First things first, let me tell you: I love Chicago. I’ve never seen the stage play, but the movie is one of my faves, and today I’mma tell you why.
There are plenty of shows, Broadway or otherwise, and dozens of movies that romanticize murderers. There’s plenty of media where we root for the outlaw to escape justice. There aren’t so many of them where those outlaw characters are ladies.
Chicago tells the story of Roxie Hart, a bored housewife with dreams of stardom, who lands in jail after murdering her lying lover. As she awaits trial, she realizes that, if she can win over the court of public opinion, she should be able to escape the gallows. With some help from slippery ace attorney Billy Flynn, she’s able to spin a tale of tragedy that captures Chicago’s attention and eventually wins her an ‘innocent’ verdict. Safely away from the noose, and abandoned by her jaded, sad husband, she teams up with fellow pardoned con Velma Kelly to finally live her dream of becoming a vaudeville star.
The musical is filled with kickass dance numbers, fantastically seedy characters, and catchy and singable songs; probably the most well known of these is the misandry anthem “Cell Block Tango”.
On one hand, Chicago is about a woman who manipulates the patriarchy by playing on the stereotype of the weak woman to get her freedom, and that’s cool. It’s one of a rare list of movies with a diverse female cast and only a few token male characters, which is also cool.
But Chicago’s also about the way flash and, dare I say, razzle-dazzle, can triumph over actual justice, which is less cool. Roxie is not the chaotic good hero of our story a la Ocean’s Eleven. She’s not evil, either, but she’s selfish and doesn’t care how her actions affect anything but her potential career in showbiz. She sleeps around because she’s bored and unhappy with her marriage, and then she gets mad at her husband when, after learning of her infidelity, he refuses to lie to the cops for her. She kills her lover in a rage when she finds out that he never intended to help her break into theater. She throws a fit when it seems the public eye is shifting away from her. She’s not a sympathetic character, but in fairness, not all characters need to be someone we empathize with.
The overarching message of the show backs this up, and expands on it. The two characters we are encouraged most to sympathize with are Roxie’s estranged husband Amos, and the Hunyak, one of the women imprisoned with Roxie. Amos is a simple and good-hearted guy, but because Roxie finds him boring, he ends the show sad and alone. The Hunyak, an Eastern European immigrant who speaks no English, is the only one of the show’s ‘murderesses’ to actually receive the death penalty, despite it being clear that she was wrongly convicted. Being naive and kindhearted, Chicago tells us cynically, always screws you over in the end. It’s better to be dishonest and rich and successful than nice and dead.
It isn’t a lesson I agree with, by a long shot, although it may prove true in some cases. In the end I still love Chicago, but more for the spectacle and sass and, yes, razzle-dazzle, than for any message it sends.
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