Sunday, February 25, 2018

THE MUSICAL CHICAGO


My book on the Fosse-Kander-Ebb show has just been published, so I’m promoting it with a Q & A interview:
 

Q: All right, what about this format of a single book about a single musical? It’s a thing now, from Show Boat to Hamilton. I don’t mean those puff books mostly on the big pop operas, but rather the interesting, unauthorized critiques such as Jim Lovensheimer’s volume on South Pacific. And of course that show is a musical play, not a mere musical comedy.

 

A: There’s nothing mere about musical comedy—Of Thee I Sing, Anything Goes, Pal Joey, On the Town, Guys and Dolls. All classics.

 

Q: But is there a book in them? South Pacific at least has all that intense character interaction. And there’s the Michener novel, Mary Martin, the race thing. And that hot guy in the movie in the Seabees scenes whose dick was always pushing out of his pants. With Chicago you have just one work—

 

A: It’s six works: a play; two movies, silent and talkie; a musical; a movie musical; and a major revival both faithful to and different from the original play.

 

Q: Aren’t they all the same story, though, over and over?

 

A: No, because in the first movie (directed by Cecil B. DeMille, by the way, though he is not officially credited), Amos, who wanders lonely as a clod in the musical, is the hero of the piece. He’s a hunk, too. Then, in the talkie, Roxie—Chicago’s main murderess—is innocent. (SPOILER: So who dunnit? Amos.) And while the musical follows the play rather closely, there’s all that turbulent Fosse staging to explore. The way he tells a story can be more important than the story itself.

 

Q: Is that generally true of him?

 

A: To an extent. One of the most forgotten masterpieces in the musical’s history is Redhead, a Fosse-Verdon collaboration of 1959, with a spectacular staging—just a complete surprise in what it was doing, all the time. Although I was very young when I saw it, I remember it quite vividly, especially a moment in the big Dream Ballet (musicals had them then; now they have characters from Act One playing their own relatives in Act Two, which hopelessly confuses me) when Verdon flew out of the stage left wings ten feet in the air to land in two gypsys' arms. The entire house all but shouted in shock.

 

Q: Redhead a masterpiece? Really? Then why isn’t it revived?

 

A: It was a masterpiece of staging, not of composition. And it did go Tony-crazy. It won everything but Best Usher.

 

Q: So there’s a lot of Verdon and Fosse in your book? Fill?

 

A: It isn’t fill. It’s panorama. Readers want more than a palette of data. They want background, anecdotes, the color of everything. For instance, there are two great American myths associated with the Chicago plot line.

 

Q: Sex and snuff?

 

A: Chicago the city and the 1920s the era. You can’t comprehend the atmosphere Chicago dwells in unless you know what the Queen of the Midwest and that giddy decade meant to Americans when Chicago the play first appeared. The theme is lawless anarchy as the ultimate American quality, whether in Chicago gangsters or the average citizen’s defiance of Prohibition.

 

Q: And here I thought we were going to get fizzy stories about the Weisslers’ revival cast running around in vampire-prom mesh and Fosse the lover of women and so on. Didn’t one of the replacement Billy Flynns last less than a week? I heard that one of the Spice Girls went into the show and interpolated a Spice selection—did that happen? And isn’t it true that Maurine Watkins, who wrote the play that started it all, became a loony born-again something who refused to let anyone musicalize it?

 

A: That’s a false tale apparently started by the man in charge of the rights to Chicago. Watkins, a member of the Disciples of Christ from birth, wasn’t loony or a born-again anything, and her beliefs had nothing to do with her feelings about Chicago. And get this—she arranged in her will for Fosse and Verdon to buy the rights to make their Chicago after all.

 

Q: Revisionism!

 

A: One thing this format—as you call it—does is clear away the misleading decorations of legend. And of course there’s lots of snark and humor in my book. But the main thing is to try to explain why Chicago, so unlike the classics—The King and I, West Side Story,  The Music Man, A Chorus Line—has turned into such a major title. The Weisslers’ version threw off countless productions internationally, and in New York it has been running for twenty years.

 

Q: But every musical is unlike the classics—and the classics are all unlike one another.

 

A: Yes, but they all believe in something, while Chicago appears to be nihilistic. That’s why it was very uncomfortably admired when it first appeared.

 

Q: Yet we like it now?

 

A: The times have greatly changed. Now people understand what Fosse was talking about—the complete lack of morality in the ruling class and the news media. Then, too, Chicago is edgy satire, and you never know how the public will react to satire. Audiences prefer spoof, parody, loving take-offs.

 

Q: Hasn’t the musical been satiric right from the start?

 

A: Musical comedy, as opposed to operetta and the like, was always sarcastic and irreverent. But there was no evening-length satire till Strike Up the Band, a look at capitalist war-mongers, in 1927. It closed out of town.

 

Q: Ha! George S. Kaufman said satire is what closes Saturday night.

 

A: In Philadelphia—and Kaufman wrote Strike up the Band’s book. It got to Broadway in 1930, though.

 

Q: In a gentled-down book, right?

A: That’s another false tale. I got my hands on the 1930 rehearsal script (it’s in the Library of Congress, where the Gershwins’ collection resides), so I compared it with 1927. I assure you, 1930 is just as scathing as 1927. What saved the show was star comics and an improved score.

 

Q: What are some other satires? Mame? It mocks the pretentious, the bigoted, the conformists.

 

A: Mame has no evening-long target. Further, Mame doesn’t have a satiric score, which is a key element—songs that blatantly toy with theatrical realism in, let’s say, a semi-Brechtian way. Chicago has the pastiche “vaudeville” numbers in the style of Sophie Tucker, Bert Williams, Zez Confrey, Eddie Cantor, and so on.

 

Q: Who’s Zez Confrey?

 

A: It’s in my book. Of course, not every satire has that sort of “distancing” score. Finian’s Rainbow is a satire, but its score is made of standard story-and-character numbers, with some romantic ballads. And satire doesn’t really have room for romance. Yes, Strike Up the Band has the First and Second Couples. Even The Cradle Will Rock and 1776 have romances. But Chicago doesn’t.

 

Q: Is that true of the Watkins original?

 

A: Yes—but the silent has a romance.

 

Q: Okay, one last question. Is Chicago a classic?

 

A: Barry and Fran Weissler’s accountant thinks so.