(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2003)
Since the subject today is musicals, it’s hard not to go into a reverie about The Band Wagon and Funny Face and Silk Stockings, to name some of my favourites. But that will have to wait for another day. I’ve already tipped you off to my preferences though – I’m more an Astaire than a Kelly man. Not that I haven’t watched The Pirate and An American in Paris five times apiece. And I could also rave about A Star is Born, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, etc. etc.
I love musical theatre too. In the early 90’s, there was a time when I’d seem just about every big musical then playing on Broadway. Before that, I’d stayed away from the theatre for years, after a bad experience in London with a production of Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending. It supposedly starred Vanessa Redgrave, but from where I was sitting it could as easily have been Dame Edna Everage. Between the distance, the heat and the uncomfortable seat (a hard bench actually), I was miserable.
But when I first visited New York a decade or so later, I had the resources to afford a better seat, and it seemed crazy not to experience Broadway theatre. So I went to see The Will Rogers Follies, which was a hot ticket at the time. I loved it. It had literally never occurred to me that theatre could be so vivid, so bright, so damn entertaining: I was hooked. I saw Grand Hotel and City of Angels and Kiss of the Spider Woman – I even saw the legendary flop Nick and Nora, in the narrow gap between the opening and the closing.
Eventually I stopped going to New York with the same frequency, but I still catch musicals whenever I can. On a recent trip to Chicago I saw 42nd Street and Sunday in the Park with George – a duo that sums up the breadth of musical theatre: the one brassy and exuberant and devoted to pure pleasure; the other fiendishly clever and intricate, but with moment after moment of pure beauty.
I didn’t actually see the musical Chicago on my trip to Chicago (it wasn’t playing), but then I’d seen it twice already. The first was on Broadway, and although we were once again stuck with bad seats, it stands out as one of the best things I ever saw there. The second time was in Oslo, in a Norwegian production – and no, I don’t speak Norwegian. It had the feeling of a somewhat faded facsimile, with some plainly inadequate casting (you don’t need to speak the language to know a note’s not being hit), but the sheer style and musicality were again irresistible.
With all of that, it’s obvious why I was looking forward to Rob Marshall’s new film of Chicago. This project has been in the works for years (it premiered on Broadway in 1975) – I remember reading about a proposed film in the mid-80’s, with Goldie Hawn and Liza Minnelli mentioned as possible stars. The subsequent return to Broadway and the tour circuit came in a phenomenally popular stripped-down production – there’s no set as such; everything takes place against a black backdrop with minimal props. As such, it’s highly and deliberately theatrical – not the most obvious candidate for translation to the screen.
That’s what I thought going into the film, and it’s pretty much what I thought coming out. The film is an able and effective transcription, but adds just about nothing to the experience of seeing the play. Some may read this and say: well, how could it? And maybe that’s the right response.
Except that it seems like such a passive use of the possibilities of cinema – more an archival function really than an artistic one. On the other hand, nothing kills a musical like too much cinema. Richard Attenborough, for instance, filmed A Chorus Line in 1985 in a style laden with fancy angles and edits and movements, and smothered whatever the heart of the material may be. Marshall avoids the worst excesses of this approach, but his camera is never as elegant and reflective as Vincente Minnelli’s in The Band Wagon, nor as piercing and engaged as Bob Fosse’s in Cabaret. Overall, in fact, his film has a rather cramped, dour look to it.
Fosse’s is the name most often associated with Chicago (he directed the original production) – to the point that you hardly hear a word about John Kander and Fred Ebb, who wrote the music and lyrics. But he’s actually barely relevant here – Marshall rechoreographed the entire film, and in a far more generic style than I can imagine Fosse, a famously idiosyncratic perfectionist, ever being happy with. Kander and Ebb, on the other hand, wrote a terrific set of songs, most of which made it to the movie intact; the film wisely also preserves the Broadway orchestrations.
As for the performers – well, they struck me as a mixed bag. Richard Gere, as the conniving “razzle-dazzle’ lawyer Billy Flynn, seemed miscast to me. He has the self-regard, but not the flamboyance; someone like Kevin Kline might have been better. Renee Zellweger – much the same. She’s committed, but inescapably pallid; her casting would only have made any sense if the play were being reimagined in some direction I can’s envisage. Catherine Zeta-Jones seems more comfortable than the other two put together. She has the poise, the ability to strut and kick, the authentic hardness that Zellweger lacks. The fact that her role has been relatively reduced from the stage version, while Zellweger’s has been relatively expanded, is a distinct miscalculation.
A couple of reviewers pointed out that the movie’s theme of media manipulation and hunger for fame are even more timely now than ever, and while that’s true, I can’t see how the film does much to draw on that timeliness. Marshall keeps the songs separate from the action, filming them mostly in unadorned settings much like those of the stage production, and intertwining them with the narrative as a kind of surreal commentary on or counterpoint to the action. This ought to have provided a perfect opportunity to inject some Brechtian distance (think again of Cabaret with its use of the MC), but that’s far beyond Marshall’s ambition. Actually, the derided 1981 film of Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven, which dropped fantasy song and dance scenes into a gloomy Depression-era story, was more ambitious and intriguing.
Chicago has been a big hit, and of course won the Oscar, so I hope it inspires more movie musicals over the next few years. If so, then its main service will have been as the bridge out of the desert we’ve been in since, well, Oliver (which was the last musical to win the Oscar for best picture, in 1968). Actually, Chicago has much more in common with a spectacle like Oliver than with the films I mentioned at the start; it smacks more of coordination than of joy, more of perspiration than inspiration. I enjoyed watching it, but not as much as I would have enjoyed seeing the stage production again.