Chicago, the 1975 Broadway musical, is based on a 1926 Broadway play written by Maurine Watkins, a journalist and court stenographer who, in turn, based it on the true story of a woman accused of murdering her lover, but acquitted despite her guilt in a blaze of publicity machinations and deceitful lawyering in the Prohibition Era, gang-dominated city of the title. The show is the work of a group of veteran theater professionals, all of whom have gone a while without a Broadway hit. Director/choreographer/co-librettist Bob Fosse, perhaps the biggest influence on the work (but the one whose efforts are hardest to appreciate on the cast album), most recently scored on Broadway with Pippin in 1972 and seems to have conceived the project as a vehicle for his ex-wife, Gwen Verdon, last seen in their last collaboration, Sweet Charity, in 1966. Fosse took the project to the songwriting team of composer John Kander and lyricist (and making his debut as a co-librettist) Fred Ebb, who have worked steadily, but not had a hit, since Cabaret in 1966. Chita Rivera, playing the part of another murderess, a role built up to co-starring status in this version of the story, has been on the West Coast working in television; her last Broadway hit was Bye Bye Birdie in 1960. Jerry Orbach, playing the shyster, has been off the boards since Promises, Promises in 1969.
All of them must have been hungry for a hit, and they may have found it in Chicago, which, despite being half a century old, couldn't seem more timely in the year following the squalid conclusion of the Watergate scandal. On disc, the dominant force is Kander & Ebb's score (with a few lines of Fosse and Ebb's dialogue thrown in to give a sense of the plot), and as he did in Cabaret, Kander uses the excuse of the 1920s setting to write pastiches of '20s pop music styles, including lots of Dixieland jazz and Tin Pan Alley pop. (Sometimes, the references are specific: "All I Care About," the lawyer's facetious denial that he's interested in anything but "love," is written and performed in the manner of '20s star Ted Lewis, known for his catch phrase, "Is everybody happy?" Orbach asks instead, "Is everybody here? Is everybody ready?") Cabaret's setting in Weimer Germany with the Nazis looming also allowed Ebb to indulge his taste for sarcasm, and the same thing is true -- even if the scene is a bit less tragic -- for this Roaring Twenties locale. Fosse has abetted these approaches by structuring the production as a series of vaudeville acts, telling the already cheaply sensational story through a dated theatrical framing device. So, not only is every character a liar, a murderer, or a fool, but also it's all show biz!
This actually makes Verdon somewhat miscast, even if the show was designed with her in mind, since she has a sincere and winning manner, as she did in Sweet Charity, that is at odds with her character's toughness and willingness to manipulate everyone around her. The extended spoken portion of her title song, "Roxie," in which she tries to explain why she is the way she is, doesn't really convince. Also, Ebb's mere crankiness peeks through his cynicism, notably in "Class," in which two characters who have none nevertheless complain that it has disappeared lately. That is followed by the final number for the two scot-free "killer-dillers," "Nowadays," in which Verdon and Rivera praise their tawdry world and note that "in 50 years or so" things may change. Of course, those 50 years or so now have passed, and the makers of Chicago want us to know that nothing's changed; if anything, things have gotten worse. But with only Richard Nixon, not the Adolf Hitler of Cabaret, to consider, that may be a stretch. Chicago uses the '70s hangover following the '60s idealism, a world presided over, until recently, by a crook, to trot out some snazzy vaudeville routines and give them the illusion of intellectual heft. As one song title has it, it wants simultaneously to "Razzle Dazzle" us, but also to let us in on the trick. Once again, the headlines proclaim that the guilty have gotten off; on this album, Chicago sets that story to music effectively (and, on the stage, Fosse makes it dance).