America’s Longest running musical is back in town after a five year hiatus. With Oscar-winner Cuba Gooding Jr at the helm, we assess the show’s enduring appeal in light of #MeToo.
A musical about two female criminals, Chicago has historically presented women as fierce femme fatales. Its two leads Roxie and Velma stop at nothing (including killing their nearest and dearest) to claw higher and higher in show business.
Billy Flynn is the charismatic lawyer who can get criminals past court rooms. The question is, in light of the #MeToo movement, and the surrounding discussions about sexual abuse and exploitation, does this musical present outdated impressions of characters who glamourise breaking the law?
“I’m not the traditional Billy Flynn”, Cuba insists in London’s chic-affordable foodie haunt, Brasserie Zédel. “I’m not bringing tradition as much as I’m bringing my own personality to the role…”
Cuba Gooding Jr has charm in excess, as well as the credentials to play an excellent Billy Flynn. Most famously, he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for Jerry Maguire in 1997 and more recently has played O.J Simpson in American Crime Story to popular acclaim on the small screen. Chicago marks Cuba’s London stage debut.
Now age 50, Cuba looks fresh-faced and could convincingly play characters 20 years his junior. Despite his experience, rehearsals, he says, were “intimidating… But when I met Ruthie [Henshall] and all the others, I realised they were just here to support the statement we were gonna make with this show.”
Cuba talks passionately, but mistakenly calls Chicago “hundreds” of years old, before correcting himself. He’s nearly not wrong. Written in 1926, the show was, for its time, bold in its presentation of two independent females, Velma and Roxie who took their fortunes into their own hands.
But undertones of sexual exploitation, particularly in the historic language and predatory behaviour of Mama Morton could, in light of recent events, be seen as problematic.
“We’re all catering to someone to get what we want” Josefina Gabrielle, who plays Velma, explains. Hers is a sentiment echoed in Mama Morton’s implied exploitative behaviour towards other people in a line from her key song: “When you’re good to Mama”, she insists, “Mama’s good to you.”
“These expressions were created decades ago, at a time that was reflective of what a society saw as acceptable,” Hollywood behemoth Cuba explains.
“I think you have to think about art as just that.”
But Chicago producer Barry Weissler, who admitted his “disappointment” that the show ever ended in London, agrees that “the fact all the women killed men in their lives might be somewhat questionable”.
“But they go to the extreme”, he adds. “It’s a musical comedy, why not?”
“It’s not about fantasy any longer – the #MeToo movement has told women to take their place” Weissler insists, despite his earlier comments. “I hope they don’t kill us all, but women are rising.”
For co-star Ruthie Henshall, who plays Mama, there is no need to reconcile the faded glamour of the show’s aesthetic with modern politics. “Billy Elliot was full of swearing because that’s the vernacular. What do we want to do, change history?”
“I think we can get a little bit too precious about things – it’s a show, it was set in a particular period.”
Cuba, with his wit and charm offensive (he fist bumps us rather than handshakes) has announced that he will faithfully reinterpret Billy Flynn, the smooth-talking lawyer, rather than modernise the role – but the actor clearly has eyes for more innovative shows.
“It’s not a coincidence or a fluke Hamilton has been embraced as the extravaganza that it is” he reveals. “I think part of that is they broke traditional stereotypes about what doing a musical about politics could be.”
He attempts to shoehorn Chicago into this modern tide of new musicals. “I think audiences now are opening themselves up to something different, something more, and that coupled with the themes we tackle about women empowerment are so timely in today’s society it makes sense for Chicago to have a resurgence.”
Regardless, the show’s casting certainly suggests the show will sell plenty of tickets. Veteran Chicago actor Ruthie Henshall will star as Mama Morton, who has now played all three of the show’s leads.
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She admits her decision to return to the show “wasn’t instant”, which is understandable given the show has punctuated much of her working adult life. “I started Chicago before I had children, and my children are now 13 and 15. Really, Chicago has been the backdrop of my life for 20 years…”
She sings Cuba’s praises. “I mean, what a coup… This isn’t some sort of casting stunt, the man has the chops and he’s such a lovely man.”
Josefina Gabrielle, who plays Velma, agrees. “He needs no help – he has a sensational instinct, a power and a presence.”
Chicago runs at the Phoenix Theatre, and stars Cuba Gooding Jr as Billy Flynn until June 30