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A razzle-dazzle pitchman

The 'Chicago' project was languishing in movie jail, but Rob Marshall knew how to spring it -- even though he'd never made a feature film.

November 03, 2002|Michele Willens | Special to The Times

New York — Broadway director-choreographer Rob Marshall was invited to the Miramax Films offices here a year and a half ago to discuss directing the film version of "Rent." But he had a secret agenda. He knew the company had been trying for years to get a film version of one of his favorite stage musicals, "Chicago," off the ground.

"Right before we started, I said, 'I know you're trying to do "Chicago." ' And I said, 'Can I just tell you what I would do with the movie?' The next thing I know, they're taking me into Harvey Weinstein's office and I'm doing my pitch for him. I even got up and performed a few numbers."

He got the gig on the spot.

That's no small deal because the project -- dealing with two infamous murderesses (Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger) in 1920s Chicago and their corrupt attorney, Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) -- had been kicking around since the well-received 1996 revival became a Tony-winning hit. Writers such as Larry Gelbart and Wendy Wasserstein and actresses such as Liza Minnelli, Goldie Hawn and Madonna had come and gone. But no package was deemed good enough by Miramax to get a green light.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 07, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 8 inches; 304 words Type of Material: Correction
Bob Fosse -- Choreographer-director Bob Fosse died in Washington, D.C., in 1987. A Nov. 3 Sunday Calendar story about the musical "Chicago" said he died in New York.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 10, 2002 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 5 inches; 196 words Type of Material: Correction
Bob Fosse -- Choreographer-director Bob Fosse died in Washington, D.C., in 1987. A Nov. 3 story about the musical "Chicago" said he died in New York.

What Marshall proposed was twofold: First, forget the conventional "he sings to her and she sings to him" musical format. "I knew these numbers had to take place on some kind of stage," he says. "Everything in 'Chicago' is based on vaudevillian routines. There's the Sophie Tucker number, the Helen Morgan number, the ventriloquist number. You can't eliminate that element, so you have to incorporate it."

Marshall then dealt with the question, "OK, why would they be on a stage?" His answer was using one of the characters, theatrical wannabe Roxie Hart (played by Zellweger), as a catalyst. "So we have two worlds: the real world of Chicago and the theatrical world seen through her eyes," he said.

Now "Chicago" is a movie and strong buzz is already sweeping through an initially skeptical industry. With the exception of "Moulin Rouge" -- "which has paved the way for us," says Marshall -- there hasn't been a stylized, successful musical since "Cabaret" (1972) and "All That Jazz" (1979). ("Evita," from 1996, is considered a qualified success, critically and commercially.)

Marshall is an ebullient, trim bundle of energy who choreographed and directed "Little Me" on Broadway, co-directed the revival of "Cabaret" with Sam Mendes, and directed the well-received TV version of "Annie."

"We're probably closest to 'Cabaret' because Bob Fosse [its Oscar-winning director] also put all his numbers on a stage," Marshall says.

Fosse was, in fact, the first director attached to a filmed "Chicago" since he had directed its original stage version, which starred Chita Rivera and his wife, Gwen Verdon, in 1975. He was in discussions with Marty Richards, the producer who owned the rights to the project, about a film version when he dropped dead on a New York street in 1987. "Bob said he'd do it as soon as he got done with 'Sweet Charity' on Broadway, but he died during the run," says Richards, who likes to say he's been working on this since his "confirmation." He turned 70 on the day the film wrapped. "I remember Bob telling me he was interested in the emerging performer Madonna, saying, ' I'll get her an Oscar nomination.' "

Things stalled and the project was just going into turnaround when a sexy and spare revival of the musical (directed by Marshall first in Los Angeles) took Broadway by storm. The first director Richards went to was Baz Luhrmann, who would go on to direct a jazzed-up "Romeo and Juliet" and "Moulin Rouge."

"He told me he didn't do things unless he developed them on his own," Richards says, laughing. "Later I thought, well, William Shakespeare isn't exactly new!"

Nicholas Hytner, who directed the acclaimed revival of "Carousel" in London and New York (and, later, the film "The Madness of King George"), also became attached as director and brought in his friend Wasserstein to have a stab at the script, without the knowledge of producer Richards. Gelbart has sour memories of the process: "I began work on 'Chicago' in 1995 and went on to enough drafts to contract double pneumonia -- at least seven. It was one of the most distasteful periods of my professional life. If I had it to do over again, I would have written the experience with a happier ending for me -- but then Miramax would probably call someone in to rewrite that too."

And there things stood until Marshall -- who'd never made a feature film -- walked into the Miramax offices.

His first order of business was finding a screenwriter, and he finally landed on Bill Condon, a writer-director who had recently won an Oscar for his screenplay of "Gods and Monsters." Condon, like so many on this project, didn't have a musical on his resume but was a longtime lover of the genre and "Chicago" in particular. (He'd seen it three times on stage.) Like Marshall, he knew that moving a musical from stage to screen was littered with land mines.

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