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Best Feature of 2002?


The Case for 



Like most women, I love musicals. Musicals typically have very strong women characters (in order to balance the voices) & the genre explicitly requires its characters to express their emotions. But the translation from stage to screen is perilous, & even the best movie musicals have aged badly. (Be honest: We all cringe now when Natalie Wood opens her mouth in WEST SIDE STORY & out comes Marnie Nixon; we suffer every time Liza Minnelli leaves the CABARET, forcing us to endure tedious scenes with Maximillian & Natalia before she’ll sing again; we doze through the ups & downs of the Arnstein marriage in FUNNY GIRL's second act, etc, etc, etc). 

Along come Director Rob Marshall & Screenwriter Bill Condon, & all problems are resolved. They enfold their drama within the musical numbers. Essential details of plot & character are defined by the styles of the songs as well as by their lyrics. Audacious casting choices take our breath away (who knew Renee Zellweger was born to play foxie ROXIE HART). CHICAGO's pace is perfect & the audience response is giddy delight.

Many critics have written about all the things the filmmakers added to the original (simply put, the film has a lot more “story” than the Broadway version), but few have discussed what’s been left out. Personally, I think the toughest calls were the cuts. For the record, I believe this is usually the case with a good adaptation; the two hour running time of the average film often requires the screenwriter to remove a great deal of the detail in the original. (The exceptions are films based on magazine articles such as BLUE CRUSH or short stories such as SECRETARY. In these cases, the successful screenwriter has to work very hard to create coherent, meaningful “backfill.”)

As examples, let’s look at two of the most successful film adaptations in recent Oscar history. When John Irving wrote the film adaptation of his massive novel THE CIDER HOUSE RULES for Director Lasse Halstrom, he eliminated decades worth of plot, as well as major characters such as Angel and Melanie (beloved by many readers). When Akiva Goldsman wrote the screenplay for A BEAUTIFUL MIND for Director Ron Howard, his source was a huge biography filled with complex scientific concepts and tedious academic politics. In both cases, these two Oscar-winning screenwriters delivered the essence of each story, and in my opinion each Oscar was richly deserved. 

This year, I’m rooting for CHICAGO, & one thing that puts CHICAGO over the top for me is my appreciation of the discipline required to completely eliminate the original’s Act One Closer: “I Am My Own Best Friend.”

Like most Broadway musicals, the stage version of CHICAGO plays in two acts with an intermission in between. Therefore, like most stage musicals, the original first act of CHICAGO ends with a terrific number intended to send the audience out into the lobby in a fever, in breathless anticipation of Act Two. I know it worked for me. The first time I saw CHICAGO on stage, I headed straight to the sales table at intermission to buy the Original Cast Album.

“I Am My Own Best Friend,” sung as a duet by Roxie & Velma, has much of the passion and some of the sentiments of one of Broadway’s greatest Act One Closers: Barbra Streisand’s unforgettable rendition of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” from FUNNY GIRL.

Here are some of the lyrics:

One thing I know & I’ve always known is:
I am my own best friend.
Baby’s alive, but Baby’s alone,
& Baby’s her own best friend…

Three musketeers who never say die
Are standing here this minute:
Me, Myself and I…

If life is a school, I’ll pass every test.
If life is a game, I’ll play it the best.
‘Cause I won’t give in & I’ll never bend,
And I am my own best friend!

Wow! Smokin’ (as Jim Carey would say). But the film version of CHICAGO has no intermission. I’m betting that Condon & Marshall are intimately familiar with the film version of FUNNY GIRL & they know the truth: that film never regains its momentum after “Parade.” FUNNY GIRL clocks in at over three hours and was originally presented in movie theaters with an intermission, but the second half is an uphill battle, even more so when contemporary viewers watch it on DVD in one sitting. 

“I Am My Own Best Friend” is the best of the five musical numbers that Condon & Marshall eliminated in the film version in order to ensure the most cinematic structure. Like Irving & Halstrom and Goldsman & Howard, they have true respect for the essential differences between narrative forms (in this case musical theater versus musical film), & therefore, they had the courage required to make the tough calls. Consequently, this team has not only made the best movie of 2002, in my opinion they’ve made one of the best musicals ever filmed. I say: BRAVO!!! 

(Note that, for balance, they’ve added a new song, a “kinder & gentler” version of “I Am My Best Friend” called “I Move On” over the closing credits.)

Jan & Rich get in line early to see CHICAGO!

What is CHICAGO about? 

The original title was CHICAGO: A MUSCIAL VAUDEVILLE, & vaudeville suffuses both its content & its form. For people unfamiliar with this style of music, you should know that many of the songs in CHICAGO are intended to honor specific performers from the Roaring ‘20s. For example, “Funny Honey” is a tribute to Torch Singer Helen Morgan, “Mr. Cellophane” recalls Bert Williams & his “Hobo Songs,” and “When You’re Good to Mama” is filled with the spirit of Sophie Tucker, one of history’s infamous Bawdy women.

Based on a real Windy City murder case that was first dramatized on screen in the 1942 Ginger Rogers film ROXIE HART, CHICAGO captures America at the moment of transition from backwater to world power. Immediately after World War I, the spotlight turned from Europe to America. The story therefore throws us face-to-face with ourselves & asks us what kind of people we, as Americans, want to be. The image in the mirror is not a pretty picture.

Not surprisingly, reviews were mixed when CHICAGO first appeared on Broadway in 1975. Even after Watergate, it was too dark & cynical for popular taste, &, although nominated for several TONY Awards, it was completely shut out by the far more sympathetic gypsies in A CHORUS LINE. But when it was revived in 1996 we were all older & wiser, and the O.J. Trial made the on-stage antics appear both timely & familiar. The revival was buried in TONYs & is still playing every night in New York even as the film version gathers the momentum of a tsunami on its way to the Oscars.

CHICAGO was written by John Kander & Fred Ebb, the same team who created CABARET. We’re used to jeering at Nazis, so the complicity of the audience in CABARET is easy to see. But fair is fair: the MC in CABARET is just giving his audience what it’s asked for: “Where are your troubles now? Forgotten! I told you so!”

When Director Bob Fosse adapted CABARET for the screen in 1972 he also performed major surgery, eliminating almost all of the musical numbers that took place outside the confines of the Kit Kat Klub. (The major exception is the “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” scene in the Beer Garden.) He had his reasons, of course, but one result was the loss of one of original’s most thematically significant songs. “Why Should I Wake Up?” is the song Cliff sings immediately after the first chorus of “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” in the Original Cast Album. Cliff is in love with Sally Bowles. Hey, why not?

Why should I wake up? This dream is going so well.
When you’re enchanted, why break the spell?
Drifting in this euphoric state,
Morning can wait,
Let it come late.

Why should I wake up? Why waste a drop of the wine?
Don’t I adore you & aren’t you mine?
Maybe I’ll someday be lonely again,
But why should I wake up ‘till then?

The creative team didn’t have these particular words available to them in 1975, but we have them now: it turns out that the true subject of CHICAGO is “irrational exuberance.” Hey, why not? It’s your money, isn’t it? What goes up doesn’t have to come down, does it? When they give us the old razzle-dazzle, will we ever catch wise?

So laugh, cry, clap your hands & stamp your feet! Have a great time! But remember, at some point the lights always come back up. Like it or not, the curtain falls & it’s time to leave the theatre. As Americans, we all make choices everyday. We can either face that fact, or we can ignore it. We can’t blame the press. We can’t blame the lawyers. In our heart of hearts we all know that performers simply play to their audience. Sally Bowles invited her Berlin audience to “Come to the Cabaret,” & in they went because they weren’t ready to break the spell. The MC extends a similarly seductive invitation to us at the end of CHICAGO:

Let’s all go to Hell in a fast car & keep it HOT!



If you want to buy the music from CHICAGO, you have a choice of 3 CD’s:
1976 Original Cast Album
1996 Broadway Revival
2002 Film Soundtrack. 

Keep in mind that a CD has its own narrative structure. Once you own one & you can play it at will, your CD will have its own internal integrity, its own rhythm & pace. 


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On that basis, I recommend that you purchase the 1996 Revival CD. It’s not that I have any criticisms of the other 2 options: the performances on all 3 CD’s are all superb & I personally own all three. But the Revival CD has the best mix of lyrics & music. You’ll get to hear “I Am My Own Best Friend” with all its “black magic,” & then Bebe Newirth (as Velma) will welcome you back for Act Two with those acid-tipped words: “Hello, Suckers!” 

© Jan Lisa Huttner (3/10/03)