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The starry cast of 'Chicago' follows Rob Marshall's lead in his big-screen directing debut

Sunday, April 21, 2002

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Editor

TORONTO -- Hollywood East -- a k a Toronto -- is only about six driving hours from Pittsburgh, little enough distance to travel to watch Rob Marshall make a movie.

Rob Marshall is in charge on the set of the movie musical "Chicago," due in theaters at Christmas. The folks at Miramax were impressed with the Pittsburgh native's idea of how to translate the Broadway musical to film. With plenty of Broadway and TV musicals under his belt, this is Marshall's big-screen directing debut. (David James / Miramax Films 2002)


'Chicago' photo gallery

The first movie Marshall ever made is a greater distance back -- about 30 years, when he and his sisters, Maura and Kathleen, talked classmates and teachers at Oakland's Falk School into appearing in their parody of "The Brady Bunch." But the scale is larger now -- $45 million, Miramax Studio and no less a goal than to turn the tide of decades and bring a hit Broadway musical to the screen.

In the 30 years between that first movie and this, Marshall worked mainly on stage, progressing from performer to Broadway choreographer and director. He choreographed two movies, "Mrs. Santa Claus" and "Cinderella," and they and the success of his Broadway "Cabaret" led to his movie directing debut on "Annie" (1999).

But those movies were for TV. This is his big-screen debut, a movie of "Chicago," the 1975 John Kander and Fred Ebb musical satire on the sleaze and celebrity of murder and law in the Roaring '20s. Everyone knows movie musicals died decades ago, but Marshall's concept tackles the key problem: That those raised on the realism of the screen won't accept characters who naturally break into song. "Chicago" is a musical-as-vaudeville, the songs expressing character and attitude, but there's also a story. So, working with screenwriter Bill Condon ("Gods and Monsters"), Marshall split the material into two worlds -- reality for the story and surreality or fantasy for the musical numbers.

So in March, I drove to Toronto to spend a 15-hour day in a surreal, fantasy world as they filmed "Razzle Dazzle," a musical number including stars Renee Zellweger (Roxie) and Richard Gere (Billy). The third star, Catherine Zeta-Jones (Velma), wasn't used that day.

All three are taking a chance doing a musical. But the fourth star, whose face won't be in the movie but whose hands will be all over it, has the most to lose -- and gain.

The one person I couldn't talk to much that 15-hour day in Toronto was the perpetually busy director, so after the shoot wrapped and Marshall had a badly needed two-week vacation, I called him for his comments, interspersed in italics throughout.

They've been trying to film this since Liza Minnelli and Goldie Hawn were going to do it in the mid-'80s. [Later] It was Goldie and Madonna, with Nick Hytner to direct. I was asked to choreograph that, but I wasn't thrilled about the concept, so I said no.

 
 
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After the success of "Annie," I went to meet with Miramax on "Rent," and I said, "before we do that, can I just talk about 'Chicago'?" When they heard my concept, they took me in to see Harvey [Weinstein], and he said, "You're the smartest guy who's walked in here in years."

"Chicago" has been a passionate project of Harvey's for so long. He only had six months left on his option when I came in. Larry Gelbart's a hero, too -- he had written an earlier script. I saw him at the Kennedy Center Honors and explained my vision, and he called Marty Richards, the original Broadway producer, and said I should do it.

That army of credits at the end of today's movies is all real people, and this day most of them are on the set, led by General Rob.

To find them in a converted industrial building on the Toronto waterfront, I stumble through another movie in progress -- "The Farm," starring Al Pacino -- and a warren of production offices. "Chicago" occupies two sound stages, one for the courtroom, one for the jail. The latter is so real with its drab brick and dingy corridors, that I walk back out to convince myself it's only a set.

The courtroom is where I spend the day, but the formal marble and polished wood have dissolved into a fantasy of looming doorways and jury boxes set within a circus tent of color, the atmosphere softened by a light haze. Like movie-making itself, "Razzle Dazzle" is a swirl of fantasy around a core of sweat and hard work, here clothed in bare skin, feathers and rhinestones.

The segments shot this day, the second of four on "Razzle Dazzle," express Roxie's view of the flimflam showmanship of her lawyer, Billy. They'll be intercut with the "real" courtroom scenes shot earlier.

Costume and makeup start at 8. Dancers come at 11:30, crew at 1, cast at 2. By noon, people are everywhere. Marshall is busy lighting, working with cinematographer Dion Beebe ("Charlotte Gray") and the famed theatrical lighting team of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, Carnegie Mellon grads with 18 Tony nominations. The cinematographer always lights a movie; getting Miramax to hire Fisher was one of Marshall's chief battles, a key to his concept of split realities.

On hand is executive producer Neil Meron, who, with partner Craig Zadan, produced Marshall's "Cinderella" and "Annie." "Our job is shepherding Rob, making sure that his vision is the one people will see on the screen. The success of 'Moulin Rouge' will only help. Why shouldn't musicals be as much part of popular culture as action films?"

 
 
'Chicago' in a nutshell

A 1975 "musical vaudeville" by Kander and Ebb, "Chicago" is based on a 1926 play that led to "Roxie Hart," a 1942 Ginger Rogers movie comedy. Revived on Broadway in 1996, where it is still running, "Chicago" is soon to be a movie, directed and choreographed by Rob Marshall and produced by Marty Richards and Harvey Weinstein in conjunction with Neil Meron and Craig Zadan for Miramax Films.

Plot: Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) kills her lover and gets swept up in celebrity-hungry, Roaring '20s Chicago, where law is just show biz by another name.

The rest of the cast:

Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones): Roxie's celeb murderess competition.

Billy Flynn (Richard Gere): Cock-of-the-walk lawyer.

Amos Hart (John C. Reilly): Roxie's sad-sack husband.

Mary Sunshine (Christine Baranski): Powerful newspaper columnist.

Mama Morton (Queen Latifah): Corrupt matron of the Cook County jail.

   
 

Marshall's constant assistant is his partner of 20 years, John DeLuca, a stage director/choreographer. He's often coached stars, but on "Chicago," he's all-purpose supervisor and second unit director.

It's more than 10 weeks into the shoot and five months into Toronto. Marshall looks exhausted but calm. Everyone works long days, says DeLuca, but Marshall also rehearses and techs all weekend. "And he has all the studio pressure, too. This is maybe the hardest thing he's ever done."

The hardest part about directing is getting everyone on the same page. I've never had to be as strong with the powers that be as on this. I've never screamed in theater.

The canvas is huge, the detail, makeup and hair, costumes and design. "Annie" was a traditional musical -- song, scene, song. This is two different worlds -- reality and surreality. As much as I'll admit to being new to film, the others were all new to musicals, so I had to play Henry Higgins.

We did six weeks of rehearsal, starting Oct. 9. No one heard of such a thing on a movie. In the middle, we did a reading, rehearsing three days just for the reading, and it was killer: music cues, underscoring. The cast couldn't believe it, but it paid off later.

You become a company together. Musicals are infectious.

After each shot, there's a cluster watching playback: Cinematographer Beebe, of course, and Marshall, but with him the choreography team of DeLuca, Joey Pizzi, Cynthia Onrubia and Denise Faye. They've been with him since June, when pre-production started in New York, working moment-by-moment through the script, conceptualizing each of 18 musical numbers.

Says Pizzi, who danced in Marshall's "Damn Yankees" and "Little Me," "Rob will listen to all our bad ideas, because they lead to the good ideas. He's the most collaborative person I've worked with. ... A lot of the songs are based on specific vaudeville acts -- Sophie Tucker, Bert Williams, Helen Morgan -- so we watched a lot of videos and looked at tons of vaudeville books."

There are changes since the 1996 Broadway revival. "Cell Block Tango" has added the husbands. "Me and My Baby" and "My Own Best Friend" were scripted, then cut. Kander and Ebb wrote a new song.

By September, they'd done the basic choreography. They were supposed to show Zeta-Jones the "All That Jazz" number, so Pizzi and Onrubia went to work early one day in their studio near the World Trade Center. It was Sept. 11.

Work soon resumed. Choreography was complicated by not knowing what the stars could do, except for Zeta-Jones, a London musical headliner. Marshall lost some casting battles: Kathy Bates was his choice for Mama Morton, for example, but the studio prevailed with Queen Latifah. ("She's a great singer and performer, and I didn't know that," says Marshall.) "Rob goes with their strength," says Pizzi. "We can have a number set in the studio, and he'll change it completely to fit them."

In case anyone suspects dubbing, DeLuca is categorical: "There is not a stunt in the movie, not a dance step, not a vocal lick that the actors haven't done themselves." Marshall decided that early on, because "you'd know it wasn't real."

Anyway, it turns out Gere wanted to do the movie so his 2-year-old could see him tap dance -- shades of Mario Lemieux. As DeLuca says, "Why make Billy a great tap dancer? He's Richard Gere tapping a point to make his case."

Movie stars, I'm tellin' ya! I've worked with big stars [Julie Andrews, Liza Minnelli, Chita Rivera, Whoopi Goldberg, Jerry Lewis, Angela Lansbury], but with film stars, there's like a posse around them -- agent, manager, publicist. But when I was in the room with just Renee, Richard and Catherine, I was working with a team. They're real people, really grounded.

Miramax wanted film stars if we could make it work, but I told them, I'm not going to do "Man of La Mancha," where they had Peter O'Toole, Sophia Loren and Jimmy Coco, and nobody could do it. But Miramax knows how to sell a picture. So you have to listen. When you're working with a studio, you're always negotiating.

Catherine was first. I was shocked how down to earth she is. She's a gypsy [theater praise for a working ensemble dancer] -- she came to life in that rehearsal room. And what a singer! People are going to be so surprised.

Richard was expressing something he hadn't done since his stage work in "Grease" and those early rock musicals. He's a real musician: He sings and plays his trumpet and guitar every day. ... On the last day, he told the whole company: "I've never had a better time on a film, ever."

Velma's a big, meaty role, but it's Roxie's journey, her story. For Roxie, I saw 10 or more women -- Marisa Tomei, Mira Sorvino, Charlize Theron, Christina Applegate, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Toni Collette, who was fabulous, and that gorgeous Milla Jovovich. ... I saw some beautiful women, exploring who could do it.

Then I met with Renee in L.A. I had heard it had come down to her, Catherine and Nicole Kidman for "Moulin Rouge." I have problems with how that's put together, and Renee and I found we have very similar taste. She really loved my idea, so I got her to come to New York and she danced and sang a little for me. I needed an actress with vulnerability. The criticism of "Chicago" is it has no heart. It is cynical, but you have to feel how you get swept up in the insanity. The only true innocents are Amos and Hunyak. Everyone's on the make. But I couldn't have a real tough cookie as Roxie.

As the afternoon wears on, the rhythm in the room intensifies. The shots begin, each an artful balance of showgirls, acrobats, bit players and extras with, at the eye of the melodic swirl, Billy leading Roxie into the middle of his magic world.

The choreographic team watches the playback, then breaks to refine moves. The set swarms with props, makeup, hair and pompom repair -- beads, feathers, towering headdresses. Three attendants bend over a showgirl's chest. A posse of dancers prances by. Assistants dispense cups of water and snacks.

"Are you still molting?"

"Up you go, ladies, thank you very much" -- and the acrobats ["ribbon artists"] shimmy up for the next shot.

"Pompoms down!"

"Action!"

Marshall is everywhere, a wireless mike in his pocket to address the whole gang. Up above, Eisenhauer is on her head set, Fisher on his phone, constantly tweaking. Company photographer David James ("war movies and musicals are my favorites, because they're both extremely visual," he says) and his assistant, Rafy, keep on the move. The tape of Gere singing "Razzle Dazzle" gets played over and over.

Show girls get their pictures taken with Gere. There's a break for a group picture, including Zellweger's dog, Woof, who happens to be visiting. (Marshall and DeLuca's dog, Gillie, appears later.) Zellweger points at Marshall like a young schoolmarm: "What's the last time you slept? June? May?"

"Whenever I feel uncomfortable, I thank God I'm not one of those aerial girls doing splits," confides Christine Baranski.

"Does everyone know where they are in this shot?"

"Ladies, take flight, thank you."

"And, action!"

I'd much rather fail than do something like "The Chorus Line" movie, sanitized and Hollywoodized. I don't think there's been a movie musical like "Chicago." "Dancer in the Dark" was surreal, but it stays in the same world; "Pennies From Heaven" has some of that, but no one sings.

Music videos, "Ally McBeal" -- now they switch realities in a second. "All That Jazz" helped with that surreal stuff in the hospital. ... But I can't imitate Bob Fosse. I conceptualized numbers to stay away from Fosse.

"Moulin Rouge" took almost a year to film -- we shot "Chicago" in 12 weeks. Its success didn't loosen our schedule or get us more money, but all along I was told a thousand times, "This is a very risky project." Now, Renee and Catherine will be on the cover of the November Vogue.

I know the producers are excited. On the last day, we wrapped at 7 a.m. and Harvey was there. "I've already seen pieces of this," he told everyone, "and it's sensational."

There's plenty of opportunity to talk with the actors and dancers, except for Gere, who is well-entouraged and is working very hard this day.

Between shots, Baranski studies a script of "Sweeney Todd," which she'll do at the Kennedy Center this summer. On "Chicago," she's creating a new role, since on stage, Mary Sunshine is played in drag. "Wily and powerful," Baranski calls her character, "not just a sob sister being manipulated. She's the only chic lady in the movie. She's a Roz Russell type, a Barbara Walters -- those ladies with their high-gloss sincerity, spinning it to sell newspapers."

"I'm just astounded at the job Rob's doing. He's thought out every aspect, with an original concept that's going to work. ... Renee's Roxie is much more sympathetic, and it's not just a copy of Fosse. She sings with that Bernadette Peters vulnerability. Her acting is crystalline, dazzling. ... You'd think Rob had been doing it for years, he's so graceful with people and totally open to suggestions. He's obviously underslept. But you don't hear an unkind word about him."

Colm Feore's extra script, tucked in the drawer of the table where he sits as Harrison, the D.A., is of Shaw's "Pygmalion," because he's rehearsing to play Higgins in "My Fair Lady" at the Stratford Festival, where he has played many Shakespearean heroes. Singing is on his mind: "I listened to Rex Harrison and realized he can't sing at all. It was a great relief!" On "Chicago," he says "the first sing/read through was staggering: People you didn't expect to sing and dance, doing it so well. I was immensely relieved that I have to do neither."

John C. Reilly plays Amos, Roxie's hapless auto mechanic husband. "It's like the secret history of so many actors. Who would guess my background is in musicals? ... What really makes fantasy, comedy and satire work is if it's based on real stuff. And songs are the characters' views of life."

Amos' great song is "Mr. Cellophane." "I'm really proud of how the song went. It ended up being an homage to all those great vaudeville tramp clowns, which the character is, in a way." Reilly says directing "is just confidence. Rob's confidence comes from his eye. He's unrelenting about getting it right."

Many of the dancers worked with Marshall before. Roxanne Barlow, who spent a year at Point Park in the late '80s, danced for Marshall in "Victor/Victoria" and "Little Me." Tara Nicole danced in "Mrs. Santa Claus" and "Annie." She appreciates having a choreographer who's also the director, but Marshall doesn't know everything. At dinner, she points to the table of rich desserts: "Rob says we can eat anything we want, because this is the '20s and the girls had more ... you know. But it's our butts!"

Editing, I just spent all day on 50 seconds of material. I learned from Hal Prince that the first seven minutes of a movie or play set the rules. This is a highly conceptual film, so you have to sell that.

Filming, I felt like a general going to war. Editing is nice because I'm sitting with one person [editor Martin Walsh]. And I've slept!

The great thing is, I'm sitting there as choreographer, too. Sometimes I fight that out in myself -- I need a cut-away to Roxie, but I'll miss this great dance moment. Dance or story? It always has to be story.

Renee Zellweger is cute as a button, wired with energy -- and easy to approach. She's discussing Marshall when I sidle up: "You're going to have to catch up, because we've been singing Rob's praises for months," she says happily. "Five minutes after I met him, I thought, 'I don't care if anyone else sees this film, if it's just you and him and me.' The most important thing is that life is short. It's great to do work that you like, but it's important to enrich your life by bringing people into it who inspire you -- not just artistically, but spiritually. I decided, 'Yeah, I could spend six months with this guy!' "

There's a funny story about that. In the fall, a magazine printed a snapshot of Marshall and Zellweger, claiming he was her new squeeze. But that was the night, says an amused Zellweger, "I was taking Rob and John out to dinner to celebrate their 20th anniversary!"

Back to the praise already in progress: "Rob has to tech, rehearse the background dancers, rehearse the film side, choreograph ... he dances it for them, he performs it, then he directs it. We actors just come when he needs us. ... I don't know about Broadway, but on a film, it all starts with the director and has a trickle-down effect. He's dreamy. If his next picture's going to be shot in the alley behind my old apartment, I'll bring the soup and do costumes."

Gere says of Marshall: "When this comes out, he'll be at the top."

At 2:53 a.m., the day ended. The next day would start at noon.

"Chicago" is due to open Christmas Day.

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