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Give 'Em A Show That's So Splendiferous: Chicago Makes Broadway History

Monday, November 24, 2014 in Top Tens and Other Fun Facts|1 comment

On Sunday November 23, 2014, the 1996 Broadway revival of Chicago, currently playing at the Ambassador Theatre, overtook the 1997 production of Cats as the second-longest running Broadway production of all time. This is an enormous feat for any Broadway show, let alone one whose original Broadway run was only a little over two years long and garnered no major awards. The original production of Chicago was directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse and starred the formidable talents of Chita Rivera, Gwen Verdon, and Jerry Orbach, but after a slew of mixed reviews, the production closed in 1977. Chicago was resurrected in 1996 for a 20th anniversary staged concert with City Center Encores! that transferred to Broadway and has not stopped going.

Chicago was the highest grossing production of Encores!’s early years, and its all-star cast (Ann Reinking as Roxie Hart, Bebe Neuwirth as Velma Kelly, James Naughton played Billy Flynn, Joel Grey played Amos Hart, and Marcia Lewis played Matron Mama Morton) garnered praise from audiences and critics alike. Reinking worked off of Bob Fosse’s blueprints to create choreography that both evoked Fosse’s work work in the 1970s and allowed ample opportunities for improvisation and creative freedom to the dancers onstage. The production took home six of the eight Tony Awards it was nominated for, including Best Revival - quite a turnaround from 1977 awards! This revival also revived interest in a film adaptation of the musical, and in 2002, Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones co-starred in a film adaptation of the musical that incited a movie musical revival for the 21st century and won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The revival of Chicago continued to break records as it persisted on Broadway. On March 25, 2011, it hit performance #5,960 and became the longest-running Broadway revival of all time, and on August 18, 2011, it surpassed the original 1975 production of A Chorus Line as the longest-running American musical on Broadway with 6,138 performances. Chicago celebrated its first big milestone of the month on Friday, November 14 when it hit its eighteenth anniversary on Broadway, and the party has continued.

Melissa Mahon, Broadway’s current Go-To-Hell Kitty and a longtime Chicago cast member, has performed with this revival on and off for the last eight years in “pretty much every female role.” She auditioned thirteen times and performed in a number of other Broadway shows before landing Chicago, but it was well worth the wait. “It’s brilliantly written,” she says. “It really only gets more and more relevant and that’s simultaneously a testament to the sort of psychic abilities of the writers and also to the unfortunate state of our society - from glorifying celebrities, which seems to never get old on reality television. The idea that one can be famous for having absolutely no talent is pretty much standard practice at this point in our society, and that’s pretty much what the underbelly of our show is certainly about - people who want it, people who want it so bad.” Mahon has stuck around Chicago because she loves the freedom that the production allows her to have every day, allowing her to “change my choreography to suit new creative ideas, and that helps me to keep the show really fresh.”

This production of Chicago has even been around long enough to have three different homes on Broadway. Although it started at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in 1996, it was transplanted at the Shubert Theater after only three months. In 2003, when the show was struggling financially but beginning to ride the success of the Chicago film, everything in the show was adapted for a much smaller stage at its current home, the Ambassador Theater. A national tour set and band set-up was put in, and the minimalist configuration helps Chicago easily withstand the ebb and flow of the Broadway season. Mahon says that, “It was a really smart move because it made their weekly goals super attainable.”

November 23, the day that Chicago cemented its place in Broadway history, brought a group of former cast members, including Reinking and Neuwirth, back to the show for portions of the performance. It was also a landmark day for Mahon as a performer. She performed in the ensemble of Cats and was in the final performance at the Winter Garden on September 10, 2000, when it held the title of being the longest-running Broadway show of all time with 7,485 performances. “It was one of those amazing moments in theatre history and certainly a night that I will never forget. But now to be passing that…it’s interesting. When that happened we certainly all thought, ‘Well, no one will ever pass us, you know? It was 18 years! It’s inconceivable!’ And that was 2000, so that’s 14 years ago…but here we are!”

Here we are with all of that jazz over eighteen years later, setting a record that will be tough to beat! As far as we know, Chicago has no plans to call it quits on bringing the razzle dazzle to Broadway anytime soon.

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