing about Chicago is that it’s not just steps at all, and the ensembles are not just dancers; they are stars within themselves in the show,” Bushman said. “They move in and out of scenes doing different characters, and choreographi- cally, the show is different than in other shows because it’s really moving the action forward; the story is driven in many ways by the choreography.
So there’s a whole life bringing these artists into that world.”
Bushman knows it’s a marathon for the actors.
“It’s one thing to get up and do a number. It’s another thing for the cast to be onstage almost through the entire show,” Bushman said. “There are very few moments when the ensemble is offstage, when they’re not involved in a number because they’re sitting on the sides in chairs and they’re still onstage, a part of the tapestry of Chicago.
“It is demanding. This is not a show one that one can phone in, for sure. The energy that it demands and the sustaining are incredible. The wonderful thing about the choreography is that some of the numbers are very alive and the dynamic is huge, and then sometimes, especially in ‘All That Jazz,’ it’s all pulled down, so there’s this wonderful simmer, this fire underneath that has to be sustained in a way that is different from just getting out there and going for broke. So that sustaining is a great challenge, but it’s also a great payback because you end up really bringing in the audience.”
Bushman feels the dancers like the work on a deep level.
“There’s a wonderful demand in Fosse’s work that Ann Reinking has kept alive that asks a dancer to go beyond steps and style,” Bushman said.
“Ultimately, underneath it is an intention that gets down to the root of who you are and so you have to find whatever personally, individually, that means to you because even the story of Chicago is actually challenging on a personal level. You have these dancers having to reach very deep inside to find what it is that makes them tick. I think that’s one of the things that dancers go into every evening’s show with; it’s not, ‘I’m not getting myself pumped up to do choreography, but to go in, to submit myself to this world again and so what does it mean to me tonight?’” Bushman sees the individual work of each dancer as vital to the collaboration process.
“There’s an element of danger underneath it, there’s sensuality, there’s certainly sexuality on some level,” Bushman said. “Sensuality is in everyone, so it’s wonderful to see each person discover what that is to them individually and then collectively bring that vision to the stage in an understanding that they have built together.”
In the choreographer’s estimation, the cream of the crop will only do for performing Chicago.
“Bob Fosse really enjoyed working with technical dancers, and most of the work in a Fosse musical and in Chicago does demand a certain level of technique. But beyond the technical ability, we’re looking for people who are willing to be dangerous, to risk a little bit, to discover and to find something personal that they’re able to bring out in their movement,” Bushman said.
“There is also the work as actors that has to come into it because everyone in the cast has character roles, so their ability to be good comedic actors and to be able to carry the tension of the show, these are all important things both in the choreography and in the storytelling. This show really demands triple threats (acting, singing, dancing) both from the ensemble and the leads. And you have some pretty amazing leads coming to Oklahoma. That’s for sure.”
CIVIC CENTER MUSIC HALL, THELMA E. GAYLORD PERFORMING ARTS THEATRE
201 N. WALKER AVE.