In this essay, I will be discussing how gender politics are presented within the show Chicago (1975), written by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, who also directed the show. I will be explaining how femininity within the original Broadway production shows a response to the culture during the time of when the musical was both set and written. I will be explaining how this has been presented using the different types of female characters, along with the use of sexuality and sensuality which is shown through choreography, scene and song. The main basis for the musical was based on a play of the same name by a reporter named Maurine Dallas Watkins in 1926. Effectively, this was about actual criminals and crimes she had reported from “a woman’s perspective” (Chicagology, 2018). Chicago (1975) has been described as “a musical adaptation of a 1926 play involving two scandalous murderesses using headlines to manipulate a society for hungry sensation.” (Kendrick, 2010) A lot of this in the original broadway production is projected through its direction. Kendrick states that it was in fact Fosse’s directing for the show took “precedence” over the book and score and was an approach which was described as “Fosse Uber Alles” by some of his co-workers (2010: 330)
The main cast for the original Broadway production included Chita Rivera as Velma Kelly, Gwen Verdon as Roxy Hart and Jerry Orbach as Billy Flynn. (Kendrick, 2010) The simple fact it was a female dominated cast, shows the theme of female dominance, that they had within show business at the time. The musical Chicago (1975) was written during the time of the feminist movement which happened between 1960’s and 1970’s, around the time the show was written. During the 1960’s-1970’s, women were very much subordinated by men and weren’t viewed as equal. Coontz said that they were legally subject to their husbands via “head and master” laws and had no legal right to any of their earning or property. (2010: 46) The way in which the production presents femininity and where they were within the female power movement, was through showing how women dominated the stage. However, the men dominated everything that happened backstage. They were very much in charge of everything of what, who and when they performed. Women were very much sexual objects who were displayed as images that the men had dreamt about. By having men in charge, they were able to put on a show that they would know other men would enjoy, bringing them in lots of money. This seems to be another theme within the show. Women within the show want fame and publicity, because its what they love to do. Yet the men were seen caring about the money, rather than the women.
An example of this is the character of Billy Flynn. He is the corrupt lawyer who becomes both Roxie’s and Velma’s lawyer, and he helps them avoid prison, where they became big stars. However, he showed no interest in her well-being and he made it very clear that all he cared about was money. He manipulates Roxie’s husband Amos and makes him a scapegoat for her crimes, then leaves her to fend for herself. Despite it coming back on him when they become stars, throughout the production he is portrayed as the perfect masculine figure of the 1970’s era. He’s a successful business man with a lot of money, as control over both women and the law and can pick and choose what he pleases. In the staging of the song ‘All I Care About’ (Act 1, Scene 7), it begins with a huge display of femininity. This involves women on stage in triangular bras and pants, one singular stocking on their legs, as well as a face full of over-done make up, short hair and a feather. They all begin to breathily sing “we/ want/ Billy” whilst rolling around on the floor, being objectified to the audience as a vision of beauty, which appears to be similar to the idea of Ziegfeld’s Follies Girls which were described as “Beautiful Chorus Girls” (The Red List, 2018) in early 1900’s. As Orbach enters the stage in a business-like suit, a cigarette in his mouth and a moustache, he begins to sing about how love is all he cares about. In the beginning he sings “I don’t care about expensive things/ cashmere coats/diamond rings/ all I care about is love” (Kander, 1975) and then later in the song he goes on to say:
“Maybe you think I’m talking about physical love. Well, I’m not. Not just physical love. There’s other kind of love… And physical love ain’t so bad either” (Ebb and Fosse, 1975)
He’s effectively trying to talk himself into being a good person for what he does, but he doesn’t once talk about the love of women and when he does, it’s about her being a millionaire. It’s as though he’s trying to convince himself of something that isn’t true. During this time, he begins to strip off his suit down to his underwear which consists of a vest and shorts, whilst the women dance around him with feathers. This implies the sexual intentions that he has for women and knows he could follow them through, as he has the authority and refers to “physical love” throughout. Without the women on stage, it’s as though nobody would listen to him as they are probably there to watch him.
One of the main influences for the style of female characters, such as Roxie Hart, Velma Kelly and even the chorus girls, were influenced by the ideas of Ziegfeld’s Follies Girls, also known as the “glorified American Girl” (Foley, 2005). Ziegfeld’s Follies (1907) was founded by Florenz Ziegfeld in New York by him and his wife in 1907. The Follies “produced lavish revues mingling the aesthetic of top Broadway shows and vaudeville variety.” (The Red List, 2018). The production was also described as “a stirring parade of showgirls” (Green and Green, 2008). The girls featured within the show were shown to be slim, tall, young and for the most part, silent. They would often pose in very little clothing and would simply be a sexual object to the audience, which mainly consisted of men. Much like this, when staging the original production of Chicago (1975), female characters were presented to fit this demeanour. For example, during the whole performance, both Verdon and Rivera had to wear black stockings and incredible small outfits which extenuated their figured to show off to the audience. A lot of the time they also had to wear heels, to make them look taller and slimmer, which helps them fit into a 1920’s stage girl. During the time of when the musical was set, this would have helped sell more tickets as that’s what the men wanted to see.
At the beginning of the show, in the opening number we see Rivera perform an explicit show of “All That Jazz”. John Kander, who wrote the score, supplied opportunities throughout the show, to help envisage the power that females had through songs such as this one. Lyrics such as “Find a flask/we’re playing fast and loose…Right up here/ is where I store the juice” written by Ebb, create a sexual image for the male audience, especially when the characters of Roxie and Fred are having sex during this time. “All That Jazz” essentially means sex and the power that the character has over them. This consisted of Rivera seducing the audience from a distance, through its jazzy undertones and fast pace, as well as visually appealing outfits. Combining this with Fosse’s choreography, which focuses on isolations of the hips, arms, neck and thighs, it created a steamy performance for the men to enjoy from afar. Women has to maintain their slim figures as “A body that is physically well-conditioned reflects a woman’s mental discipline” (Foley, 2005) During the time of the 1920’s and 1970’s, women were expected to be loyal to their husbands, yet they didn’t have any issue in watching them control other men from afar, as they would get pleasure from these types or performances too. This shows how men thrived for femininity within a woman, so that he could show them off, thus showing what they have achieved. As though a prize they could show off, which again shows the objectification of women.
A character which goes against the typical idea of femininity is Matron Mama Morton, originally played by Mary McCarty. The first thing that indicates this, is her job. Typically, working in a jail would have been viewed as a “mans job” as you need to be strong, something which women were viewed as not being. The Audience also notice she doesn’t follow they typical looks for show girls at the time. She is a slightly larger lady, who doesn’t have a small waist and is big busted. She is seen to wear a brown suit which consists of a V-neck. During Ziegfeld’s competitions in the rules and regulations, it states “A V-neck is fine but, if it is cut too low, it looks manly.” (Foley, 2005) Mama Morton appears throughout as a more masculine