Making 'Chicago' sing on the screen

Special to The Times

Growing up in New York City, Bill Condon was a Broadway brat. Every Wednesday, he would hop on the subway after school to sneak into matinee performances during intermission. Sometimes he even paid -- student tickets cost only $2 at the time -- to see dozens of plays and musicals.

In 1975, while studying philosophy at Columbia University, he saw a Broadway show that eventually would change his professional life: Bob Fosse's original staging of "Chicago," the John Kander-Fred Ebb musical about rival showgirls/killers Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly and their cynical lawyer, Billy Flynn.

Fast forward 26 years. After winning an adapted screenplay Oscar for his 1998 directorial debut, "Gods and Monsters," Condon joined Broadway choreographer/director Rob Marshall to adapt "Chicago" as a movie. Although he'd never scripted a musical, Condon was an encyclopedically informed fan of the genre and had plenty of opinions on why movie musicals have fared so poorly over the last three decades.

"With the influence of the French New Wave on American filmmaking in the late '60s, movies became relentlessly real and it became impossible for people to break out in song and dance and not have a huge part of the film-going audience resist it," he says. "That was the death of the movie musical. The challenge is that moment where the characters on screen open their mouths to sing: How do you get an audience to accept it?"

The solution for "Chicago"? Don't even try to ground Kander and Ebb's Vaudeville-inspired tunes in reality. Marshall and Condon instead framed the musical numbers as elaborately staged figments of Roxie Hart's imagination. "We can't take credit for the originality of this idea," says Condon. "This is a Dennis Potter invention in 'Pennies From Heaven.' But the idea that these numbers would exist within Roxie's imagination and that she would be the one through whom we saw all these numbers just felt right because it fits the theme of Roxie's desire to be noticed and to find her public self."

Sitting in Miramax Films' Beverly Boulevard screening room on a recent afternoon, Condon, fueled with a paper cup of Diet Coke, provided a running commentary on his stage-to-film transformations as "Chicago" -- the movie -- unspooled.

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The setup

On screen: Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) sings "All That Jazz" on stage at the slightly seedy Onyx nightclub. In the audience, spellbound, is Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger). The camera closes in on Roxie's eyes and suddenly it's Roxie on stage belting out the high note.

Condon: "It's just a hint, but that moment is setting up the whole device of the movie."

On screen: A month later, Roxie talks to her lover, Casely, about her show-biz aspirations, delivering dialogue Condon added for the film: "I heard that all the really knockout acts had something different going on. You know, a signature bit. I thought my thing would be 'aloof.' "

Condon: "She's trying to figure out how to present herself to an audience. In the stage version Roxie is someone you kind of laugh at because you're so amused by just how horrible and ambitious she is. The whole thing collapses if you in any way go soft and mushy with Roxie, but at the same time you have to make sure the audience can get inside the story and care about what happens -- you do have to fill it out a bit and this is a critical aspect of who Roxie is. She's this empty vessel looking for an identity. Because we have these two worlds of realism and fantasy in the movie, you can explore her character a little more."

On screen: Roxie kills Casely. She's being questioned by police. The detective's flashlight, seen from Roxie's point of view, turns into a stage light; suddenly Roxie is in a gown, standing on a piano singing "Funny Honey."

Condon: "One of Rob's mantras was pace and transitions, and obviously in 'Chicago,' it's all about getting in and out of the musical numbers. We've seen that snippet of Roxie projecting herself onto the stage, but this takes the idea much further: In the middle of this interrogation by this overbearing detective who doesn't believe her, she can't take it anymore and abstracts herself."

On screen: Roxie meets Matron Morton (Queen Latifah), Velma and other inmates during her first month in jail awaiting trial. Drips of water establish the rhythm leading into the musical number "Cell Block Tango," which takes place in a highly stylized prison. Condon and Marshall initially set all the musical numbers on a proscenium stage until former New York Times drama critic Frank Rich encouraged them to loosen up.

Condon: "Rob gave the [first draft of the] script to Frank Rich and he had one caution -- he felt it would be really hard to keep all the musical numbers on that proscenium stage, so we started to re-imagine the story. So here, this number starts as a dream and represents everything Roxie's heard over these first weeks that she's been in jail."

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The trial

On screen: Flynn is in his office discussing the case with Roxie. They step through the door and on the other side he emerges in a glittery suit singing "Razzle Dazzle" amid a surreal courtroom setting.

Condon: "The original idea was to do this in a real circus setting, but because this is a movie, once you get Richard Gere in a courtroom, you want to see how he gets her [acquitted]. At the same time, it would be death for a musical to stop and become a courtroom drama."

Condon struck a balance. "I remember coming in after a weekend saying, 'Look, the only way to do this is to create a fantasy courtroom where we can put a lot of traditional plot points: The presentation of physical evidence, the reenactment of the crime, the testimony of the eyewitness, all this becomes musicalized." At the end of the number, fantasy segues back into reality, when Roxie drops off a circus hoop and into the witness stand.

Not on screen: In the stage version, the duet "Class" followed "Razzle Dazzle."

Condon: "It's a very funny song, seeing it with test audiences, but there's such a momentum to the trial, then here's this ballad that went on for 2 1/2 minutes, and it just stopped the story cold. It's a shame because 'Class' is a wonderful number but it just didn't fit."

On screen but not the same: Mary Sunshine, the newspaper reporter played in the film by Christine Baranski.

Condon: "In the stage version, she's a drag queen, which was shocking in 1975, when gender confusion was really fresh," says Condon. "But within our concept, where you're contrasting reality with fantasy, we weren't confident that Nathan Lane in a wig was going to play on film."

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The tap dance

On screen: The camera intercuts between the courtroom floor, where Flynn presents his closing arguments, and a nightclub stage, where Flynn performs a tap dance.

Condon: "This is the one musical number invented for the film, and it most explicitly references the O.J. [Simpson] case, because what Billy Flynn does is take this damaging evidence and turn everyone's attention to the prosecution and makes it about them instead of about the client.

"The original book is even more cynical. Billy Flynn gives this summation, pulls off Mary Sunshine's wig and goes 'Not everything is as it seems.' The whole thing is very Brechtian, whereas this movie is sort of half Brechtian and half traditional storytelling -- you want to see the mechanics of how a clever lawyer pulls a rabbit out of a hat."

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The finale

On screen: Velma and Roxie perform "Nowadays" and "The Hot Honey Rag" together on a real stage -- the Elgin Theatre in Toronto -- in front of a real audience. As in the original musical, the film's razzmatazz finale finds its power in the ebullient songs by Kander and Ebb.

Condon: "I never ever wanted to reinvent the wheel. 'Chicago' is a beautifully conceived work of musical theater and I always kept my eye on the fact that it's about making the story work for film: Translate when you need to, but don't just haphazardly reinvent because you can."

As the final credits roll, Condon remembers anxiously running his adaptation by "Chicago" composer Kander and lyricist Ebb, who also co-wrote the book with Fosse.

"That was a nervous afternoon. We were in Fred's kitchen and I was just dying for another Diet Coke -- I'd inhaled my first -- and read the outline. They were a great audience and when we left their apartment Fred lingered in the doorway, saying to Rob and me, 'Thank you for giving us our show back.' I think they were deeply relieved, after previous versions, which had radically changed things, that we were going to stay true, when we could, to the show and especially to the score."

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