Recontextualizing “Chicago” in 2017

By Allison Gold, director of Chicago

When I read the first scene of Chicago back in April, I knew there was a lot more to this musical than the traditional Fosse staging or Oscar-winning film had let on. After reading the actual script for the first time, focusing just on the words, I found that interpreting Chicago as a story of vaudeville and fame was a superficial reading of the text.  Rather, Chicago is rooted firmly in a historical context. It’s setting is a shifting world order—situated between the devastation of World War I and the coming Great Depression—in which women’s roles are constantly changing, as they search for agency in a society set up to strip them of it.

In the very first scene, Roxie shoots her lover Fred with little escalation. The stage directions read “The ‘action’ between Roxie and Fred is very mechanical,” and by Roxie’s next line of dialogue she’s ready to shoot. Seeing the words on the page, I realized: Roxie kills Fred because he left her sexually unsatisfied. A 2017 reading of the scene, no doubt, but it’s a reading that, like most of the musical, feels painfully—almost uncomfortably—relevant.

Chicago is based on the sensational murderesses of the city in the 1920s, and Roxie and Velma are modeled after real women living in what F. Scott Fitzgerald called the “cracked up” 1920s. Fitzgerald argued that there was a deep societal anxiety following World War I, which contributed to the manic partying of the 1920s and, ultimately, people’s “crack ups.” In an interview, Douglass Perry, the author of The Girls of Murder City (Penguin Books, 2011), notes:

Add in the availability of guns and the celebration of lawlessness that came with Prohibition, and it makes sense that more women were committing violence.

Chicago as a city, too, was rife with corruption and mob violence. There was no rule of law, and no doubt a desensitization to death following the war.

Roxie, Velma, and the other women we meet in Chicago are searching for agency and self-determination in a world that continually gives it and takes it away: women were sent to work during WWI, then sent back into the home when the men returned from war; they were not allowed in Saloons, but they were allowed in Speakeasies. The young women of the 1920s demanded acknowledgment as individual beings, not as extensions of their husbands or lovers. And so, when Fred undermines Roxie’s personhood by not giving equal weight to her pleasure as to his own, she must then undermine his personhood by killing him, and in so doing asserting herself as a woman with agency.

Many of the women in the show—including the non-criminal professionals, prison matron Mama Morton and reporter Mary Sunshine—are exercising their own agency, whether in killing their husbands or sensationalizing headlines. And while Roxie and Velma seek fame, that celebrity serves as a stand-in for self-actualization. Roxie’s song envisioning her future as a celebrity is aptly titled “Roxie.” She sings, “From just some dumb mechanics wife I’m gonna be Roxie.” Her self-actualization is defined by achieving an independence from her husband and promoting herself as Roxie, an individual, rather than Roxie Hart, Amos’s wife. In fact, the first time Roxie’s name is said on stage is not until after she shoots Fred and exercises agency. These women long to be recognized and valued, and identify fame as a way to achieve that end.

After all, by the 1920s, vaudeville was nearly dead, and Roxie and Velma are idealizing a vision of fame that is no longer viable. So they seek a new kind of fame, one based not at all on what they are, but rather on what they could be: sensationalist celebrities. This path to fame requires no dance moves, no singing, no skill. It just requires some blind ambition and charm.

Roxie and Velma both enlist several characters in their quests: Billy Flynn, the smooth-talking lawyer who more than lightly twists the truth and manipulates the media and the court; Matron Mama Morton, the prison matron who will bend the rules to suit her needs; and Mary Sunshine, the “sob sister” reporter who sensationalizes every detail and promotes Billy’s narratives. All of these characters and dynamics are firmly rooted in the corrupt and lawless Chicago of the 1920s. None have loyalty and are happy to play Roxie and Velma off of one another to suit their needs. Roxie and Velma invent various tactics to keep the tabloids on them, but have to continually up the anteas readers, we are always seeking the newest, bloodiest murder, and the papers continue to profit off of sensationalist true crime.

When I got to the end of the play, the text struck me as it had in the beginning. We end with a coda, Roxie and Velma performing their own act on a Chicago stage. They achieve their original goal through different means. They profited off their own crime and corruption and won in the end, and we fed their rise. They thank the audience for their support and faith in the women’s innocence—an innocence the audience knows is false—and position themselves as symbols: “But we are the living examples of what a wonderful country this is,” they conclude. What exactly are Roxie and Velma claiming to be proving about America? That perception is more important than reality? That the truth is flexible?

The show was rigged from the beginning, set up to make us cheer on these women. I wondered if we should actually sympathize with Roxie and Velma, or is that a design of the play? Do we too, fall prey to Billy’s spin on Roxie’s story, and recall Roxie and Fred’s ordeal as one of violence?

When the story is repeated over and over, you begin to believe it—even if you know the truth. And so how are we to reconcile Roxie and Velma? Should we extol the duality that they are both victims of a society that pushed them to the brink, and also women who behaved with only self-interest and with little moral compass? Should we celebrate them for participating in the system which we also use to excuse their actions?

I thought back to the idea of the manic 1920s—a society suffering a collective PTSD amid industrialization, crime, prohibition, and artistic revolution. That frenzied decade that ended in late 1929 when the stock market collapsed. The “cracked up” place Fitzgerald described—a world teetering on the edge of collapse or revelation, depending which way it falls.

 

Chicago runs November 8-11 at Georgetown University Law Center, at 8pm. It is directed by Allison Gold and features Emily Krulewitz, Melody Vidmar, Daniel Lakin, Lauren Berkebile, Lauren Mike, and William Cox. Tickets go on sale October 11 and will be available here.

Allison Gold is a freelance theater director born and raised in New York City. Her recent directing credits in New York include the original work Nervosa: The Musical (Annoyance Theater) and Driving Miss Daisy (Players Theater). Allison received a B.A. in American Studies with a focus in Government from Stanford University. Additional directing credits include All My Sons, Next to Normal, and Eurydice. Most recently, Allison served as the Artistic/Directing Apprentice at Hartford Stage. She is a member of the Stage Directors’ and Choreographers’ Foundation 2017-2018 Observership Class.

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