It remains one of the most effective stylistic gambits in cinema history: Over the course of five cuts in about two seconds, we watch as Renee Zellweger’s Roxie Hart hungrily watches Catherine Zeta-Jones’s Velma Kelly perform “All That Jazz,” and get so wrapped up in it that she sees herself in the performance, belting out the big note at the end of a phrase. Plenty of films have opened with a sequence that essentially instructs the audience on how to watch them, but Rob Marshall’s Chicago does so in a particularly brazen way, especially given its genre. If the movie musical was dead in the 1990s, and 2001’s Moulin Rouge! proved that original live-action movie musicals could still wow audiences, then Chicago proved that there was still life to be found in the old Broadway chestnuts, provided you knew where to look.
Movie musical adaptations of stage shows had fallen far out of favor by the turn of the millennium, killed by the wave of 90s cool that emphasized ironic detachment over surface-level glitz and glamour. Audiences were simply not accepting of people suddenly breaking into song unless they were in animated films. Hollywood had tried to make movie musicals successful throughout the 80s, but it was tough going after a great run in the 70s (Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Tommy, Grease, The Wiz). The 1980s started off with a trio of original movie musicals that were legendary flops: The Apple, Can’t Stop the Music, and Xanadu, and it didn’t get much better from there. The 1982 adaptations of Annie and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas were moderate box office successes but critical failures, 1985’s A Chorus Line (at the time the most successful Broadway musical in history) was a bomb, and 1986’s Little Shop of Horrors underperformed. After that, stage musicals were relegated to filmed performances on PBS and television movies for a decade. The only movie musical adaptation released theatrically in the whole of the 1990s was 1996’s Evita, starring Madonna in the title role. While the film didn’t make back its budget at the American box office, it did very well internationally, and the film’s soundtrack was a huge success on the Billboard charts, spawning a club remix of “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” that cracked the top ten of the Hot 100. But at its heart, Evita is an Oscarbait-y biopic, traditional and somewhat staid; it got some respect from critics, but excited almost no one. So when a sexy, minimalist revival of Chicago opened on Broadway in 1996 to critical acclaim and commercial success, the timing was just right for the long-stalled film adaptation of the show (originally meant to be directed by Bob Fosse before his death in 1987) to finally come to fruition.
The biggest problem with adapting Chicago to the screen is the musical’s structure. Subtitled “A Musical Vaudeville,” each of the show’s songs is presented as a different vaudeville act, something that works naturally in a theatrical setting but not in a cinematic one. But director Rob Marshall – in his feature debut – hit upon a flawless conceit to make it work: All the musical numbers take place in Roxie’s mind, a reflection of her ambition to become a star. In one fell swoop, most of the problems with cinematic adaptations of stage musicals are solved – people aren’t just randomly breaking out into song and dance, they’re doing so inside the theater of the mind, which allows the filmmakers to open everything up so that it does not feel stage-bound. Marshall’s team took the opportunity and ran with it, giving each musical number a unique look that differentiates it from the period grittiness of the book scenes: “Cell Block Tango” takes a wide-open space and fills it with a whole wall of jailed women dancing in individual jail cells, slashes of red fabric cutting across the black costumes and white lighting to dramatize the bloody murders of the song’s narrative; “All I Care About” and “Razzle Dazzle” present a vaudeville carnival of ornate set and costume designs to buttress Billy Flynn’s flashy legal showmanship; in “Roxie,” Zellweger isn’t only backed up by an ensemble of suited male dancers, but by versions of herself in a roomful of mirrors, a reflection of her narcissism. In a strange way, this almost makes the film feel more like traditional stage musicals, which have often treated musical numbers as separate from the rest of the show, chances to indulge in flights of fancy when the rest of the show is more grounded. But Chicago is thrillingly cinematic in every scene, the cynicism of the book a perfect counter to the razzle-dazzle of the musical numbers.
This balancing act – between stagey and cinematic, cynicism and sincere showmanship – is key to Chicago feeling as modern as it does. To spice up the old-fashioned jazz feel of the score, Marshall’s chief collaborator turned out to be editor Martin Walsh, who justly won an Oscar for his dizzying work on the film. If Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! pioneered the art of transferring the hyperkinetic music video style of editing to the big screen, then Chicago perfected it. Walsh’s cutting is almost always tied to movement, not very surprising given Marshall’s background as a choreographer. The ultimate effect of this, especially when paired with Dion Beebe’s constantly moving, Oscar-nominated cinematography, is that every single movement is maximized – you feel the swing of the dancers’ legs and the beats their hands and feet make when they slap them down on something, you sink when they fall, you rise up when they jump. Everything feels more immediate, a sort of hyper-reality where every movement is punctuated with an exclamation point. This could feel exhausting, but instead it’s energizing, bringing the roaring 20s to gloriously exciting life. Chicago is constantly looking for ways to justify its transfer from stage to screen, and the result is a film that feels like an original movie musical celebrating stage performance. It’s the perfect vehicle to bring back stage-to-screen adaptations of musicals, a prime example of taking a piece made for one medium and making smart changes to fit it into another, built to excite the audience and leave them breathlessly wanting more. When Roxie and Velma end the film by singing, “in fifty years or so, it’s gonna change, ya know. But, oh! It’s heaven nowadays,” it feels like they’re talking about the state of film adaptations of stage musicals: There will eventually be a time when they once again fall out of fashion, but isn’t this one great? Don’t you want more?
People did want more, as it turned out, and Hollywood was more than happy to oblige. The decade following saw adaptations of numerous stage musicals: The Phantom of the Opera, The Producers, Rent, Hairspray, Dreamgirls, Sweeney Todd, and Mamma Mia! all achieved differing levels of success before Rob Marshall tried to do it again with Nine. But, as usual, Hollywood didn’t put nearly enough thought into why the film that set a trend worked and just pumped out more product that was superficially similar. Marshall was a choreographer before directing Chicago? Hire choreographers Susan Stroman and Adam Shankman to direct The Producers and Hairspray, respectively! Chicago is a period piece about female performers scripted by Bill Condon? Get him to helm an adaptation of Dreamgirls! People complained (wrongly) that Zellweger couldn’t sing? Hire the original Broadway cast to reprise their roles in Rent! Need a cynical piece from the 1970s that takes place even further in the past? Let’s do Sweeney Todd! Putting out one to two films a year adapting stage musicals isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but very few managed to hit the heights that Chicago hit. Where Chicago felt like something special, nearly every Broadway musical adaptation since has felt calculated and rote. Only Marshall’s own Nine managed to justify its leap to cinema by exploiting the possibilities of the medium, but even that was just Marshall pulling from his Chicago trick bag, having the musical numbers take place in the mind’s eye. It was a case of diminishing returns, worsened by the fact that Nine’s score is more sedate than that of Chicago.
The stage-to-screen adaptations that followed in Chicago’s wake aren’t all complete failures. Most of them made money, most of them got decent reviews, and some of them even got Oscar nominations. But as cinematic objects, they pale in comparison to Chicago. The cast of Rent may have more Broadway bona fides, but they were far past the point where they could convincingly play twenty-somethings. The Phantom of the Opera had tremendous production values, but one lead who was massively miscast and another who wasn’t yet ready to lead a film. The schticky humor of The Producers died without a live audience response. Hairspray and Dreamgirls made stars out of their rookie leads, but as films were merely competent; straight adaptations that just transplanted the stage shows to the screen. Sweeney Todd did manage to feel cinematic, but the score was hacked to bits and cast full of Tim Burton’s repertory players, regardless of whether or not they could perform the roles as written. There wasn’t a single Broadway-to-film transfer that had a truly distinct point-of-view and cinematic style until 2012’s Les Misérables, coincidentally also the only such film to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture since Chicago (until 2021’s West Side Story, arguably a remake of a pre-existing film).
Two decades later, Chicago remains a high-water mark for adapting a stage musical to film. It is a perfect example of the right material getting the right director at the right time to work as well as it possibly could. It’s not surprising that Hollywood wasn’t able to fully build on its artistic success, as so much of that relies on an alchemy that you can’t necessarily predict. But, as a fan of musicals in all their forms, it is saddening that we haven’t gotten a fully great stage-to-screen adaptation in the twenty years since. There are so many stage musicals that are crying out for a cinematic treatment from the right director (just imagine what Baz Luhrmann could do with Follies if he was able to reign himself in even just a little bit). We got a few wonderful transfers last year – in addition to West Side Story, there was Jon M. Chu’s vibrantly cinematic In The Heights, Joe Wright’s swooningly romantic Cyrano, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s engaging, polished tick, tick…BOOM! – in a truly banner year for movie musicals. Maybe we just had to wait two decades to get another film that captured Chicago’s lightning in a bottle again. Or maybe it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, a perfect moment in time that can never be replicated. Either way, the film stands as a towering achievement of the movie musical form, a stage adaptation that dared to trust its audience to understand a visual conceit and style that hadn’t been done in this genre before, and kickstarted a new (almost) golden age. Here’s hoping the next great stage-to-screen transfer is coming soon. Rob Marshall simply can’t do it alone!
Chicago was released in select theaters by Miramax Films on December 27, 2002 before going wide in January 2003. It is currently available to stream on HBO Max as well as to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video.