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The History of Broadway’s Chicago and its Femme Fatales

It’s “The Roaring Twenties” again, so let’s look back and enjoy Chicago, the classic Broadway musical set in the 1920s. The story follows two women, both aspiring entertainers turned “merry murderesses”, in a world of jazz, crime, and “Razzle Dazzle”. From a play to a musical to a hit film, there is quite a journey here to discuss and unpack.

It all began with a real-life pair of murderesses, and the journalist who followed their stories. Maurine Dallas Watkins, both a reporter and dramatist, worked for The Chicago Tribune in 1924. During this time, the general public found entertainment in making criminals into celebrities, with the press sensationalizing stories of crime. The trials of Belva Gaertner and Beulah Annan were among some of these stories. Both women had been accused and acquitted of murder.

Gaertner was a somewhat popular jazz singer of her time. She was sent to jail for allegedly shooting her lover in the car. This murderess is the inspiration for Chicago’s Velma Kelly, the popular jazz singer who catches her lover in an affair. 

Velma’s character is loosely based on her real-life counterpart. However, the similarities between Roxie Hart and Annan are striking. Allegedly, Annan shot her lover for lying to her about his ability to help her become a famous jazz singer. Annan is also known to have changed her story many times throughout the trial. Her claims about how she and her husband “both reached for the gun” directly inspired one of the musical’s songs. 

Watkins used many aspects of the two murderesses’ trials to inspire the characters and plot of her play, Chicago. She later renounced the glamorized portrayal of criminals in her play. It wasn’t until after Watkins’ death in 1969 that a team began to turn her work into a musical.

The musical Chicago opened for the first time in 1975 and ran until 1977. This initial run gained minor success, gaining several nominations for Tony Awards. In 1979, the musical moved to the West End and ran for an additional 600 performances. The rise of feminism throughout the 1970s emphasized Velma and Roxie’s sense of independence and sexual freedom. 

A revision of the musical came about in 1996, and Chicago finally began to see major success and praise. Chicago then made its way to Broadway, becoming one of the longest-running shows in history. The musical was once again nominated for multiple Tony Awards. This time around, Chicago took home six Tonys, including Best Leading Actress in a Musical and Best Choreography.

In 2002, Hollywood adapted Chicago into a hit film. Big-name actresses Renée Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones starred as the two leading women. The film gained six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. 
Tickets for Broadway performances of Chicago are on sale now. The film adaptation is also available for rent on various streaming platforms, including Amazon, Google Play, and YouTube.

Featured Image by Lauren Nelson on Flickr

Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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