Last week I wrote that the 18 year old production of “Chicago,” as seen at the National Theatre, might need to consider hanging up its dancing shoes. Not surprisingly, producer Barry Weissler — who is “really, really good,” “Chicago” composer John Kander told me 10 days ago, grinning at the understatement — colorfully came to his gal’s defense. Weissler’s reply is now included below.
FROM THE DEPARTMENT OF MIXED EMOTIONS –
“Chicago” is playing at the National Theatre this week through Sunday, and who cares? This is the fifth stint at the National since 1997. It’s been twitching and leering on Broadway since 1996. And who hasn’t seen the movie?
But if you’ve only seen the movie, you haven’t seen “Chicago.” Unedited dancers are a real kick, and this show, with its cast barely half clad in wisps of black fabric, continues as a living monument to Bob Fosse’s sinuous, angular burlesque style. (If snakes could move upright, they’d move like this.) The ridiculously witty vaudeville-jazz score by John Kander and Fred Ebb reliably charms the crowd, since the musicians occupy center stage and play with glorious speakeasy sleaze.
The performance Wednesday wasn’t even especially good because the acting was flat. Yet I still had a very good time – again – at “Chicago.”
But c’mon: it’s time to pack it in.
First, keeping a stale show around only jams up tiny Broadway, and therefore clogs the arteries of the new American musical. There are only 40 Broadway theaters, and six of them are hosting shows that have been running 10 years or more (counting “Jersey Boys,” which turns 10 this fall). “Book of Mormon” is hitting the five year mark, “Cabaret” (closing soon) and “Les Miserables” (not) always seem to be there. It’s why everyone gets so breathless each time a musical takes aim at Broadway: the landing area is preposterously small, and the financial stakes are insanely high.
So dear Roxie and Velma: after nearly 7600 performances on Broadway and reigning as the longest-running American musical, congratulations. Love ya, truly. Now give someone else a chance.
On the other hand, wherever it is – and international companies have performed this in Portuguese, Danish, Korean, and more – “Chicago” is always a lock to be the purest musical in town. With the orchestra on stage, it needs no set. There’s nothing on display but musicians and singer-dancers; the spectacle is the lithe bodies, the jagged sexy choreographic patterns, and the jaunty smarts of the music. And with the cast slouching and spinning in that sleek black clothing-lingerie, the look is timeless. It’s built to last.
Then there’s the deeply caustic theme of a celebrity-mad party culture getting away with murder, and a ditzy news cycle that loves it. We are “Chicago.” That, too, will never go out of style.
But you can’t really play a comedy well for a crowd that already knows the jokes. One reason that the 1996 Broadway opening — a triumphant revival after Fosse’s 1975 original got skunked at the Tonys by “A Chorus Line” — endures as one of my five great nights of theater is hearing the audience roar at the zippy punch lines in lyric after lyric, and cheering in helpless self-recognition when Bebe Neuwirth (as Velma) swung into sight high on a ladder to start the second act and greeted us with “Hello, suckers!”
Wednesday night the crowd watched in silence, like they’d seen it all before. Or like they were at a movie. It felt dead.
That’s the second reason to let the show go. The other ultra-long Broadway hits are wind-up toys driven by melodramatic spectacle (“Phantom of the Opera,” “Wicked,” “Lion King”) or jukebox nostalgia (“Mamma Mia,” “Jersey Boys”). “Chicago” is a comedy, but it’s not a cartoon, and it needs to be played night after night with some magical combination of showbiz heart and ruthless wit. Keeping merry murderesses Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly and slick lawyer Billy Flynn fresh is finally looking impossible.
Wednesday’s show actually dragged between songs, with Bianca Marroquin — who played the part here in 2003 — delivering a quirky, offhand Roxie (though she gradually flourished in her long happy fantasy number “Roxie”). John O’Hurley, “Seinfeld”’s Peterman, got the best laughs of the night but also injected weirdly long dramatic pauses in his low key, Peterman-esque performance as Billy Flynn. Yet is there any way for actors to keep these hyper-exposed characters alive anymore?
The numbers themselves are still irresistible, though the very well danced and decently sung performances here aren’t sterling. Even if you missed Neuwrith and Ann Reinking and Joel Grey and James Naughton in New York, maybe you saw Charlotte D’Amboise’s ebulliently loose-limbed Roxie here, or other performers blessed with those increasingly rarefied dancing chops that “Chicago” frames like nothing else.
But when you find yourself explaining to a first-timer how good “Chicago” really is – was – it’s time for it to go. The audience, filling the 1600-plus seat National more than halfway (but not much more, by the look of the empty seats in the corners and upstairs), knew it. The standing ovation was slow, and only partial. They knew. You can only really razzle dazzle ‘em for so long.
So dear, dear “Chicago”: your exit music, please. And for old times’ sake, wave those snake-y arms behind you as you go.
BARRY WEISSLER REPLIES:
Dear Department of Mixed Emotions,
Look, I don’t give no advice. And I don’t take no advice. Normally, I’d say, you’re a perfect stranger to me and let’s keep it that way. But, your recent request for me to “pack it in” compels me to take the stand.
From what I can distill from your testimony, on my sister’s recent visit to DC you decided to take her out for another jaunt on the town. You go on and on about her virtues, her “timeless” look, her “irresistible” tunes, and by your own account, she showed you a “very good time.” Yet, like an old lover, you feel that she has become too “familiar.” She delivers the goods, but you “already know(s) the jokes” and you’ve “seen it all before.” Critics!
So, you didn’t quite get the nightcap you were looking for, huh? Fair enough. Point taken. After so many years on the block, sometimes you need a little kick to spice things up a bit. Keeps you on your toes. But who are you to tell me to step aside to “give someone else a chance?” Are you kidding? We’ve spent many nights together and I will not crumble under the pressure to recreate our first time together. There’s always some fresh faced kid vying to steal your spotlight. They’re here today and gone tomorrow. Honey, I’m Broadway’s sure thing and my datebook is full. There’s a whole generation of theatregoers who haven’t met me. Visitors from all over the globe knock on my door. And I have many happy customers coming back for more. I got me a world full of “Yes.”
I am sorry my sister fell short of your expectations. I’ll give her a talking to. Sometimes you have an off night. That’s showbiz, kid. But I’m not going anywhere. I am only 18 in on a life sentence and I’m still as hot as the day I was arrested.
Go to hell in a fast car and Keep it Hot.
And all that Jazz,