Today marks the 20th anniversary of CHICAGO’s 1996 Broadway revival.
Chicago Tribune reporter, Maurine Watkins, was assigned to cover the cases of accused murderers Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner in 1924. The public went wild over Watkins’ coverage and the trials of a slew of other women who had killed their husbands and lovers. Murderesses quickly became celebrities—their stories sensationalized and their demeanor playing a significant role in the pursuit of justice. Watkins became fascinated with the frenzy and inspired to write her 1926 play, CHICAGO.
Watkins’ play has remained consistently relevant and intriguing over the past ninety years. It inspired Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 silent film, the 1942 film “Roxie Hart” starring Ginger Rogers, Bob Fosse’s 1975 stage musical, the 1996 Broadway revival, and the 2002 Oscar-winning movie musical.
(Fun fact: Late in her life, Watkins became a born-again Christian and denounced her own play for glamorizing sex, scandal, and corruption. So when Bob Fosse approached Watkins for the rights to turn her play into a musical, she declined. It wasn’t until after her death that Fosse was able to buy the rights from Watkins’ estate.)
CHICAGO tells a story of “murder, greed, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery: all those things we hold near and dear to our hearts.” Wannabe stage celebrity, Roxie Hart, kills her lover and winds up behind bars with a whole cast of “merry” murderesses including vaudeville star, Velma Kelly, who killed her husband and sister after she caught them in bed together. Roxie’s husband, Amos, blind to his wife’s indiscretions, scrounges enough money to hire the best lawyer in town: Billy Flynn. Though successful, Flynn is a crook himself and puppeteers both the media and the trial. Through a vaudeville lens, CHICAGO illustrates the eery similarities between the justice system and show business. It’s all just a bunch of razzle dazzle, things aren’t always what they seem, and—you know—all that jazz.