“Would you please tell the audience, er... the jury, what happened?”
Rob Marshall . 2002
“D’you know if Julia Roberts can sing and dance?” Desperation from the rights owner Marty Richards and producer Harvey Weinstein during the five years it took them to find the right mix for their film of the hit stage musical.
They were not the first…
The Broadway show has it roots in a 1926 Broadway play, Gypsy, leading to two films: Chicago, a 1927 silent, and Roxie Hart, with Ginger Rogers, 1942. Bob Fosse’s musical version of the 20s’ play ran on Broadway for 936 performances, 1975-1977,with Gwen Verdon (an ex-Mrs Fosse) as Roxie, Chita Rivera as Velma Kelly and Jerry Orbach, future bulwark of TV’s Law & Order, as Billy Flynn.
There are other roles - Roxie’s dumb husband, Roxie’s prison warden - but the main threesome required a magic ensemble. Roxie, Velma and Bill in a bizarre, Roaring 20s musical about two showgirls winning fame as… murderers! Roxie kills her lover and convinces hubby to pay for her defence. Velma Kelly knocks off her husband and her sister for performing less on-stage than in-bed.
They hire slick-assed, razzle-dazzle attorney Flynn:
“This trial... the whole world... it’s all... show business!”
When producer Martin Richards obtained the screen rights, he got Fosse (like who else!) on board - to helm Goldie Hawn, Liza Minnelli and Frank Sinatra as Roxie, Velma and Billy.
Later, Foss was the first to approach Madonna for Velma - “it’ll win you an Oscar” - opposite John Travolta as Billy. Fosse's 1987 death ended this opening salvo.
Miramax joined forces with Marty Richards in 1994, and brought in the Chicago-born Larry Gelbart to pepper the script. The M*A*S*H man produced seven drafts as directors came and went: Baz Luhrmann, Milos Forman, Herbert Ross. Stalemate!
Ross agreed about Madonna. “I wanted the script re-written, going back to the uproariously funny original play, but...
“Madonna didn’t want to do a period musical.
Very short sighted.”
And let’s not forget Shirley MacLaine...
“As has been the case several times in my life,” said Shirley, “I got too old. I was supposed to play Roxie. but because of script problems there was a delay... Then, another script when I was ready to play Velma. More script problems. Finally, with the latest script, I was right for the lesbian warder. I said No and thought the movie was one of the best ever made. Fosse would have been so proud that the musical he devised as a gift to Gwen so she wouldn’t divorce him won an Oscar and kept his talent and name alive.”
The small but perfectly formed Kristin Chenoweth -the 1999 Tony winnerfor her portrayal of Sally inYou’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown - was shortlisted to play Roxie Hart... and later seen for Mary Sunshine (which went to Christine Baranski).
The project had renewed vigour following a triumphant Broadway revival in 1996 (with Bebe Neuwirth, Ann Reinking and six Tonys; the film won six Oscars). Nicholas Hytner arrived and sacked Goldie -“too old” at 53. He preferred Nicole Kidman, 22 years her junior.
Goldie’s intended partner, Madonna, quit. So did Kidman - going home, down-under, for, paradoxically, Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (it opened first, yet could not still Chicago’s considerable thunder). The Aussie’s replacement was South African Charlize Theron.
Next it headed towards Toni Collette. “Then, the Chicago lot said: We want you to do this, don't take anything else. We want to put you on tape just as a formality. Catherine Zeta-Jones is really excited to work with you.’ Then, Bridget Jones's Diary came out ....”
Hytner quit. True Brits David Fincher and Alan Parker were mentioned before, in a flash of (less expensive) inspiration, Miramax hired stage director Rob Marshall for his first film. (He’d had a TV smash with his 1999 version of Annie), Charlize had to audition anew and lost out to, well, what Marshall sighed for was “a Renée Zellweger-type person... If that person could sing and dance, then I'd be home free." Renee had no song ’n’ dance background but she was that person.
And Bette Midler was said to have been offered any role she liked. Not the first time she’d rejected a film with Oscar written all over it - the previous one was Kathy Bates’s Misery, 1990.
Roxie Hart . Over the years, some 36 potential Roxies were spoken of, spoken to, auditioned, tested or requested… Jennifer Aniston, Christina Appplegate, Patricia Arquette, Drew Barrymore, Kathy Bates, Juliette Binoche, Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock, Kristin Chenoweth, Toni Collette (also up for Vema), Jamie Lee Curtis, Ellen DeGeneres, Cameron Diaz, Clare Forlani, Jodie Foster, Heather Graham, Rachel Griffiths, Angie Harmon, Goldie Hawn, Anne Heche, Katie Holmes, Helen Hunt, Milla Jovovich, Ashley Judd, Patsy Kensit, Nicole Kidman, Jennjfer Jason Leigh, Tea Leoni, Liza Minnelli, Rhona Mitra, Bridget Moynahan, Bebe Neuwirth (from the Broadway revival), Rosie O’Donnell, Monica Potter, Vinesssa Shaw (Eyes Wide Shut), Alicia Silverstpne, Mira Sorvino, Hilary Swank, Charlize Theron, Marisa Tomei, Debra Winger, Kate Winslet,… and Catherine Zeta-Jones, before she was offered Velma.
Velma Kelly . Catherine Zeta-Jones triumphed over Toni Collette, Cameron Diaz, Angelina Jolie, Beyone Knowles, Jennifer Lopez, Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow and Julia Roberts.
Matron “Mama” Morton . The prison warden went from the 90s’ obvious - Kathy Bates, Whoopi Goldberg, Pam Grier, Bette Midler, Rosie O’Donnell - to the 2002 obvious, Queen Latifah.
Kitty Baxter . Harvey Weinstein, loathe to see Goldie go, next voted for teen diva Britney Spears for Kitty “Go to Hell” Baxter. Marshall also tested Many Moore - “too young”. Lucy Liu was purrrfect!
Mary Sunshine . Kathy Bates, Kristin Chenoweth, Goldie Hawn, Nicole Kidman, Rosie O’Donnell, Gwyneth Paltrow came.,, Christine Baranski conquered.
Amos Hart . Keanu Reeves and Charlie Sheen, were seen – or spoken of. John C Reilly nailed it.
Billy Flynn. Twenty-four years on from Days of Heaven, 1978, and Richard Gere found himself still pinching Travolta’s best offers. John “wasn't all that into the stage show. It was a lot of women who hated men and I like women who like men. [Laugh] The stage show was kind of vicious but the movie had a heart.” He regretted refusing the lawyer three times. All because he has no imagination and never asked the right people the right questions. He complained to Rob Marshall: “Why didn't you ask for a meeting to explain the movie to me?” D’oh!
Other potential Bills included John Cusack, Rupert Everett, Hugh Jackman, Kevin Kline, Steve Martin, Frank Sinatra, Kevin Spacey.
“I was too young,” said Jackman. “You have some 34-year-old guy up against Renée Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jonesand - it becomes a different movie. At one point, Harvey was telling me they were thinking of Kevin Spacey. I told him, ‘Exactly right, you should hire him.’ When the movie opened, with the queue around the block. I sat down and thoughtI’d probably made the biggest mistake. But I still honestly think thatI was too young for that part.”