John Kander and Fred Ebb’s hit musical Chicago was based on the play of the same name by Maurine Dallas Watkins. A reporter in Chicago in the 1920s, Watkins covered the popular trials of two female murderers-- Belva Gaertner and Beulah Annan-- who both blamed their actions on the negative effects of drink and jazz. At the time, female murderesses were media darlings, and following the two “jazz babies’” acquittal in 1924, Watkins wrote a satirical play, turning Gaertner into Velma Kelly and Annan into Roxie Hart. The play was produced in 1926 on Broadway, directed by George Abbott.
Following Watkin’s death, the rights to her play were sold to Richard Pryor, Gwen Verdon, and Bob Fosse. John Kander and Fred Ebb were already popular for penning Cabaret, their 1966 musical adaptation of John Van Druten’s play I am a Camera . They used the knowledge of Gaertner’s history as a vaudevillian to craft the musical as a kind of Brechtian vaudeville act, with direct address to the audience and the use of “razzle dazzle” to subvert expectations. The original Broadway production, which opened June 3, 1975, was directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse. The star-studded cast featured Chita Rivera (Velma), Gwen Verdon (Roxie), and Jerry Orbach (Billy). It received mixed reviews, as audiences were made uncomfortable by the subversive subject matter and the startling penetration of the fourth wall.
In 1996, New York City Center’s Encores series revived Chicago in a four-nights-only concert. It was such a success that a transfer was quickly arranged, and the revival opened on Broadway November 14, 1996. It was directed by Walter Bobbie with choreography “in the style of” Bob Fosse by Ann Reinking, who also played Roxie (Reinking was a replacement in the original production). The cast also included Bebe Neuwirth (Velma), Joel Grey (Amos), and James Naughton (Billy). The revival was an enormous success -- it took home the 1997 Tony for Best Revival of a Musical, and became the fastest Broadway show in history to recoup its investment. The revival still runs on Broadway, and continues to sell-out on a regular basis.