Welcome, ladies and gentlemen. You are about to see a story of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery, and treachery — all those things we all hold near and dear to our hearts.
With an opening line like that, followed by Bebe Neuwirth shimmying to “All That Jazz” alongside a lineup of gorgeous, scantily clad dancers, it’s no wonder Chicago became a hot ticket in the fall of 1996. The production’s chic, minimalist aesthetic and propulsive drive inspired rapturous reviews, with New York Times critic Ben Brantley declaring that this tale of murder and fame in the roaring 1920s “flies us right into musical heaven.” Twenty-five years later, Chicago is a linchpin of Broadway’s post-pandemic reopening, thrilling audiences anew with the antics of “scintillating sinners” Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly.
Reaching the quarter-century mark on Broadway — and seeing Chicago become the longest-running American musical in history — “is one of the biggest surprises of my life,” says Walter Bobbie, a Tony Award winner for his direction of the production. “[Choreographer] Ann Reinking and [music director] Rob Fisher and I were just doing something we loved as an homage to Bob Fosse, and we wanted to do it in a way that felt sexy and current.” Laughing, Bobbie adds, “I told [costume designer] William Ivey Long to dress the dancers in Fosse’s favorite colors: black and flesh. Beyond that, we tried to tell the story as clearly as possible. It’s a very smart musical, very witty and very insightful about the abuse of celebrity, but who knew we would still be here?”
A brief recap demonstrates the ongoing timeliness of Chicago: In 1975, composer John Kander and lyricist/librettist Fred Ebb joined with director/choreographer Fosse to craft a musical about two would-be vaudeville stars who cash in on the proposition that “murder is a form of entertainment.” The show opened in the wake of Watergate and had a solid but unspectacular run. Two decades later, Bobbie and Reinking, inspired by the O.J. Simpson trial, staged a dynamic, pared-down version as part of the Encores! concert series at New York City Center. (Reinking, a longtime Fosse muse, crafted the dances and played Roxie opposite Neuwirth’s Velma.) Sensing electricity in the audience, producers Barry and Fran Weissler snapped up the rights for a Broadway transfer.
“We didn’t hesitate for one minute,” Barry Weissler says today. “The show drove us, we didn’t drive it — it said, ‘Take me to Broadway.’ We never thought about [a long run]; we simply thought, ‘This is a show that will touch audiences,’ and we were certainly right. Look at how the plot mirrors what’s still going on in American society!”
Of course, it takes more than timely themes and a great score to keep a show running for 25 years. For insight, we need look no further than to Bianca Marroquín, a 20-year veteran of Chicago. Bobbie spotted this charismatic star in Mexico in 2001 at an open call for a Spanish-language production and immediately cast her as Roxie, which led to repeated stints in the Broadway production over the past 20 years. For the musical’s grand reopening at the Ambassador Theatre, Marroquín flipped to the role of Velma opposite Ana Villafañe as Roxie.
“First of all,” says Marroquín, “the show works in any language and in any culture because everybody connects with these women who commit crimes and are turned into celebrities by the press. It’s a genius script, genius choreography, genius lighting, genius costumes. You don’t need anything else but the actors’ raw talent. Every single cast member is featured, and we even have 14 musicians on stage with us. This show is like a train: The actors and the audience get on, the train leaves the station, and it does not stop.”
Villafañe, who shot to Broadway stardom six years ago as Gloria Estefan in On Your Feet, represents the ultimate fresh take on Roxie, because she’d never seen the show. “I was a huge fan of the music,” she emphasizes. “As a musical theater kid, I knew the iconic cast albums, and after reading the script, I couldn’t believe how relevant it is — the concept of fast fame and branding yourself. I felt immediately drawn to Roxie.” Advised by Bobbie to put her own stamp on the role, Villafañe avoided watching clips of Reinking and other actresses who have appeared in Chicago.
Killer casting (pardon the pun) has been a key to Chicago’s enduring success. Barry and Fran Weissler specialize in attracting stars who keep audiences coming back for more. “We just roll up our sleeves and say, ‘Who would be a good Roxie?’” Barry Weissler explains. “‘Who should be the next Billy [Roxie and Velma’s showboating lawyer, currently played by Tony winner Paulo Szot]?’” Personality is very important in this show.”
The Weisslers’ casting prowess was on full display at Chicago’s 10th anniversary performance way back in 2006, when Marroquín split the role of Roxie among Melanie Griffith, Brooke Shields, Marilu Henner, Rita Wilson, and Charlotte d’Amboise, among others. “My mother, who passed away 14 years ago, got to see that,” recalls Marroquín, “and I remember her yelling my name from the mezzanine. That was a special moment.” Fast forward to September 14, 2021, and the actress fought off tears while waiting for Velma’s entrance. “I was standing in the elevator under the stage, listening to the audience yelling and screaming,” she says of the emotion-packed moment. “It’s such a privilege to be part of the history of this show.”
Thanks to an extensive rehearsal period before reopening, Chicago remains in top shape, with vibrant performances from Villafañe, Marroquín, Szot, and Tony winner Lillias White as prison matron “Mama” Morton. A new curtain, new lighting and sound systems, and new costumes tailored to each cast member by six-time Tony Award winner William Ivey Long ensure that the musical is as thrilling today as it was on opening night in 1996. “Everything looks better than ever,” says Bobbie, especially Long’s “ahead of the curve” all-black wardrobe. “We haven’t fallen out of fashion, and the story itself still feels newly minted.”
With a star-studded red carpet celebration on tap for the 25th anniversary, Chicago is closing in on 9,800 Broadway performances, with no end in sight. “It’s a perfect combination of universal themes, great music and dancing, and a jam-packed book,” notes Villafañe, who was 7 years old when Bobbie’s production opened. “I have to keep pinching myself that I’m part of this pivotal, powerful moment on Broadway.”
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