Celebrity, Sex, Murder...And All That Jazz!

In the spring of 1924 the country was in the midst of Prohibition, yet Chicago pulsed with excitement and prosperity as the city reveled in its contempt for the law. For women, it was a place where they enjoyed new freedoms - they were welcomed in Speakeasies, wore shorter skirts, drank more liquor and packed guns! As Prohibition backfired, Cook County Jail filled with young women accused of murder. Their stories riveted the city becoming fodder for the media and entertainment for the masses.

Maurine Watkins, a young journalist, was assigned to cover the 1924 trials of murderesses Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner for the Chicago Tribune. Watkins was just one of the many reporters who worked hard to boost the sultry images of the inmates to sell papers. Watkins focused on the sensational aspects of the two “jazz babies” corrupted by men and liquor, characterizing Beulah as “beauty of the cell block” and Belva as “most stylish of Murderess Row,” and helped turn the female criminals into stars. The lust for publicity—to provide it, to be its object, or to consume it—in these early days of the mass media was a new phenomenon.

Two years after Belva Gaertner’s trial ended, fed up with the newspaper business, Watkins quit the Tribune and moved east to study playwriting at Yale University. For a class assignment she wrote The Brave Little Woman, later renamed Chicago, with the murderer-turned-celebrity Roxie Hart based on Beulah Annan, nightclub-singer-turned-murderer Velma Kelly inspired by Belva Gaertner and the murderesses’ lawyers William Scott Stewart and W.W. O’Brien as the inspiration for the composite character, Billy Flynn. Watkins hoped to expose how the emerging celebrity culture had corrupted the newspaper business and the legal system. She managed to vent her frustrations, severely criticizing the “Murder City” without losing her sense of humor. The play scored laughs with its audience and made its way to Broadway in 1926. Chicago, directed by the legendary George Abbott, was a solid hit and ran for a respectable 172 performances, then toured for 2 years with a then unknown Clark Gable appearing in a Los Angeles production as Amos Hart. Chicago went on to inspire two movies: a silent film in 1927 produced by Cecil B. DeMille and starring Phyllis Haver as Roxie Hart, and in 1942 Roxie Hart starring Ginger Rogers. However, in this version, Roxie was accused of murder without having really committed it in order to conform to the Production Code, which regulated moral guidelines for Hollywood films at the time.

In the 1960s, Gwen Verdon, one of Broadway’s biggest stars, read the play and asked her husband, acclaimed choreographer Bob Fosse, about the possibility of creating a musical adaptation. Fosse approached Watkins numerous times to buy the rights, but she repeatedly declined. In her later years, Watkins had become a born-again Christian and believed her play glamorized a scandalous way of living. However, upon her death in 1969, her estate sold the rights to producer Richard Fryer, Verdon and Fosse. John Kander and Fred Ebb were brought on board and began work on the musical score, modeling each number on a traditional vaudeville number or a vaudeville performer. Fosse’s trademark choreographic style fit perfectly with the theme - sexually suggestive forward hip-thrusts, the vaudeville style of hunched shoulders and turned-in feet and the amazing, mime-like articulation of hands. Ebb and Fosse penned the book of the musical, with Fosse also directing and doing the choreography.

Chicago opened at the 46th Street Theatre on June 3, 1975, with a cast that included Gwen Verdon (Roxie), Chita Rivera (Velma) and Jerry Orbach (Billy). The show enjoyed a run of 898 performances and was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, but lost out in every category when A Chorus Line swept the awards. As a result, Chicago remained quietly in the shadows, one of Broadway’s most underappreciated gems, until 1996 when it was revived on Broadway with choreography by Ann Reinking “in the style of Bob Fosse.” The 1997 production spawned a national tour and went on to win six Tony Awards including “Best Revival of a Musical.” It is now the sixth longest-running production in Broadway history and has become a worldwide phenomenon with productions in 24 countries and 11 languages. The record-breaking London production of Chicago continues to hold the record as the longest-running American musical in West End history. In 2002, Rob Marshall directed and choreographed a film version of the musical which went on to win six Academy Awards including Best Picture.