The longest running American musical- sex, celebrity and murder- thanks to OJ Simpson
Updated: Jun 9
Chicago the Musical is coming to the Muny this year in a number of firsts. It's the first show to play the Muny two years in a row, the first production to be cancelled (due to Covid) and resurrected with largely the same cast intact, and this dark story happens to be the American musical with the longest Broadway run. (Britain's Phantom of the Opera holds first place for longest run by any show).
It came as something of a surprise to me that the longest running American musical turns out to be a dark, cynical story of corruption and celebrity. Chicago the Musical is based on a true story of two murderous women in the jazz age of Chicago in the 1920's. The main characters are two women who murdered for love, and the sleazy lawyer who tries to get them acquitted. Not exactly wholesome Mary Poppins material, but audiences have eaten it up now for five decades.
The original play was written by Maurine Dallas Watkins, a reporter and playwright who saw how the tragic killings done by these apparently guilty women were played up by the press of that time as a front-page drama to sell newspapers. Because of their physical beauty and apparent media stardom, the two women at the center of the story were acquitted.
Watkins wrote a play that ran on Broadway in 1926, and two movies followed in 1927 and 1942. The story continued to live on until Bob Fosse discovered it and bought the rights to it, turning it into the Broadway musical we know today. Fosse's interpretation, Chicago- A Musical Vaudeville opened on Broadway in 1975 and was nominated for a Tony award that year. It starred Chita Rivera, Gwen Verdon and Jerry Orbach, playing for two years to mixed reviews. The music for Chicago was written by John Kander, and the book of the story was written by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse. They added the musical vaudeville theme to the story because the murderesses and the lawyer were being portrayed as performers, singing for their freedom and fame.
Chicago the Musical might have faded into obscurity were it not for the most splashy celebrity trial of the century, the OJ Simpson murder trial of 1994. That trial and its infamy inspired a revival of the musical in 1996, one that still runs on Broadway today some 26 years later. The Simpson trial again showed how media, celebrity and crime can all play together in a cynical dance of evidence and characters. The story of Roxy Hart and Velma Kelly, the two murderers at the center of Chicago, played right into the cynicism and corruption that are still relevant in American culture.
In 2002 Chicago took another turn into American culture with a popular movie starring Richard Gere, Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and John C. Reilly. The movie won best picture that year, Zeta-Jones won best supporting actress, and Zellweger, Reilly and Queen Latifah were all nominated. The movie went on to make $306 million worldwide, becoming the highest grossing musical at the time and leading to a revival of the movie musical in Hollywood.
Does the success of Chicago the Musical mean that Americans love murder and celebrity? Certainly our love for violence is reflected in movies and television. The fact that these women literally got away with murder still fascinates us, but I doubt the story would have been as compelling if the two leads were men. Maybe we are rooting for the women to get back at the men who had abused them. Maybe we live vicariously through people who do things we could never imagine doing. Chicago doesn't exactly celebrate the nasty characters it portrays- it shows them warts and all and asks us to make up our own minds about what to think.
The three strengths of Chicago the Musical are its impressive array of songs, (All that jazz, Cell block tango, Razzle dazzle), its iconic Bob Fosse choreography, and its resonating story about celebrity, the media, and how the public can be both entertained and fooled by them. As the slimy lawyer at the center of the story, Billy Flynn says, "It's all a circus. A three ring circus. This trial... the whole world... it's all... show business...... I don't like to blow my own horn, but believe me if Jesus Christ had lived in Chicago today and if he had five thousand dollars and he'd come to me, lets just say things would have turned out differently."