I HAVE never been to
Chicago, but its tough town reputation has lingered through the years.
As the writer, James Morris, observed: “‘I will’ is the unofficial
slogan of Chicago, or ‘I Will’, as the American columnist, Max Royko,
added, ‘If I Don’t Get Caught.’”
I believe that Royko’s comment is a gross calumny on the Windy City, now
a prosperous, sophisticated and culture-sodden citadel of civilisation
that has buried a gangster-ridden past when the scent of bootleg liquor
and the staccato rattle of the “Chicago piano”, the Thompson sub-machine
gun, were in the frenetic and fearful air.
It is to these tumultuous times that the recently-released film musical,
Chicago returns. Again, it is a festering Gehenna of crime and
corruption in the rip-snorting Twenties when bullet-blasting the living
daylights out of someone was as natural as breathing or ceasing to
breathe, as the case might be.
As a veteran musical-watcher, my peepers have seen high-kicking
choruses, fair as the moon, clear as the sun and terrible as an army
with banners, and dancing acrobatic performers more versatile than those
in chimpanzees’ tea parties, and heard marshmallow-mush melodies
draining audiences’ tear tanks dry.
Seeing Chicago, I was as a watcher of the skies when a new planet swims
into his ken. In this mercenary, cynical and almost completely immoral
musical, the dancing, singing, conniving, tough-as-teak, ruthless and
talented heroines – I use the word loosely – played by Catherine Zeta
Jones and Renee Zellweger, are murderers who escape death sentences with
the aid of a lawyer so crooked that he probably sliced bread with a
In other musicals – even in dark, dynamic Cabaret, the direct progenitor
of this dazzling but ethically empty offering – there tended to be
streaks of exuberant good nature, ranging from hard-boiled but
golden-hearted characters to the saccharinal mawkishness of lovers
signalling affection in tap-dancing Morse code.
Chicago’s bleak message is to the coldly-calculating ambitious. Palms
are greased, newshawks are sensation-seeking automatons, betrayers in
love have Chicago daylight shot through them, courts are lied to, there
are heterosexual overtones and lesbian undertones – and vice versa – and
the only character possessing even the skimmed milk of human kindness is
the lovelorn husband (John C Reilly) whose rejection by Zellweger almost
equals the brutal brush-off by Shakespeare’s Henry V of Falstaff.
Chicago, with chilling lack of moral principle, is the antithesis of the
classic 1933 musical, 42nd Street, in which Ginger Rogers, as a
tough-talking but tender-hearted chorus girl, offered the lead role in a
new Broadway musical, selflessly suggests that wispy, spindly, fellow
hoofer, Ruby Keeler, is the one to pull the crowds and Bebe Daniels, the
lead performer, hors de combat because of a broken ankle, offers
last-minute advice and best wishes to her substitute. The
money-grubbing, murderous Millies in Chicago could never conceive of
Keeler, visibly wilting, is given, by the show’s director, a verbal
kick-start, calculated to put her entirely at ease.
“Now listen to me and listen hard – 200 people, 200 jobs, $200,000, five
weeks of grinding blood and sweat depend upon you – it’s the lives of
all these people who’ve worked with you. You’ve got to go on and you
have to give and give. They’ve got to like you. Do you understand?
“You can’t fall down. You can’t, because your future’s in it, my
future’s in it and everything all of us have is staked on you. So keep
your feet on the ground and your head on those shoulders of yours.
You’re going out a youngster but you’ve got to come back a star.”
Great stuff; as stirring as a bugle.
Miss Keeler had, in my essentially-biased view, a voice like steam
escaping from a pipe and danced like a badly-manipulated marionette but
the show was dazzlingly successful; everyone behaved decently, life
glowed like the rainbow’s end pot of gold and audiences felt good.
Life is not like that and Chicago, in tours de force opening and ending
numbers, with somewhat-stagey singing and dancing sequences depicting
the sordid swamp of Chicago life, brilliantly delivers the point.
In this stony-hearted, possibly trend-setting musical, one yearns for
some trace of moral rectitude – call it goodness. But apart from the
dimbulb glow of the faithful but feeble husband, goodness, as Mae West
observed about her career, has nothing to do with it.