Broadway’s ‘Chicago’ makes history

August 19, 2011

NEW YORK

The musical “Chicago” is about to finger-snap its way into the record books.

The matinee performance Saturday will mark the musical’s 6,138 show, meaning it will vault over the original version of “A Chorus Line” to become the fourth longest-running show in Broadway history.

“It’s amazing, this show. It goes on and on and on,” says actress Charlotte d’Amboise, who has been in and out of the musical about a dozen times over 14 years.

That record-breaking matinee will also make the John Kander and Fred Ebb musical the longest-running American show in Broadway history. Ahead of it are “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Cats” and “Les Miserables” — all British imports.

Set in the 1920s, “Chicago” is a scathing satire of how show business and the media make celebrities out of criminals. It has Bob Fosse-inspired choreography, skimpy outfits and killer songs such as “All That Jazz,” “Cell Block Tango” and “Mr. Cellophane.”

“It’s a toe-tapping exploration of getting away with murder,” says Walter Bobbie, the director. “It is the abuse of celebrity. And there is genuine thematic and narrative muscle underneath all of this fantastically sassy music.”

The vaudeville-flecked musical snagged six Tony Awards — including for best musical revival — and a Grammy Award. Since then, it has been performed in 30 countries across the world since 1996 and translated into 12 languages. More than 10 million people are thought to have seen the show.

Few expected that success back in 1996, when Bobbie and choreographer Ann Reinking first worked on the show at City Center’s “Encores!” concert series. It was booked for only four performances, and few thought it had a future without adding a lot of razzle-dazzle.

“When we were first doing it, everyone said, ‘We don’t know if you should do it, because it doesn’t have a helicopter. It doesn’t have a chandelier dropping. It doesn’t have any of those things,’ ” says Fran Weissler, one of the producers.

“I remember saying, ‘You’re right, those things were production-driven. We’ve seen them, they’re great. This is performance-driven. This is about the actors.’ ”

Others in the theater community were cool to the idea of the revival. Some said that it was too soon to restage or that the material wasn’t stunning enough. The original made its debut in 1975 and was overshadowed by “A Chorus Line,” which also came out that year and wowed the critics.

“We got pretty mediocre reviews,” Kander says. “ ‘A Chorus Line’ was, of course, a huge hit — so much so that none of us went to the Tonys. Why go and have your face rubbed in it? And we were right. To think that all these years later this is happening is really ironic.”

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