Murder, mayhem and all that jazz has returned to Madison this month in the Tony Award-winning musical “Chicago.” Roxie Hart, Velma Kelly and the incomparable Billy Flynn have taken over the Overture Center for the Arts stage Oct. 1–6 as part of the Broadway at Overture series.
With music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, the same team that created “Cabaret,” “Chicago” tells a tale that is partly truth, partly fiction and based on the premise that, in Prohibition-era Chicago, pretty girls who kill their boyfriends never get convicted.
The musical draws on a 1926 play of the same name that’s based on the reportage of Maurine Dallas Watkins, who covered the 1924 trials of murderesses Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner for the Chicago Tribune. The changing views toward women, a long string of acquittals by all-male juries, and interpretations by female reporters – known as “sob sisters” – who wrote about the plight, attractiveness, redemption and grace of the women defendants became the basis for the play and the musical.
Annan became the model for Roxie Hart and Gaertner inspired Velma Kelly. Billy Flynn, played by actor John O’Hurley in the Overture production, is a composite of lawyers William Scott Stewart and W.W. O’Brien. Flynn is really the lynchpin that helps define the narrative, O’Hurley says.
“Billy Flynn is one of the great leading men in Broadway history,” says O’Hurley, a multi-faceted performer best known for his role as J. Peterman in “Seinfeld.”
“He’s elegant, eloquent and suave, but he also is a dangerous man,” O’Hurley says. “He has to have a paternal quality so he doesn’t come off as an SOB. If he doesn’t give you a sense of fathering his clients, I don’t think it’s a complete character portrayal.”
The show is deeply rooted in its environment and likely couldn’t have taken place anywhere but Chicago, thanks to the mythos surrounding the city’s bootlegging and gangster persona, O’Hurley says. Nevertheless, it has an almost universal appeal.
“It’s one of the five best musicals ever done, but it’s also timeless, making it constantly contemporary,” O’Hurley says. “Its subject is how we treat our celebrities, and we are a very celebrity-driven culture. It constantly renews itself in that way.”
The former J. Peterman feels himself well up to the task, both as an actor and a song-and-dance man. The Kittery, Maine, native graduated from Providence (R.I.) College in 1976 with a BA in theater, majoring in acting and minoring in opera. As for the dance steps, O’Hurley credits his appearance on the first season of ABC TV’s “Dancing with the Stars” for providing him with some very rigorous training.
“I would characterize the (“Dancing with the Stars” as nine parts Marine boot camp and one part cocktail party,” O’Hurley says of his first-season appearance. “I was like a cutting horse – that’s a rodeo term – moving back and forth across the 100’ x 75’ stage.”
O’Hurley did have favorite dances during the competition, which he ultimately won. “I liked the smooth dances – the waltz, the fox trot, the quick step,” he says. “I didn’t like any dance ending in a vowel.”
In addition to rigorous physical training, the actor also found the show mentally exhausting.
“Each week after you finished a dance you had to learn a new one for the following week,” he explains. “There was no sense of accomplishment, which made it mentally draining.”
However, the grueling training served him well in his various Broadway roles, especially as Billy Flynn, a character he says he has continually evolved during his more than 1,000 performances of the role.
“Before I go on stage each night I say one prayer – that I will surprise myself with one new thing about the character,” O’Hurley says. “The Billy Flynn I started with is not at all like the one I will play in Madison. He gets deeper and deeper every night.”
That characteristic also helps O’Hurley appreciate the show.
“‘Chicago’ is the best Kander and Ebb have ever produced and the best Bob Fosse ever did,” he says.
More Broadway, more jazz
“Chicago” kicks off a season of Broadway hits for Overture Center, a list that includes:
• “Sister Act,” the story of a diva wannabe who finds herself hiding in a convent after witnessing a crime, Jan, 14–19;
• “Flashdance: The Musical,” another film adaptation that involves a girl, her welding torch and the desire to dance, Feb. 25–March 2;
• “Million Dollar Quartet,” which relives the night in 1956 when Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash got together to jam at Memphis’ historic Sun Studios, May 13–18; and
• “War Horse,” the Tony Award-winning World War I story told with the help of South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Co., June 10 – 15.
For more information, visit www.overturecenter.com.