Watching Chicago

Watching Chicago, the movie, last night was a riveting experience. The movie is beautifully made and enacted by Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellweger, Queen Latifah and Richard Gere. I had seen Chicago, the play, on Broadway a few months ago. Thanks to a promotional offer from a massive cosmetics spending spree, we had excellent third row seats and I was quite entranced by the luminously attractive and talented actors on stage. The friend who accompanied me to the play had suggested I complement the experience by watching the movie.

So I watched it last night. I cleared my agenda of all the usual distractions, took a break from my regimented music practice and shirked all other duties and chores while I lay flat on my belly, inserted the DVD in my laptop and settled in for the viewing pleasure.

There can be no disagreement on how entertaining this musical is. The story, the music, the satirical humor and “all that jazz” comes together seamlessly with the casts’ effortless demonstration of how much of a three-ring circus life really is and how the only aura surrounding everything we do is one of meaninglessness and transient moments. When one peels away the finesse of the presentation itself, one gets to the brilliance and the sheer artistry with which the creators have illustrated life itself.

Take the six murderesses at Cook County Jail, for instance. They are unrepentant. They killed because they had to; their anger at their worse halves had crossed every threshold imaginable. There was the one who fired warning shots into the husband who refused to stop popping his gum, there was Velma Kelly (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones), who caught her husband cheating with her sister, then the one whose husband “fell” on her kitchen knife ten times while coming at her in a rage, repeatedly accusing her of cheating on him. In each instance they confessed to the crime as if it was the most natural outcome. As if they had endured enough and had reached their limits. The satire was brilliant in showing more and more women pointing the guns at worthless mates, the lawyer milking them on his way to riches, tap dancing his way to unprecedented success, the District Attorney more concerned with his gubernatorial future than anything else.

The story of Roxie Hart (played by Renee Zellweger) illuminates a whole other aspect, that of seeking recognition and adulation, of wanting to feel as though one’s place in the sun is clearly demarcated and spotlighted. It also made me think once again of what men really want and what women want, especially what they want with each other.

I feel most women, even the most noble and altruistic of women (since altruism and sex aren’t mutually exclusive), think of sex as currency. Something is always expected in return, be it children, companionship, resources, the assuaging of some feeling of emptiness somewhere or the big one, the L word: love – the lust-love tradeoff, there is always a minor or major expectation tied to the act. Men seem to not expect anything from it except that one instant of pleasure; nevertheless, a pleasure for which no price is too heavy to pay.

Roxie sought a ladder to fame and fortune out of her dalliance but her needs were beneath inconsequential to the furniture salesman. So he paid with his life. There was Amos, Roxie’s loving, trusting husband who called himself Mr. Cellophane – as invisible and inconsequential as Roxie, two of a kind in many ways, but one resigned and accepting of his circumstance and the other in ferment.

Then there’s Billy Flynn. On the surface, and even deeper than that, he comes across as the slimy lawyer who cares nothing about any of the women he defends. However, he is nothing but a cynical and shrewd observer who has seen life for what it is, he has a bird’s eye view of the topography of life and his personal path to fortune is dazzlingly illuminated. He can’t lose; he knows how to pull every string that can be pulled.

The song sequence where he is the master puppeteer, with his client – the ventriloquist’s dummy – and the legions of reporters his puppets, was simply amazing. There was one surprising moment of tenderness between Billie Flynn and Roxie Hart before her trial, when she says she is scared and Billy Flynn looks at her and tells her not to be because it is all nothing but a three ring circus. We’ve seen how much of a circus it is, throughout, but the director had the right idea in underscoring that moment.

The trial is over almost as soon as it started and Billie moves on to the defense of the pineapple heiress who walks in and shoots at her husband and all the women who fill his bed, yet another woman who shoots her significant other on the courthouse steps. Life goes on in Chicago where the paper boy starts his morning with a truckload of papers, half of which show the headline “Innocent” and the other half “Guilty”. He is ready to sell either one, as soon as the verdict is heard.

How many times have we witnessed some version of this 1927 satire played out in reality?

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