Friday, March 4, 2011

"The 'Chicago' Story"

“Imitation is the sincerest form of plagiarism.” – Oscar Levant

Recently, very late at night, I was wandering around the house, searching for the room that my sleep was in. I ultimately landed in the bedroom which houses our new, big screen HDTV, which I don’t like that much because everything is too clear, but it’s still a novelty and well worth a visit when it’s four in the morning and playing the piano is not really an option.

So I’m flipping around the channels, looking for something that will either be so dull it will put me to sleep, or interesting enough to make me not mind being awake. Dr. M’s prescription for such matters is a hybrid of these solutions. It’s actually somewhat perverse. When she discovers a program she really wants to watch, it immediately puts her to sleep.

It’s really kinda sad. The bad stuff keeps her awake. “Oh! Look at that!”, and she’s off to Slumberland.

Oh, well.

My “remote flipping” brings me to the movie musical, Chicago (2002). I like that movie. It’s flashy, and it’s fun.

Chicago started out as a Broadway show in 1975, where it ran for a highly respectable 936 performances. Later, in 1996, the show was revived, running for over 5000 performances, which, as they say in A League of Their Own:

”That would be more then, wouldn’t it.”

Considerably more. The reason for Chicago’s greater success as a revival, I believe, is that the times caught up with the show, the cynical 90’s being more in sync with its subject matter – the corruption of the criminal justice system and celebrity (“O.J.”-style) prosecutions – than the Disco 70’s, with Travolta swinging his jacket around.

It’s interesting, I think, the way changing times can take a moderate success and transform it into a blockbuster. But that’s just a sidelight. You get that as a bonus.

You’re welcome.

What interests me today is the question of credit.

The indisputable creative force behind Chicago is the iconic Broadway and Hollywood director-choreographer, Bob Fosse. Fosse had a signature style – the cheesy vaudeville motif, featuring hats and canes, tightly synchronized dance-corps movement (where they all move as one), and the ever-popular pelvic thrust. And I’ll leave it at that, for fear of betraying an embarrassing surfeit of choreographical ignorance.

This oft-repeated imprint in on view in virtually all of Fosse’s work, most notably cinemagraphically, in the movie version of Cabaret (1972), and in Fosse’s mezmerizingly strange autobiographical film, All That Jazz (1979)¸ whose title is, not coincidentally, lifted from the Broadway musical Fosse spearheaded – directing it, as well as co-writing the book – Chicago.

The problem with his directing the screen version of Chicago in 2002 is that Fosse died in 1987. So they had to get somebody else.

The “somebody else” they got was Rob Marshall. According to IMDB, Chicago was his first feature-film directing assignment.

Mama!

You’re directing a film, bearing the directorial stamp of a theatrical legend, the show’s structure – a story told as a series of vaudeville routines – is pretty much set in stone, audiences know and love the original

What the heck are you supposed to do?

From my multiple viewings of Chicago, what I see is a capable director guided unwaveringly by the question, “What would Bob Fosse had done if he hadn’t died?, the result being a skillful, though not quite inspired, channeling of a one-of-a-kind genius, which could, not unfairly, be labeled,

“Fosse Lite.”

Consider the testimonials of two fictional mothers, not that Fosse and Marshall didn’t have actual mothers, it’s that I know nothing about these women, and I am making up what they said. Which is this:

ROB MARSHALL’S FICTIONAL MOTHER: “My Robby did a perfect job on Chicago.”

BOB FOSSE’S FICTIONAL MOTHER: “Of course. He stole everything from Bobby.”

The fictional mothers were both right. Rob Marshall was in a bind. Go his own directorial way, and he betrays the essence of Chicago, not to mention risking devastating comparisons with the original. Hew close to the original, however, and he’s ripping off a dead guy.

Boy, I’m glad they didn’t ask me to direct Chicago. I wouldn’t have known what to do!

Bob Fosse garnered “Best Director” Oscars for both Cabaret and All That Jazz. Rob Marshall was nominated for Chicago, but he didn’t win. I can understand the Oscar voters’ dilemma in this regard:

“Should we give the Oscar to Rob? Or give it posthumously to Bob?”

The voters sidestepped the issue, giving it to Roman Polansky (for The Pianist), who, though not dead, was permanently out of the country, (due to some shadowy shenanigans of an earlier decade.)

Writers – well, all show biz participants– are understandably sensitive to the misappropriated credit. Our reputations are all we have. Besides, the money, the status, the power, the big house and the cars. And we like things to be fair.

There was a point in my career where a guy got a really big job, due significantly to a credit, attributed to him, but which, in reality, was mine. I didn’t really care, because I had no interest in the job my credit had secured him. However, when the opportunity arose, I was very happy to correct the record.

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