All singing! All dancing! All tough and cynical!

At long last, an American movie musical gets it right. Will the "Chicago" breakthrough bring a return to the glory days, or just a new onslaught of inflated Broadway schmaltz?

Published February 18, 2003 9:00PM (EST)

Right now in New York you can go to the Ziegfeld, a real, lovingly maintained movie palace of the old days, and see "Chicago" on-screen starring Richard Gere, Renée Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Or, for nine times the price of a movie ticket, you can go 10 blocks downtown and see "Chicago" live onstage starring a Backstreet Boy.

If "Chicago" does prove to be the roaring success it looks headed toward becoming, after accumulating 13 Oscar nominations earlier this week, it may well fulfill the seemingly impossible task of reviving the American movie musical. That will be a great thing for movies as a democratic art form.

When you look at the listings for the current big Broadway shows, you might feel as if you're reading a flier for the longest continuing white elephant sale of all time. Almost everything that isn't a revival is a musicalization of a movie. The big new show announced for this spring? "Urban Cowboy." But even if Broadway didn't feel as if it had long ago hit a creative dead end, there would still be the fact that, for reasons both geographic and financial, Broadway is out of reach for most Americans.

Tourists visiting New York save for tickets to a Broadway show the way families save for a vacation to Disney World (which makes sense, since Times Square and Disney World are run by the same corporation). Factor in ticket-agency service charges and a night out at a Broadway show for a family of four can easily hit $400. Even if that family is lucky enough to score tickets at the half-price ticket booth at the north end of Times Square, they're still shelling out $200.

Because of that, Broadway musicals operate on essentially the same principle as Hollywood action blockbusters. To justify the enormous cost, there must be something going on every minute. Spectacle reigns supreme. Does anybody know any of the songs from "Phantom of the Opera," "Les Miz" or "Miss Saigon" the way people who hadn't even seen "My Fair Lady" or "Camelot" knew "I Could Have Danced All Night" or "If Ever I Would Leave You"?

Talk to people who've gone to the big warhorse productions soldiering on for decades now and the first thing they talk about are the sets. They're sure not talking about the stars. After the big stars who open musicals move on, the long-running shows become revolving doors for a procession of soap stars and faded pop musicians. To paraphrase a recent Jay Leno gag, there are fewer stars on Broadway right now than on "Hollywood Squares."

A couple of years ago, my mother-in-law, who adores Bernadette Peters (who should be doing musicals), took my wife and me, along with my sister-in-law and niece, to a matinee of Peters in the revival of "Annie Get Your Gun." I'd never seen anything like it. Whenever two people were onstage in the midst of a simple dialogue scene, extras would walk through at regular intervals doing some bit of comic business. In effect, the director had blocked the show so that the principal actors were continuously upstaged. It was as if, having asked the audience to pay all that money to get in, the director felt that simply presenting two characters talking or singing would have been a cheat. All that was missing was a meter over the stage showing how each bit of business finally tallied up to the whopping ticket price.

That experience sufficiently behind me, I decided to give big stage musicals one more try. Last fall in London I got tickets to a well-reviewed revival of "My Fair Lady" directed by Trevor Nunn. Compared with New York, London theater is still relatively cheap. My wife and I were able to get a pair of orchestra seats for less than the price of one ticket to any Broadway musical. Cheered by that, we proceeded to the theater. How, after all, could anybody screw up "My Fair Lady"?

Easily, it turns out. The production wasn't bad, just depressingly adequate. The romance and wit of the show felt canned, rote. As in "Annie Get Your Gun," the staging was very peculiar. As the scenes changed, sets moved across the stage from left to right, and often people from the previous scene wound up in the beginning of the next one. What, I wondered, were dancers from the embassy ball doing twirling around Professor Higgins' study at 3 o'clock in the morning? Was this some new version where Henry, wanting to keep the party going, invited everyone back to his place?

Leaving the theater I began fantasizing about what a new movie of "My Fair Lady" could be like, replacing in my head the anonymous performances I'd just seen with the likes of Bob Hoskins as Alfred Dolittle, or Emily Watson or Rachel Weisz as Eliza. And who would be a good Higgins? Hugh Grant? Eddie Izzard? But, of course, back in October, the movie musical was a dead genre.

The reasons for that are complicated, but at the root are two movies: "West Side Story" and "The Sound of Music," two of the stinker musicals of all time (I know that's considered heresy regarding the former) and, at the time, the two most successful movie musicals ever. Hollywood responded by trying to outdo itself with ever bigger productions, and in the late '60s, turned out a string of ruinously expensive flops: "Dr. Dolittle," "Star!" "Camelot" (which at least is a fascinating failure, with a great performance by Richard Harris and a riveting, eccentric one by Vanessa Redgrave), "Paint Your Wagon" and "Hello, Dolly!" There were good movie musicals in this period: "Funny Girl," "Oliver!" "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" (a special case: The songs are dreadful, but the performances by Petula Clark, Sian Phillips and, especially, Peter O'Toole are superb), and, a few years later, "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Cabaret."

Something else had happened. As Pauline Kael noted in a piece at the time, somewhere along the line, musicals came to be regarded as family entertainment. That was death for the old conception of musicals as snappy and cynical. With Rodgers and Hammerstein ruling the roost, shows with the attitude and sophistication of "Pal Joey" or "Guys and Dolls" didn't stand a chance. But "family entertainment" and the idiotic Rodgers and Hammerstein conception of songs growing "organically" out of a show (who goes to a musical expecting realism?) was also a gravestone for the light, offhand, romantic-comedy tone that had defined the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies and the great "small" movie musicals of the '30s like "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum!" (recently restored on DVD and one of the joys of American movie musicals).

The success of "West Side Story" and "The Sound of Music" came a few years before the changes that would come to be felt in society and therefore in movie audiences, changes that were already in place when the studios kept trying to duplicate their success. Kael wrote that the late '60s should "be the best time for movie musicals since the early '30s, when the talkies took up the great revue stars of the stage -- Fanny Brice, Astaire, and the Marx Brothers and all the rest."

She went on to argue that the studios, tied to the old way of doing things, were more willing to risk millions on an elephantine production than considerably less on a smaller movie musical. "Don't the studios," wrote Kael, "know that there is an audience for Aretha Franklin and Grace Slick and Janis Joplin and Flip Wilson and dozens of others? American movies did less with Ray Charles in the '50s and '60s than they did with Fats Waller in the first years of talkies."

This is the chance that studios have right now, not only with the explosion in hip-hop and dance music, but with the comic stars who have emerged over the last few decades. There is an audience right now for Missy Elliott and Kylie Minogue and Beyoncé Knowles. What could established comic talents like Bill Murray and Lily Tomlin do in a musical? What could Steve Martin do if he were ever given another chance after "Pennies From Heaven," for my money the greatest American movie musical ever made?

Since movie musicals have always depended on great comic supporting characters, think of what Cedric the Entertainer or Wanda Sykes could do. What about the performers who seem to be descended from Eric Blore, Edward Everett Horton, Franklin Pangborn and Eugene Palette, the great eccentric character actors of the '30s and '40s? I'm thinking of people like Steve Buscemi, Jon Lovitz, David Hyde Pierce, Brittany Murphy, Philip Seymour Hoffman and others. Think of how charming those two actresses with the '30s sweetheart faces, Emily Watson and Maggie Gyllenhaal, might be in a musical.

Part of the excitement of watching "Chicago" is not just imagining the new talents that could brighten movies but imagining the new sides that established performers might be able to show off. There's a special excitement in seeing Zellweger and Zeta-Jones and Gere, performers we thought we knew as well as we could, sing and dance -- spectacularly. And there are others.

Vanessa L. Williams sells out a Broadway theater for months in a revival of Sondheim's "Into the Woods," but the movies have given her the chance to dance just once (in the charmingly inconsequential "Dance With Me") and they've never given her the chance to sing. Christopher Walken, who may be the movies' great unused song and dance man, has gotten to strut his stuff exactly once, in "Pennies From Heaven." Before he became familiar to audiences on "Law & Order," Jerry Orbach introduced "Try to Remember" in the original production of "The Fantasticks" and originated the part of Billy Flynn in the 1975 production of "Chicago." (I saw him in the touring company of that show, and he was bliss to watch.)

Even when they were dying or dead on American screens, musicals never really went away. Like so many of our other genres, they went to Europe and beyond. In France Jacques Demy made "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" and the problematic (but still affecting) "The Young Girls of Rochefort." In 1994 the French director Jacques Rivette made the lovely musical "Haut/bas/fragile." In 1999 the Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang made light of the end of the world in "The Hole," and last year, from Thailand, came Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's "Monrak Transistor," which manages to make the oldest boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl plot seem fresh.

A word needs to be said about Baz Luhrmann and "Moulin Rouge," a movie that, like his "Romeo + Juliet," simultaneously drove me crazy and snuck into my heart. Luhrmann sets up the most elaborate sets and scenes only to edit his movies so much that we barely get a chance to see what's there. But there's a true conviction in his heart-on-the-sleeve craziness, a conviction that wouldn't work for other directors who try to adopt his methods.

In this country, Paul Thomas Anderson has felt as if he's been moving toward a musical for some time now. That's apparent less in the end-to-end music of "Magnolia" (and the scene where the entire cast breaks out in song) than in all of "Punch-Drunk Love," which in its own perverse, unique way has the lightness and simplicity and spirit of a '30s musical. The success of "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut" suggests audiences are willing to get beyond the Disneyfied musicals the movie parodies so effectively. The most original American movie musical of recent years was John Cameron Mitchell's "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," the one rock musical where that phrase is not an oxymoron. And "Once More With Feeling," the wonderful musical episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," suggests how good small-scale musicals might be made.

If "Chicago" is the movie that brings back the American movie musical, then the musicals that follow had better take a long look at it and learns its lessons. "Chicago" seems miraculous for a number of reasons, not least of which is that the show hasn't been softened or sweetened in its transition from stage to screen. It's nasty, sharp, cynical and unromantic and it takes for granted that there are still audiences who will respond to its disreputable pleasures.

The original 1975 stage production, like all of director Bob Fosse's work, was steeped in his use of showbiz as a metaphor for life. And it came right on the cusp between his coruscating use of that metaphor (in his film of "Cabaret") and the rancid use of it he made in later films like "All That Jazz" and "Star 80." There was a trace of moralism in the show; Fosse wanted to implicate the audience for taking pleasure in the showbiz triumph of its murderess heroines Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly. Essentially, Fosse said, we were as much to blame for all the amoral phoniness as were his two killer-dillers.

The director of the film, Rob Marshall (taking his cue, I assume, from the 1996 Broadway revival directed by Walter Bobbie), wipes away all that moralism. In effect, he's made a genuinely amoral movie. Marshall knows that we enjoy glitz and glamour, that we don't necessarily want to see the guilty punished, that one of the things we go to musicals or movies to indulge is the fantasy of getting away with what we couldn't in real life. He knows there's something hypocritical in asking us to enjoy Roxie and Velma's murderous scheming and manipulation and then rebuking us for it. It doesn't escape him that the spotlight is not going to be on these girls for long. The show is set in 1929, just before the Wall Street crash, and the closing number, "Nowadays," highlights Roxie and Velma's myopia: "In fifty years or so/ It's gonna change, you know/ But, oh, it's heaven nowadays." Well, it was going to change a hell of a lot quicker than that.

But Marshall isn't out to punish anybody. "Chicago" sets up every bit of potential sentimentality and phony virtue for laughs. Gere's slick shyster, Billy Flynn, may sing "All I Care About Is Love," but we know all he cares about is moola and we laugh with him at his open corruption, which certainly looks a hell of a lot more fun than the honest, dogged persistence of Colm Feore's prosecutor. At times, as when Zellweger's Roxie pretends to collapse on the witness stand after proclaiming, "I did it to save my husband's innocent, unborn baby!" "Chicago" seems like sweet payback for every bit of sentimental eyewash we've ever had to sit through at the movies. When the movie's reporters eat up Roxie's sweet-little-miss routine as she turns the murder of her lover into a tale of an expectant mother protecting her unborn child, we laugh, wondering who could be so gullible. But nobody laughs at the current newspaper ads for "Antwone Fisher" in which the likes of Marian Wright Edelman laud it as inspiring and life changing.

"Chicago" harks back to the Hollywood movies of the early '30s, before the production code came in. Those movies were wisecracking, wised-up, anti-authoritarian, cheerfully cynical, hard-nosed and blessedly nonjudgmental. (Nobody batted an eye in the 1932 "Night Nurse" when bootlegger Clark Gable knocked off the hoods threatening Barbara Stanwyck, or when she rode off with Gable at the movie's end.) It's a great reminder of how, when we trust our native casualness and skepticism, American entertainment can be bracingly disrespectful.

That tone, of course, isn't going to be right for every musical. It wouldn't, for instance, suit a light, romantic musical. But the lessons "Chicago" offers for the American movie musicals that will surely follow shouldn't be ignored. Sure-footed, light on its feet and fast, fast, fast, "Chicago" clocks in at just under two hours. The movie never gets bogged down in the period sets or costumes -- we're never asked to pay attention to them rather than to the actors. And the music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb (one of the great American musical scores) have none of that forced energy and false rhythm that hovers around the dreaded phrase "show tunes."

Essentially a pastiche of pop music styles of the '20s and early '30s, the score is memorable and spicy. Kander and Ebb give their songs just the right touch of cynicism without turning them sour, as Sondheim almost always does. (The closing number, "Nowadays," is a perfect example of the slightly acrid melancholy Sondheim always overdoes.)

Speed, lightness, momentum, wit -- those are the things that the musical filmmakers who follow should take from Rob Marshall. But the musical revival is not going to happen if what we get are movie versions of the top-heavy clunkers that have been littering up Broadway and London since the '80s -- "Les Miz," "Cats," "Miss Saigon," "Phantom" (which, God help us, is supposedly on the way from director Joel Schumacher), even "Rent." It's not going to happen if Hollywood only wants to churn out blockbusters and Oscar machines and makes no place for simpler musicals in contemporary dress and settings. It's not going to happen if Hollywood isn't willing to consider ways of making use of the new musical and comic talent around, or the unused talents of the stars who've been around for a while.

There is one way, however, that Hollywood might follow Broadway's lead, and that's in revivals. Some of our best stage musicals, like "Guys and Dolls" and "Pal Joey," were mucked up on the screen. Some, like George Cukor's film of "My Fair Lady" (a not very good movie for which I admit a lot of affection), were stiff and processed. The studios don't have to look far to see that audiences are flocking to revivals. (The 1996 revival of "Chicago" got its start in the Encores! series at New York's City Center, in which neglected musicals are given staged readings.)

The backlog of great American musicals should be catnip to all the filmmakers and stars who look at "Chicago" and want to do their own musical. If Marshall can score a success without having to soften the material or dumb it down, if he can score a success by getting it right, there should be fewer obstacles to the people who follow in his footsteps. "Chicago" suggests that the still uncertain future of the American movie musical is going to be determined by fusing its present with its past.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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