Recently, there has been a widespread trend of making films into Broadway musicals. There’s School of Rock, Groundhog Day, Sunset Boulevard, Amelie, Waitress, and countless others. But what about when it’s the other way around? How do you take a highly successful stage musical and turn it into a film? I looked to Chicago, arguably the most famous of this smaller number of film-turned-musicals, to attempt to answer this question.
“It’s all a circus, kid. A three-ring circus. These trials. The whole world. All show business.” Lawyer Billy Flynn says this to Roxie Hart, a young aspiring performer who murders Fred Casely, the man with whom she is having an affair. A few months ago, I wrote about a musical entitled The Scottsboro Boys, written by John Kander and Fred Ebb, who also wrote the music and lyrics for Chicago. Kander and Ebb are notorious for the way in which they point out flaws in our society. They are masterful at holding a mirror up to nature. Chicago focuses on the problems surrounding crime and the media. It condemns our entertainment-centered society by depicting a world in which there is virtually no difference between being a murderer and being a performer. Roxie Hart is able to gain fame and fortune because of this crime she commits. Thus, the fame of a performer and the infamy of a criminal are depicted as one in the same. This relationship is shown starting with Roxie’s arrest after committing the murder, as she is trailed by hoards of photographers taking her picture. When discussing her future as a performer with Matron Mama Morton, Roxie states: “I don’t even have an act yet” to which Morton responds “Killing Fred Casely was your act.” Roxie’s life post-murder is less the life of a criminal and more the life of a big star.
Chicago was (and still is) undoubtedly a huge stage success. It currently holds the title of the longest running American musical on Broadway and the second-longest running musical of all time. I was lucky enough to see this show on Broadway several years ago, and it is truly one of the most astounding shows I’ve ever seen. Part of the reason why I loved it was because of its meta-theatrical nature, particularly surrounding its songs, which are incredibly self-aware. By this I mean that characters know they are performing in front of an audience when they’re singing. They break the fourth wall and sing right to the crowd. Each song is introduced by an emcee; it is almost like it’s a cabaret show dispersed throughout the musical. A plot point will occur, and a corresponding song or act will be announced and then performed. For example, Roxie is brought to her press conference by Billy Flynn. The song “They Both Reached For The Gun” is announced, and we watch a song and dance number in which Billy Flynn functions as a ventriloquist and Roxie is his dummy. He tells her exactly what to say to win the world’s sympathy. Another example: it is revealed that another woman in the jail was said to be guilty and is sentenced to death. Then, a sort of circus act is announced: The Hungarian Disappearing Act, which she then performs, symbolizing her hanging. This structure is invoked seamlessly in the stage musical, but becomes more difficult in a film. How do you preserve the meta-theatrical nature of Chicago when it is no longer performed in front of you on a stage?
I think Chicago is a successful film because of the way that it actually emphasizes this meta-theatrical nature of the story through the use of techniques unique to cinema. There are two different “worlds” present within the film. First there is the world of the plot, which takes place in 1920s Chicago, on the streets, in the jail, in the courtroom, etc. Then there is the world of the songs and acts, which take place on a stage in a theater. We see the bright spotlights and dazzling displays behind the performers as they sing and dance. We literally become a part of the audience, as the camera is often stationed behind other audience-members, putting us right in that crowd. It emphasizes the fact that these moments are incredibly performative. Then, it is able to beautifully weave these moments of performance into the narrative through the usage of tactics such as eyeline matches and close-ups. My favorite of these moments is a number that is only found in the film and not in the musical. This number occurs during Billy Flynn’s cross-examination; he discredits a piece of evidence in a masterful way, extremely powerful with his words. As he walks confidently across the courtroom floor, the camera follows his feet. We then cut to his feet on a stage, and he begins performing an unbelievable tap dance. We constantly switch between him in the court room and him tap dancing, blurring these two “performances” together in a way that can only be done on film.
There is really nothing like live theater, sitting in the audience and watching performers right before your eyes. It’s unpredictable, and there is a thrill of knowing that each and every performance is unique in some way; there will always be small differences between performances of the same show, and this is a truly thrilling feeling. Yet I got a similar sort of thrill when watching the film of Chicago. I think Chicago works because it is somehow able to preserve this sense of live performance onscreen. Moreover, through techniques unique to cinema, it is able to even further emphasize the theatrical nature of our justice system, our media, and our world. The film, maybe even more so than the musical, makes it clear that the world is all show business.