- The Washington Times - Friday, December 27, 2002

NEW YORK — It all comes back to O.J. Simpson. Shortly after the conclusion of the most infamous murder trial in recent American history, Broadway producers thought it would be a perfect time to revive the musical “Chicago,” a heady tale of passionate murder, sex and media manipulation.

Now it has been retrofitted for the big screen, starring Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah and John C. Reilly all surprisingly savvy singers and dancers.

The trick was to figure out how to translate such an inherently theatrical production to the screen, the crucial piece of a puzzle Miramax Films had been sitting on since 1994.

“It was very, very hard to figure out a way to do it,” says director and choreographer Rob Marshall, chatting with reporters at New York's Essex House.

Miramax is counting on the quirky musical to nab a few Oscars and thereby repeat the dark-horse success of such movies as “The English Patient” and “Shakespeare in Love.”

Its cultural resonance is the primary reason “Chicago” has endured for almost 80 years in one form or another.

Written in 1926 by Maurine Watkins, then a Chicago Tribune reporter, “Chicago” (originally titled “The Brave Little Woman”) seems to fit snugly into the nation's post-O.J. social consciousness. It neatly anticipated our current mise-en-scene: a time when fame and notoriety are morally neutral conditions.

Long before “the Juice” blurred the line between celebrity and criminality, before the Monica Lewinsky-minded media reached new heights of hyperventilating sensationalism, there was the Tribune's cheeky coverage of Belva Gaertner and “Beautiful Beulah” Annan, two glamorous Cook County murderesses tried and acquitted in 1924.

Before Johnnie Cochran (he of the famous strophe, “If the gloves don't fit, you must acquit”), there was “Chicago's” Billy Flynn, who says: “It's all a circus, kid. A three-ring circus. These trials the whole world all show business.”

•••

The 1996 Broadway revival of the 1975 production, using the original music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb and choreography by Bob Fosse, garnered six Tony awards, a Grammy and several other honors. Then, with the runaway success of last year's “Moulin Rouge,” the time seemed ripe for a movie adaptation of “Chicago.”

The musical, however, just didn't lend itself to standard techniques, Mr. Marshall says.

“I had read a lot of scripts that tried to turn it into a traditional musical, where people sing to each other but the songs weren't like that,” he says.

Mr. Marshall eventually teamed up with screenwriter Bill Condon, who wrote and directed 1998's “Gods and Monsters.” After watching a pile of old vaudeville movies, including Federico Fellini's “Variety Lights,” they settled on an inventive concept: Miss Zellweger's character, Roxie Hart, would be drawn as an ambitious dreamer.

While awaiting trial for murder in a women's prison, the real-time Roxie imagines herself a star of song and dance, seamlessly giving way to “Chicago's” musical numbers as performed theatrically.

Mr. Marshall and Mr. Condon had to sell the idea to an initially skeptical Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of Miramax.

“I basically said to him, you have to embrace the fact that these numbers take place onstage,” says Mr. Marshall, the six-time Tony Award nominee who directed the highly praised ABC movie musical “Annie.”

“It was the script that won me over,” says Richard Gere, who, despite a background in music and theater, had to “start from scratch” before assuming the role of the tap-dancing Billy Flynn, an unscrupulous and greedy defense lawyer.

“It was very painful and humiliating,” Mr. Gere jokes of his months-long training regimen. “It was one of those learning experiences where you just gotta go, I know it's gonna be months before I can do anything.'”

Echoing Mr. Gere, Mr. Reilly says preparing for a musical, with its intense physical rigors, is like girding oneself for a decathlon.

“You have to be almost monastic in the way that you take care of yourself,” says the ubiquitous character actor, who plays Amos Hart, Roxie's lovably naive husband.

•••

Mr. Gere and Mr. Reilly prove themselves competent in the singing-and-dancing department, but Miss Zeta-Jones and Miss Zellweger have wowed screening audiences.

The Welsh-born Miss Zeta-Jones, pregnant with her second child with Michael Douglas, got her start as a singer and dancer; at 15, she led a production of “42nd Street” in London's West End.

“Of all of us, she was the one who knew what she was doing; she was the trained dancer,” Mr. Gere say.

After a brief stint in television, she landed starring roles in “The Mask of Zorro” and “Entrapment,” two action movies that required a limber physicality.

“I always got to be dangling from something,” Miss Zeta-Jones jokes in an elegant Welsh accent. In “Chicago,” she plays Velma Kelley, a tough, self-promoting inmate upstaged by the scheming Roxie.

“Here I am, 33 years old, putting [my dance shoes] back on and trying to do the splits again. To get back into it was hard.”

Miss Zellweger, in contrast, didn't have the benefit of vocal and dance training before winning the Roxie role.

Known best for her perky and heartfelt turns in such movies as “Jerry Maguire” and “Bridget Jones's Diary,” Miss Zellweger delivered one of the year's biggest surprises with her vocal and dancing talent.

That she wound up in a movie musical is as astonishing to her as it may be to the audience.

“My brother used to yell Shut up' from across the house any time I tried to do a nice rendition of a Beatles song,” Miss Zellweger recalls. “I was told, basically, in my house that I couldn't sing.”

She says she was too ignorant about theater in general and “Chicago” in particular to let the project intimidate her.

“If I had understood the magnitude of what it was that we were doing in translating this to film, yes, I would have been terrified,” she says, “but I didn't.”

It was Miramax producer Meryl Poster who, confident of Miss Zellweger's hidden abilities, brought her into the “Chicago” fold.

When he first heard Miss Zellweger sing, Mr. Marshall recalls breathing a big sigh of relief. He knew he had a lead actress who could bring off the chancy concept of hinging “Chicago” on Roxie Hart.

“That was the eureka moment,” says Mr. Marshall, who hopes moviegoers appreciate his actors' versatility. The director is quick to dispel any suspicions about overdubbed singers or dancer doubles.

“Miss Zellweger's singing and dancing performed by Miss Zellweger,” begins a humorously redundant section of the end credits.

“We worked so hard to make sure that everybody did their own singing and dancing, every second of it,” Mr. Marshall says. “Coming from the theater, I would never fake it.”

Explaining the resurgence of the movie musical, Mr. Gere says, “Chicago” achieves something simple: “It tells a good story. We're playing an emotional narrative here that we wanted people to identify with, which doesn't always happen in musicals.”

The lack of a real human touch, Mr. Gere says, is one of the reasons big-screen musicals declined in recent years.

Indeed, before “Moulin Rouge,” winner of two Academy Awards (for costume design and art direction), the genre of contemporary movie musical was inhabited almost exclusively by animated films.

“Moulin Rouge' opened the door for us, and I hope that this kicks it open even further and lets people know that the genre of musicals is not a dead genre,” Mr. Marshall says. “It's a really worthwhile, wonderful, truly American art form.”

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