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Theater | COMMENTARY

The right revival for cynical times

August 15, 2003|Michael Phillips | Chicago Tribune

In the 1975 battle of the great Broadway director-choreographers, it was no contest.

The Michael Bennett show "A Chorus Line," risque for its day but fiendishly effective in selling the hopes and dreams of its hopers and dreamers, seemed as if it would run forever. The Bob Fosse show "Chicago," all cynicism and dark shadows, a triumph of corruption over sincerity, appeared destined to eke out a season or two and then fade.

But "Chicago" has enjoyed a surprising reversal of fortune. "A Chorus Line," improbably, has become the underdog, the trickier proposition in revival.

Back when Gerald Ford ruled the free world, "A Chorus Line" arrived on Broadway after its lengthy Public Theater workshops like the savior, the celebrator and the savvy, with-it incarnation of Broadway itself. "Chicago" was its black-sheep cousin, a sinuous vision of Jazz Age sleaze and aging chorines getting away with murder.

"A Chorus Line" made the cover of Newsweek, won all the big Tony Awards, snagged the Pulitzer Prize and for all we know was short-listed for the Nobel.

"Chicago" won no Tonys, warmed no hearts and, while it managed a two-year Broadway run, what's two compared to "A Chorus Line's" record 15-year presence on Broadway?

"A Chorus Line" featured a song -- a sappy weak link in an otherwise wonderful set of Marvin Hamlisch-Ed Kleban tunes -- called "What I Did for Love." "Chicago" had its own love song, "All I Care About Is Love," and it's a lie; lawyer Billy Flynn, the vocalist, means what he sings not in the slightest.

Times change, and cynical times catch up with cynical shows.

The comeback of "Chicago" went like this: In 1996 the New York concert musical series known as Encores! slaughtered 'em with a stripped-down version of the one about Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, played by Ann Reinking (re-creating her mentor's original choreography with a few of her own flourishes) and, in a splendidly fearsome turn, Bebe Neuwirth.

Timing is everything.

Its timing was exquisite. The O.J. Simpson trial reminded America that a celebrity could, in the eyes of many, get away with something big and bad. With its intoxicating score by John Kander and Fred Ebb, "Chicago" sounded like a winner. (It always did.) And after one too many megamusicals from England, or France by way of England -- the ones with the cats and the chandeliers and the homeless waifs spinning around on turntables -- audiences bought into "Chicago" simply because it had all that Fosse choreography being danced by all those killer dancers wearing not a lot.

"Chicago" moved from Encores! to Broadway in short order, with only minimal expansion in terms of scenic design and overt glitz. It has been running seven years now, currently at capacity business with Melanie Griffith as Roxie.

"Chicago" is a period piece, set in an abstracted version of the 1920s. It is therefore easier to pull out of the drawer and revive, freshly. The original Fosse staging was dark, busy, even nightmarish. The Walter Bobbie-directed revival with Reinking's choreographic leadership therefore had somewhere to go: It toned down Fosse's impulse to rub the audience's nose in the corruption. And the bones of the piece -- the score and an edited version of the libretto -- took care of themselves.

"A Chorus Line" wasn't a period show; it was set in the here and now of its birth year, 1975. Even so, by the time the original edition closed on Broadway, the characters' sideburns and flared pants and Farrah hair looked like period artifacts.

Present and future directors of "A Chorus Line" have it tough on another score. Bennett and his collaborators conceived it as a "bare-stage" exploration of a Broadway theater -- not realistic, but dreamy and otherworldly, no less so than "Chicago." It's hard to tell if "A Chorus Line" can be rethought scenically, or conceptually. And can it ever be reconsidered choreographically? Good luck. Bennett's original concept is that tight.

Underneath all the youthful sexual angst in "A Chorus Line," straight and gay, the show reassured a broad audience. It rated as a new kind of old-fashioned, gotta-be-me valentine to the theater.

"Chicago" is big now because it's a musical about marketing. It concerns two women marketing themselves out of jail and into vaudeville. Vaudeville may be dead, but marketing is not.

In "Chicago," Roxie Hart, who has recently murdered her boyfriend, conjures a fantasy of giving her all for her adoring masses. "And the audience loves me for loving them," she says. "And I love the audience for loving me. And we just love each other. That's because none of us got enough love in our childhood.

"And that's showbiz, kid."

*

Michael Phillips is theater critic at the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune company.

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