I neglected to mention on Nov. 14 that the “Chicago” revival had marked its 15th year on Broadway. Put in perspective: It’s the longest-running revival on Broadway and the fourth longest-running Broadway musical with 6240 performances, edging out its former rival “A Chorus Line.” It seems to show no signs of slowing down, which is cause for concern for current number three “Les Misérables.”
During my freelance writing days in New York in the mid-90s, I made extra money (sometimes not even extra — just money) working front of house selling souvenirs (programs, t-shirts, and mugs) at the Shubert Theater, then home of “Chicago.” It’s not hard work — you’re on duty for half an hour prior to the show, during intermission, and then 15 minutes after the show ends. Otherwise, you can spend your downtime hanging out with the bartenders in the lounge (only some of whom weren’t actors but all had great stories to tell), preparing for an audition (like the aforementioned actors), or browsing through the Virgin Megastore in Times Square (now since gone, alas). If you were a particularly obsessed theater fan as I was, you’d watch the show — not just once, as everyone did on their first night, but pretty much every night. It was like the gay version of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”… wait, no that doesn’t make sense. It was like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” but you didn’t shout or throw things at the stage.
It’s impossible to overestimate the impact of the show for me back then. There were days where the major impetus to get up in the morning was the knowledge that I was going to hear the opening strains of the overture that night. It was theatrical Prozac.
I started working at the Shubert just after Marilu Henner (“Taxi”) had replaced Anne Reinking, the show’s choreographer, as Roxie Hart. There was a lot of talk about how clearly superior Reinking had been in the role, which might have been the case (I never had the chance to see her — even when she later returned for a brief engagement, I was out of town), but I thought Henner did an admirable job. It’s not a true comparison, but when I listen to the revival’s cast recording, I think that Henner had a bit more emotion and range during her big number, “Roxie,” than Reinking. Henner was also head and shoulders above some of the later unfortunate bits of stunt Roxie casting, including Ashlee Simpson-Wentz and… actually, it’s hard to get much worse than that.
Bebe Neuwirth at the 15th anniversary performance of "Chicago"
Bebe Neuwirth was phenomenal and with all respect to the wonderful Chita Rivera, who created the part, it’s Neuwirth who I will forever associate with Velma Kelly. Her name recognition as Lilith Sternin-Crane from “Cheers” and “Frasier” probably helped bring people through the door, but they were blown out of their seats by her performance. I’m nowhere near talented enough to adequately describe how she set fire to the Shubert’s stage on a nightly basis, so thank Marilyn for YouTube.
I would swap nights between “Chicago” and “Grease,” which was at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. I referred to my time at “Grease” as “Grease Hell” — everyone there was in hell, the cast, the crew, the audience. It was not enjoyable. Worse, you couldn’t lock up your souvenir stand at “Grease,” so you had to sit through the entire show – a rather cruel irony, as I was free to come and go at will at “Chicago.” I don’t recommend seeing this production of “Grease” once let alone almost a dozen times. Even mediocre songs performed poorly can stick in your head. One of the bartenders at the Eugene O’Neill would occasionally sing her unique version of “Born to Hand Jive” but would replace “jive” with “job.” Not to be ungallant but I believed her. I eventually made the bold move of asking to work only “Chicago.” My very English boss at the time shrugged and said, “Sure.” My first hard-ball business negotiation.
The best part of seeing the show eight times a week was that I could focus on other members of the cast. Some of my favorites were Bruce Anthony Davis, Jim Borstelmann — one of the great gypsies of Broadway, Mary Ann Lamb, Caitlin Carter, and Leigh Zimmerman, who later played Velma in London’s West End. You could spend a night just watching one of them and be thoroughly entertained.
When Zimmerman left “Chicago,” she gave farewell presents to all her coworkers — including those of us working front of house. I thought that was classy at the time and have come to appreciate the gesture even more after later working at companies where the “rank-and-file” employees (yes, they used that term) were viewed as mostly disposable resources rather than as extensions of the same united effort.
I don’t recall if it was either my last night at the show or Neuwirth’s, but my boss — now longer English but another nice guy — gave me a “Chicago” program that Neuwirth had inscribed to me over her photo on the inside page. I’ve never been one for autographs but this is definitely one of my most prized possessions — now preserved behind glass, as my memories of this show in its early days are forever preserved in my mind.