“Chicago” was originally a musical by Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb that was wildly successful, but it was actually based on a prior play from 1926 by Maurine Dallas Watkins. Eventually, Hollywood decided it would be a good idea to make the successful stage musical into a feature film. It landed at Miramax which, at the time, was an absolute powerhouse, particularly with films that had the chance to be both critical darlings and box office draws. This was long before the ugliness of Harvey Weinstein would be exposed to the world, dismantling the empire he had built.
The movie focuses on Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, two dancers who find themselves on death row and develop a fierce rivalry with one another. Each having committed murder, they find themselves in competition for publicity, fame, and the attention of a sleazy lawyer. Throw a bunch of showstopping musical numbers in the mix and it’s easy to see how this could be a compelling, entertaining romp. Ultimately, it was Rob Marshall who would find himself in the director’s chair — though, had things gone another way, he could have directed Disney’s “Enchanted” instead.
Marshall was originally brought in to discuss the prospect of bringing the hit musical “Rent” to the big screen. He instead hijacked the meeting and explained how “Chicago” could be done as a movie. It worked. From there, it was his to develop, with screenwriter Bill Condon coming aboard. There weren’t even any stars attached yet, though eventually the strength of what the team developed garnered a deeply impressive cast, led by Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, and Renee Zellweger. The supporting cast, which includes John C. Reilly, Lucy Liu, and Queen Latifah, is no slouch either. Marshall had, effectively, talked his way into a situation even seasoned filmmakers could only dream of.
The only problem? Musicals were dead as a doornail.