Burlesque performer and producer Sailor St. Claire reviews the razzle dazzle of Chicago and recasts it with strippers.

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Rob Marshall’s Chicago is razzle dazzle showbiz at its finest, so it’s only fitting to ask a professional showgirl to review it.

I first saw this film during award season 2002, long before I became the scantily clad stripteaser I am today, but even then I think I was the correct sort of audience for a film such as this. I loved musicals. I loved costumes. I sang. I danced. I acted. But although I was familiar with Kander & Ebb’s music, I had never actually seen the stage show. I didn’t know what I should be expecting when I entered the movie theatre, and I’m sure I walked out beaming because when I finally did see the stage show one year later on Broadway (starring, of all people, Melanie Griffith as Roxie Hart), I was less impressed.

The stage production has been running continuously on Broadway since the 1996 revival (starring Broadway veterans Bebe Neuwirth and Ann Reinking ), and seems to have lasted so long because the show’s narrative obsession with celebrity culture has allowed for the lead roles of Velma Kelly, Roxie Hart, and Billy Flynn to be played by any number of movie stars and Grammy winners whose agents have decided it’s a good idea to drop them into a group of professional stage actors and see what happens. Some of these have been good (or at least interesting) casting choices (Usher as Billy Flynn seems utterly inspired to me), and others have clearly been ways for film actors with little to no theatre training to finagle a Broadway credit (and in the case of Melanie Griffith, spy on husband Antonio Banderas who was, at the time, starring across the street in a production of Nine, where he was the only adult male in a cast of 20 gorgeous women). It’s not worth complaining about the performances in the 2003 Broadway production I saw because the only thing memorable one was Griffith’s, and only because her singing was so terrible. What’s worse is that the stage show is phenomenally unimpressive as a whole. It’s subtitled “a musical vaudeville,” which seems to be a shorthanded way of saying that no one really wanted to write a book for the show and thought they could put together a bunch of disjointed scenes, songs, and dance numbers and call that vaudeville.

And therein lies my biggest issue with the stage show: disjointed scenes, songs & dance numbers is not and never has been vaudeville. Vaudeville in the late 19th and early 20th century does include discrete scenes, songs, and dance numbers, but actually follows a very particular 3-act structure that organizes the presentation of those events. The first act was usually a one-act play, in fact. But our contemporary understanding of vaudeville is filtered through the television variety program of the mid-20th century, so it’s not altogether surprising that when we see the word vaudeville, we think variety. What Rob Marshall’s film chooses to do that I think is very successful is to shift the focus to the musical aspect of the subtitle, which helps to unify the structure of the barebones story and gives the song and dance numbers a real purpose and focus. But Marshall doesn’t do this by better integrating the songs into the plot. In fact, he completely removes the songs from any semblance of a realistic plot and turns them into Roxie’s (and the other characters’) fevered showbiz imaginings – which makes perfect sense in a world where murder and entertainment are one in the same. By completely disarticulating the diegetic narrative from the songs, Marshall allows every single number to become a showstopper. In fact, that’s what they do: they stop the narrative from progressing so we can live and breathe in this vaudevillian fantasy.

Of course, that’s not to say that music itself isn’t of utter importance to the narrative. The film opens and closes with songs that are integrated into the plot: “All That Jazz” in which Roxie falls in love with the stage as she sees Velma Kelly perform right after murdering her sister, and “Nowadays” in which Roxie and Velma team up and perform as a duo for the show’s finale. “All That Jazz” starts and stops the show at the same time. The scene cuts between Velma’s steamy dance number and Roxie’s hot and heavy tryst with her lover Fred Casely after the leave the club. Each cut is punctuated by the musicality or the choreography: a dancer gets pushed to the floor as we cut to Fred pushing Roxie against the wall; Roxie’s breathing replicates the beats of Velma’s song. Not only does this visually tie the fates of these two women together, but it establishes the importance of music to the film’s real world and to its fantastic one. Even if the rest of the numbers happen inside Roxie’s head (or someone else’s), they feel real because these characters think in terms of song and dance.

The way these characters internalize popular entertainment enhances the thematic linkage between the stage and real life. Each song is a different performance genre, and most reflect the way the characters feel about themselves or their world: Amos’s “Mr. Cellophane” is a brilliant tramp clown act because he has been played for a fool, Roxy’s eponymous number is both a Fanny Brice act and a movie musical showpiece because she sees herself as a star. As Billy Flynn makes clear to his client, “It’s all a circus. A 3-ring circus. This trial. The whole word. And kid, you’re working with a star.” And indeed, the law, too is a form of public entertainment, complete with the execution of the Hunyak presented to us as a magic act in which the lady vanishes before our eyes. The stage show makes a point of staging these things in a way that points to these genre conventions, but because the sets are evocative and minimalist, it can’t sell them in a way that makes these connections clear to audiences. A lot is lost in translation on the stage. Chicago is about the spectacle of popular entertainment in its various forms – and that’s what Rob Marshall’s film really gets and gives us.

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I could go on about why each song-and-dance number is so good, and what popular genres it enlists in its presentation, but I’d rather devote some time to the spectacular. “Cell Block Tango” is one of the finest pieces of choreography ever committed to celluloid, and this is one of the places where the minimalism of the stage production survives and works in the film. (If murder is to be entertaining, it should be artful and evocative, no?) But nearly all of the other numbers are dripping in excess. Queen Latifah’s “Big Black Lady Song” version of “When You’re Good to Mama” is all swathed in gold chains and ostrich feathers, and takes exceedingly good care to present her body and her blackness in excess (which is odd in a film that wants to claim “colorblind casting” so it doesn’t have to explain historical inaccuracies).  She is Sophie Tucker and Josephine Baker all at once: all skin and sex and booming voice. It’s gorgeous, but striking and somewhat problematic. (How does one ask a black woman to do a silhouette dance in a world where Kara Walker makes art?) Billy Flynn’s introductory number, “All I Care About Is Love” is striking in its excess, as well. It’s a boylesk number, where Flynn strips out of his working-class duds surrounded by rhinestone-encrusted showgirls to prove he’s not the materialist asshole we really know him to be. And although he leaves the stage wearing just as much as the showgirls, we know that the female flesh makes up for the material goods he claims he doesn’t care about when we see them morph into a car. “All I Care About Is Love” is a number that would have made Ziegfield proud – especially, I think, because of the fabulous showgirl costumes Colleen Atwood made for this number. The cups of the bras are little red hearts. And so are the backs of the sheer panties.

I like Rob Marshall’s version of Chicago because it gets that the story is about entertainment and excess, and those ideas are articulated clearly throughout – especially through the inclusion of “spinning headlines” and integrated newsreel footage that mimic early 20th century newscasts and replicate yet another pop genre. And I think that 2002, amid a burgeoning culture of tabloids and reality television, a film like Chicago was primed for a strong (re: award-getting) reception.

As much as I was drawn to it then, though, I’m more drawn to it now. Early American entertainment is what I live and breathe as a burlesque performer, and everything about the musical numbers inChicago is just so, so burlesque: naked and leggy and dripping in glamour, stripped down to reveal something real(er) underneath. And as I watched it, I couldn’t help but put together a burlesque dream cast of strippers I’d love to see in these roles, because if Melanie Griffith can do it, I’m sure any of us can, too – and better.

Velma Kelly: Lola Frost, Gin Minsky, Perle Noir

Roxie Hart: Inga Ingenue, Red Hot Annie, Kiss Me Kate

Billy Flynn: any and all of The Stagedoor Johnnies

Mama Morton: Jezebel Express, Jezebel Vandersnatch, Nipsy Tussle

Amos Hart: Paco Fish, Nelson Lugo

Mary Sunshine: Zora Phoenix

Free-Floating Thoughts:

Watching Catherine Zeta-Jones murder the choreography in this film made me feel really, really awful that Rock of Ages even happened.

This film marks the only time in which Rene Zellwegger’s eyes have been open for an extended period of time.

Can I just have every sparkly showgirl outfit in this film, please? I promise to wear the shit out of them and take pictures for you if you buy them for me.

What’s the budgeted amount for carpet tape in this film? It must be staggering.

Murderess #3, Dierdre Goodwin, was Velma Kelly to Melanie Griffith’s Roxie Hart in the 2003 Broadway production I saw. [Editor’s Note: I, too, saw her as Velma on Broadway in April 2001.]

John C. Reilly is great in this movie. Absolutely perfect. His “Mr. Cellophane” just tears me apart.

My favorite line reading in this film is the way Rene Zellwegger says, “’Cause I hate you” just before she and Zeta-Jones team up.

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