In the early 2000s, movie musicals weren’t quite as popular as they once were. The genre, which had once been one of the most powerful and popular forms of cinematic storytelling, had started to die out. So many movie fans weren’t sure what to think when it was announced that a big-budget film based on the classic ’70s musical, Chicago, was set to hit the big screen in 2002.
Directed by Rob Marshall and starring Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Richard Gere in the leading roles, the film follows two murderesses awaiting trial together in Chicago in the 1920s, and it proved all the doubters wrong! It was a smash hit, generating huge numbers at the box office and going on to win several Academy Awards too. This is the full story of Chicago.
Based on a True Story
Even hardcore fans of the 2002 Chicago movie are completely unaware that if we trace the film right back to its origins, it is technically based on a true story. Way back in 1924, two unrelated court cases involved two women, named Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner, who were both suspected and eventually acquitted of murder. Annan was 23 when she was accused of killing a man named Harry Kalstedt.
She served as the inspiration for the character of Roxie Hart, while her husband, Albert, was the basis for Amos Hart. Gaertner, meanwhile, was a cabaret singer accused of shooting and killing a man named Walter Law. She was the inspiration for the Velma Kelly character. The character of Billy Flynn, meanwhile, was based on two lawyers involved with the cases: William Scott Stewart and W. W. O’Brien.
The Original Play
Maurine Dallas Watkins, an American playwright, and screenwriter was working as a journalist for the Chicago Tribune when the Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner cases were unfolding. She covered the cases, and her sensational columns proved immensely popular with readers, who were intrigued by the intricacies involved in the stories of Beulah and Belva.
The stories were so gripping that Watkins decided to turn them into a play. Her show, entitled Chicago, premiered on December 30th, 1926. The show was a hit, earning both critical acclaim and commercial success and even eventually making it to Broadway in the ’70s. In ran for 172 performances on Broadway in total.
Cecil B. DeMille Makes A Movie
Cecil B. DeMille was one of the most famous filmmakers of the early to the mid-20th century. A master of both silent pictures and movies with sound, he’s widely regarded as one of the founding fathers of Hollywood and made some epic pictures like The Ten Commandments, The King of Kings, Cleopatra, and Samson and Delilah.
In 1927, he decided to adapt Maurine Watkins’ play into a comedy-drama silent film. DeMille produced the film, while Frank Urson sat in the director’s chair. This film added a lot of new material to the story, with the murder scene involving Roxie Hart being stretched out considerably and Roxie’s husband, Amos, being given a more sympathetic role.
Bob Fosse Takes an Interest
There was another movie version of the original Chicago play, released under the name Roxie Hart in 1942 and starred Ginger Rogers. However, it was in the 1960s that the idea for a musical version began to form, first in the mind of Gwen Verdon, Tony Award-winning actress, dancer, and the wife of choreographer and director, Bob Fosse.
Bob Fosse was a legend in the musical world, being the only person to ever win an Oscar, Emmy, and Tony award all in the same year. He helped bring many stage musicals to the big screen and was a huge success in theatre too. One day, after reading the play, Gwen suggested to Bob that he might be able to turn it into a musical.
Watkins Says No
Fosse was really interested in the idea of turning Chicago into a musical, and he decided to approach Maurine Watkins and ask her for the rights. Sadly, she refused, time and time again. In the end, Fosse actually had to wait until Watkins passed away in 1969.
At that point, her estate sold off the rights to Fosse, along with Gwen Verdon and their producer friend, Richard Fryer. Finally, in possession of the rights to the play, Fosse was free to start writing the musical and bringing his vision to life, and he turned to two of the best music and lyrics writers he knew, John Kander and Fred Ebb, to write the score.
Making a Musical
Bob Foss, Fred Ebb, and John Kander all got to work on ‘Chicago,’ the musical. They took inspiration from Maurine Watkins’ original play and the true stories that inspired it, with Fosse’s wife, Gwen Vendon, being the original Broadway star in the role of Roxie Hart, while Chita Rivera played Velma Kelly and Jerry Orbach was cast as Billy Flynn.
The original Broadway show opened up at the 46th Street Theatre in 1975, running for over 900 performances until 1977. A London version opened in the West End in 1979, running for 600 performances, and the show was later revived both on Broadway and in the West End in the late 1990s.
The Vaudeville Touch
It was decided by John Kander and Fred Ebb that each of the musical numbers in the musical would be modeled on a traditional vaudeville performer or number. This unique format allowed the musical to make a clear distinction between the show-business side of the story and the more serious side of crime and justice.
Roxie was modeled on Helen Morgan, Velma was based on Texas Guinan, and Billy Flynn was modeled on Ted Lewis. Kander and Ebb took a lot of inspiration from the vaudeville world when writing Chicago, and it was this decision that really played a big part in securing the future success of both the musical itself and the 2002 film.
A Major Musical Success
Chicago was a huge success as a musical, with Bob Fosse’s brilliant direction and the stunning work of Kander and Ebb standing out as key reasons behind the show’s immense success. It received rave reviews upon release, with thousands upon thousands of people flocking to see it. The 1996 Broadway revival was a smash success too.
The revival became the longest-running American musical in Broadway history and the longest-running revival, too, with thousands of performances. The show has toured all over the world, enjoyed by countless people, as well as being nominated for a wide range of awards, including plenty of Tony Awards, and Laurence Olivier Awards as well.
Bob Fosse Wants to Make a Movie
Bob Fosse had enjoyed such success with the Chicago musical that he really wanted to turn the show into a film as well. He’d already got a great record of turning musicals into movies. In 1972, he was responsible for the highly successful adaptation of Cabaret and even won an Oscar for his directing.
It was planned that a movie of Chicago would be Fosse’s next big musical project, but sadly, he died in 1987 after suffering a heart attack. He was unable to realize his dream of taking Chicago to the big screen, but a lot of his work in the musical carried over into the film, and he received a special mention in the credits as well.
Honoring the Original
It was actually in big part thanks to the success of the 1996 Broadway revival of Chicago that the film ended up getting made. The revival was so successful that people started talking about making the movie once more after it had been left on the backburner for a couple of decades. Rob Marshall, accomplished director, producer, and choreographer, was given the role of director.
He didn’t have much-directing experience at the time but had been responsible for a successful TV adaptation of Annie. In order to honor the unique format of the original, which showed each musical number as a vaudeville act, the film’s direction and production teams decided to play the songs as cutaway scenes taking place in Roxie’s mind, while the ‘real world’ scenes are filmed more seriously and in a grittier style.
Charlize Theron Was Cast as Roxie
The casting process for Chicago was a fascinating one, with various stars being rumored for the leading roles and some even being cast before later being replaced. The lead role of Roxie Hart, for example, originally went to Charlize Theron.
Theron was attached to the project for a while and had a successful dancing background, so he seemed a good fit for the role, but when director Rob Marshall got involved, he decided to kick Theron from the project and replace her. Theron was disappointed but admits that Zellweger did a great job, saying, “I’m fully envious of what she did” after seeing the movie.
John Travolta Was First Choice for Billy Flynn
Richard Gere ended up winning a Golden Globe for his role as Billy Flynn in Chicago, but he wasn’t the director’s or producers’ first choice for the part. Far from it! In fact, they originally offered the job to Hugh Jackman, who declined, only to go on to appear in highly successful movie musicals like The Greatest Showman and Les Miserables.
The role was also offered to John Travolta, star of Grease and Saturday Night Fever. Travolta was offered the part three times by Harvey Weinstein but refused to meet up with the director as he thought the film was all about women hating men, and he didn’t like the idea.
Gere Didn’t Want the Job at First
Even though Richard Gere was offered the role, he later admitted he wasn’t sure if he should take it. He revealed in an interview with the BBC that it was his agent who pushed for it much more than himself, saying that he felt “resistant” to the role as he hadn’t enjoyed the stage show very much.
In the end, Gere decided that he’d at least have some fun on the production, especially after taking part in a very serious and intense movie, Unfaithful. So he decided to go along with his agent’s wishes. Clearly, we can say he made the right call as he won a Golden Globe for the role and received widespread acclaim.
Britney Spears Was Wanted for the Film
Miramax Films distributed Chicago, and Harvey Weinstein, the now-disgraced and imprisoned movie mogul, was in charge at the time and often got his own way with the films he was involved in. For Chicago, he only had one name on his mind: Britney Spears. He wanted the young pop star to be given at least some kind of role in the film, ideally one of the two leads.
Weinstein allegedly sent three executives over to a Spears concert to chat with her about the idea, but director Rob Marshall and some of the producers were completely against the idea. They agreed that Spears was too young and naive to play a role that needed a serious and gritty side.
Beyoncé Wanted a Part
As well as Britney Spears, another singing sensation nearly got a role in Chicago too. Beyoncé was absolutely desperate to play the role of Mama Morton. She and her manager called up the producers several times begging for the part, and Beyoncé even offered to perform for lower-than-average pay if she got the role.
Unfortunately for her, the producers felt that she was just too young and inexperienced to take on the role, deciding that Queen Latifah was a better fit for the character. Beyoncé would have been brilliant, but Queen Latifah did a great job and received an Academy Award nomination for Chicago.
The Two Leads Weren’t Very Prepared
When watching Chicago, we can see that Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger, the two leads, really bring their respective characters to life. They both seem made for the parts, perfectly singing and dancing and making the story so fascinating to watch. In reality, neither of them was very well prepared at the time when they were cast in the film.
Zeta-Jones didn’t even know what Chicago was about but agreed to take part in the film as she’d heard the song “All That Jazz” and wanted to sing it too. Zellweger, meanwhile, had no singing or dancing training whatsoever but still somehow nailed her performance in the film.
A Battle for Top Billing
Who is the true star of Chicago? Is it Renee Zellweger, or is it Catherine Zeta-Jones? Fans all have their own opinions, while some argue that both stars are equally important to the success and story of the film. Well, behind the scenes, both Renee and Catherine seemed to think that they were each the number one name on the cast list.
This dispute came to a head when it was time to make the movie’s official posters. Both women wanted to have top billing on the official movie poster. Neither one would agree to be below the other, so in the end, the producers agreed to make a poster with both of their names at the top, above the name of Richard Gere.
Was One of the Women Innocent?
There’s a lot of subtle imagery and symbolism throughout Chicago, especially in the musical numbers, and this is what makes the film so much fun to watch again and again. Even if you’ve seen it ten times before, you can always spot something new when watching Chicago all over again.
In the Cell Block Tango sequence, for example, we see each of the girls pulling out a red silk bandana to show where the blood would have been in their crime. However, one of the girls, Hunyak, the Hungarian, pulls out a white bandana, rather than a red one. This is a symbol of her innocence, as she committed no crime!
Catherine Zeta-Jones Had a Specific Style in Mind
Catherine Zeta-Jones’ look is one of the most defining and iconic parts of Chicago. Her portrayal of Velma Kelly is immediately recognizable thanks to her distinctive look and short, bobbed hairstyle. Well, she specifically chose that type of hair with a very important reason in mind.
She said there was no way she wanted to have long hair covering her face during the dance or singing scenes as people might think she was being doubled. Her short hair allowed us to all see, clear as day, that she was 100% the only one performing the role from the start of the film to the finish.
Richard Gere Took Tap Lessons
Richard Gere is the sort of actor who isn’t afraid of a challenge. When preparing for his role in An Officer and a Gentleman, he learned karate, and for Chicago, he had to learn another new skill: tap dance. He was already an accomplished dancer, but this was something new!
There was only one scene in the movie actually involving tap dance for Gere’s character of Billy Flynn, but he had to spend three whole months training up for it! It only took half a day to shoot in the end as he’d gotten so good by that point, but he admitted in interviews that it was one of the hardest things he’d ever had to do.
The Bandleader Was Billy in the Musical
Most of the cast of the 2002 Chicago film had little to no experience with the Chicago musical. Some of them had seen it, but only one of them had starred in it! Taye Diggs, who plays the bandleader in the movie, also appeared in the 1996 Broadway revival, filling in as Billy Flynn when the original actor wasn’t available.
Diggs has enjoyed a lot of success in musical theatre. He originated the role of the landlord, Benny, in Rent and also appeared in the off-Broadway production of The Wild Party at Manhattan Theatre Club. He also filled in as Flyero in Wicked and has appeared in several other classic musicals over the years.
The Stars All Have Their Favorite Songs
Ever wondered which song Renee Zellweger likes the most from the film? Or Richard Gere and Catherine Zeta-Jones? Well, Renee and Richard have the same favorite song: they both loved We Both Reached for the Gun. Richard liked to perform that song as it let him show off his high note right at the end, while Renee enjoyed dancing like a puppet on a string.
Catherine, meanwhile, has two favorite songs: All That Jazz and Nowadays. Catherine has also stated in interviews that she believes Chicago to be the highlight of her career. She’s done plenty of other great films, but it’s clear that Chicago gave us one of her greatest performances.
Kathy Bates Was in Line for a Role
With the likes of Hugh Jackman and John Travolta being approached for the role of Billy, as well as Britney Spears and Charlize Theron rumored for leading parts, it’s clear to see that Chicago could have turned out with a totally different cast to the one we know and love. Another big name actress that nearly appeared in the film was Kathy Bates.
The Oscar-winning Misery star was actually the director’s number one choice for the role of Mama Morton. Unfortunately, even though Kathy wanted the role at the time, she was busy with another project, so she wasn’t able to take it. Still, Queen Latifah did a great job making the part her own.
Catherine Was Pregnant at the Time
Catherine Zeta-Jones does a whole lot of high energy dancing throughout the film, so you might be surprised to learn that she was actually pregnant at the time! She was two months pregnant while shooting was taking place, and the director had to adjust his approach so that we didn’t see her baby bump.
Certain scenes had to be filmed from specific angles in order to hide Catherine’s pregnant belly. In the final cut, it’s more or less impossible to tell that she was pregnant at all, and most fans never knew. Catherine has since had two children with her husband, Michael Douglas: a son named Dylan Michael and a daughter named Carys Zeta.
Renee Zellweger Then
Born in 1969 in Texas, Renee Zellweger started off her career by appearing in several low-budget indie films in her home state. She then got a spot on an ABC TV show, before landing her first film role in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation. From there, she started to get more and more offers, making a real breakthrough in the late ’90s and early 2000s when she appeared in movies like Jerry Maguire and Nurse Betty.
In 2001, Zellweger found the role that would, in many ways, define her career when she was cast as Bridget Jones in Bridget Jones’s Diary. The film was a smashing success, with Zellweger earning her first Academy Award nomination for Best Leading Actress. So, she was already a huge star when she was cast in Chicago.
Renee Zellweger Now
After the first Bridget Jones movie and Chicago, Renee Zellweger went on to become one of the highest-paid and most bankable stars in Hollywood. After receiving back-to-back Oscar nominations for the two movies, she finally won her first Oscar in 2003 after appearing in Cold Mountain.
Other big films starring Renee Zellweger include White Oleander, Cinderella Man, and Miss Potter, along with the rest of the Bridget Jones series. She took a brief hiatus in the early 2010s but has bounced back in recent years, winning another Oscar for 2019’s Judy, making her only the 7th actress to win an Oscar in both ‘Leading’ and ‘Supporting’ categories.
Catherine Zeta-Jones Then
Born in Swansea, Wales, in 1969, Catherine Zeta-Jones always aspired to be an actress. When she was still just a child, she made her West End debut in musicals like Annie and Bugsy Malone, before going on to study musical theatre in London. She appeared on a successful British TV series called The Darling Buds of May before moving to California to pursue a Hollywood career.
Films like The Mask of Zorro, Entrapment, and Traffic helped to put Catherine Zeta-Jones in the spotlight with American and international audiences alike, and her stardom was rising even higher when she was eventually cast in the role of Velma Kelly in Chicago.
Catherine Zeta-Jones Now
Thanks to her starring role in Chicago and her subsequent Academy Award win for the role, Catherine Zeta-Jones began to be taken even more seriously as one of the best actresses of her generation. In the wake of Chicago, she tried her hand at voice acting in the animated film, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, before appearing in the Coen Brothers’ comedy, Intolerable Cruelty.
Catherine Zeta-Jones then starred in movies like The Terminal and Ocean’s Twelve, before reducing her movie workload and taking on more theatrical jobs, like the 2009 revival of A Little Night Music. She won a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for that theater job. In the 2010s, Zeta-Jones came back to Hollywood with films like Side Effects, Broken City, and Red 2. She is married to another Hollywood legend, Michael Douglas.
Richard Gere Then
Born in 1949 in Philadelphia, Richard Gere first started working in acting at the Seattle Repertory Theatre in the late 1960s, but his first big theatrical role came in the original London stage version of Grease. He later began to get a few small movie roles, building up to leading parts in movies like American Gigolo and An Officer and a Gentleman, which were both very successful.
The ’90s was a very impressive decade for Gere as he appeared in movies like Pretty Woman, Internal Affairs, Sommersby, Primal Fear, and Runaway Bride. He was named as the ‘Sexiest Man Alive’ in 1999, building up to him eventually being cast in the part of Billy Flynn in Chicago.
Richard Gere Now
Chicago was a hugely successful movie for Richard Gere, seeing him win a Golden Globe Award. He enjoyed more success a couple of years later with ‘Shall We Dance?’ and appeared alongside stars like Christian Bale and Heath Ledger for the Bob Dylan semi-biographical picture ‘I’m Not There,’ which was another critical success.
However, 2008’s Nights in Rodanthe was Gere’s last major Hollywood movie as he believes his own personal politics and views on China have led to him being shunned by many movie studios. Still, he has enjoyed plenty of success appearing in smaller, independent films like Arbitrage and Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.
The Rest of the Cast
Gere, Zeta-Jones, and Zellweger were clearly the stars of the show for Chicago, but there were plenty of other big names on the cast list too. Famed rapper and singer Queen Latifah, for example, played Mama, while John C. Reilly, often known for his comedic roles, appeared as Amos Hart, Roxie’s husband.
Multiple Emmy Award nominee Christine Baranski appeared in the role of Mary Sunshine, while Taye Diggs, who is well-known for his work on Broadway in musicals like Rent, appeared as The Bandleader. Lucy Liu played Kitty ‘Go To Hell Kitty’ Baxter, while Colm Feore starred as the prosecutor Martin Harrison. The film had a very impressive list of acting talent working among its cast.
Critical Response to Chicago
So how did the critics respond to Chicago? Well, many of them were a little concerned before the film’s big release, arguing that movie musicals had died out over the years and just couldn’t seem to work in the modern world. However, once they saw the film, critics were almost unanimous in their praise.
Tim Robey in The Daily Telegraph called Chicago ‘The best screen musical for 30 years’, while Roger Ebert, one of the most famous film critics of all time, gave it an impressive three and a half stars out of four. Some critics had a few minor complaints about directing and the streamlined nature of the plot, but most agreed it was a fantastic film.
Critically, it was clear to see that Chicago was a smash hit. It was receiving one good review after another, and perhaps all of those positive reviews helped the film to be such a commercial success as well. It ended up grossing over $170 million in the US and Canada, along with another $136 million in other territories.
Overall, Chicago enjoyed a worldwide box office return of just over $306 million. It was the highest-grossing film at the time to not reach the #1 or #2 spots in the weekly box office charts, only peaking in third place overall but still enjoying immense success. It was the highest-grossing live-action musical ever made until Mamma Mia later dethroned it.
Changing the Game for Movie Musicals
Before Chicago came out, there was a lot of doubt about whether movie musicals had any kind of future. Attitudes were changing at the time, and musicals, which had been so popular from the 1950s right through to the 1980s, had slowly faded away. However, it’s fair to say that Chicago completely subverted expectations and changed the game for the movie musical.
Along with other big musical releases like Moulin Rouge!, Chicago helped to usher in a whole new age for the musical genre. In the years that followed, many other Broadway and West End musicals were given film adaptations, with examples like Phantom of the Opera, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Mamma Mia!, Nine, and Les Miserables.
Old Musicals Were Reborn
Chicago proved that you could take a classic musical from the past and bring it into the 21st century successfully, and after seeing how well the film had done, studios began greenlighting remakes, reboots, and rebirths of classic movie musicals from the past. The 1991 Disney animated classic, Beauty and the Beast, was one example of a musical-centric film to be brought back to life with a live-action 2017 version.
A Star is Born was also remade, along with a successful Mamma Mia sequel and even a new Mary Poppins film in the form of Mary Poppins Returns. Movies like Once, Enchanted, La La Land, The Greatest Showman, and Rocketman have all taken inspiration from Chicago too.
Musical Careers Continue for Cast and Crew
In the wake of Chicago, with the musical genre starting to see a real renaissance, many of the cast and crew who worked on the film went on to appear or help out with other musical projects too. Catherine Zeta-Jones, for example, appeared in Rock of Ages, while Queen Latifah starred in Hairspray and Christine Baranski appeared in Into the Woods and Mamma Mia!
The director of Chicago, Rob Marshall, went on to work on Nine, Into the Woods, and Mary Poppins Returns, while writer Bill Condon worked on The Greatest Showman, Beauty and the Beast, and Dreamgirls. Even Chicago’s costume designer, Colleen Atwood, went on to work on projects like Sweeney Todd.
Academy Award Success
Chicago was such a big success that it seemed almost destined to receive at least one or two Academy Award nominations and perhaps even wins. In the end, it was nominated in 12 different categories, including the prestigious Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay categories, with Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Queen Latifah, and John C. Reilly all receiving individual nominations too.
In the end, Chicago and its cast and crew were honored with six Oscar wins. The film won the ultimate prize of Best Picture, as well as Best Art Direction for John Myhre and Gordon Sim, Best Costume Design for Colleen Atwood, Best Film editing for Martin Walsh, and Best Sound for Michael Minkler, Dominick Tavella, and David Lee. Catherine Zeta-Jones won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, narrowly defeating her Chicago co-star, Queen Latifah.
The Awards Keep Rolling In
The Academy Awards are undoubtedly the pinnacle when it comes to official critical recognition of great work in cinema, but there are plenty of other prestigious awards bodies all over the world, and many of them also wanted to honor the cast and crew of Chicago for their amazing production too. At the British Academy Film Awards, for example, Catherine-Zeta Jones won the Best Actress in a Supporting Role prize, and the film was nominated for 11 different categories.
It won three Critics’ Choice Movie Awards too, along with several Gold Derby Awards and three Golden Globes, including Best Actor for Richard Gere and Best Actress for Renee Zellweger. The film’s soundtrack won a Grammy Award, and the film was nominated for many other prizes from Screen Actors Guild Awards to Teen Choice Awards.
An Unparalleled Legacy
Between its awards success, box office brilliance, and universal critical acclaim, Chicago made its mark on the movie industry in a big way. It was one of the biggest and most successful films of the early 2000s and had a huge impact on the musical genre that can still be felt and seen today.
Without the influence of Chicago, we wouldn’t have been able to enjoy many other great movie musicals that followed in its footsteps, and without the hard work of the cast and crew, we wouldn’t be able to still enjoy this 2002 classic today. It’s an incredible film, fully deserving of its spot among the pantheon of movie musical greats.