Growing up I was never a fan of musicals. They all seemed unbearably cheery. That was until I discovered the deliciously cynical world of Chicago. The show’s own opening lines tell you everything you need to know: ‘a story of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery—all those things we all hold near and dear to our hearts.’ Set in the eponymous city during the Jazz Age, Chicago follows Roxie Hart as she is imprisoned for murder and enters a world of sleazy lawyers and sensationalist media where performance matters more than reality. Chicago is not just about the darker sides of human nature, but also how easily we glamourize and romanticise them.
Needless to say then, I was thrilled to be able to sit down and discuss all this and more with Krishna Patel and Griffin Godsick, directors of the Just So Society’s upcoming production of Chicago in the Byre Theatre. It soon became clear that Krishna and Griffin shared my love of the show’s darker tone, as an attempt to briefly sum up Chicago spiralled out into a rambling conversation about just how bleak and satirical it is. “It’s about corruption and greed and ego, all issues that are timeless and pervade our culture,” began Griffin. ‘Timeless’ was a word that came up more than once during the interview, but Griffin also suggested that Chicago could say something specific about the times we live in. He continued, ‘it criticises the media, crime, the legal system, and celebrity. Especially now with all our social media apps and devotion to celebrities, it really, really bites into that and rips it apart.”
I asked the two directors how tricky it was to bring out the humour in such a cynical story, but for Griffin the light and the dark went hand in hand. “If anything, I think the humour is better because of that fact that the show is so dark,” he argued, “you can find humour in the fact that it is so bleak, a lot of the funny stuff comes from, ‘wow that’s dark – but it’s funny.’” Anyone familiar with Chicago will know exactly what Griffin means (lines such as “I took a gun and fired two warning shots—into his head,” spring to mind). The minds behind Chicago, Bob Fosse Fred Ebb and John Kander, were known for their black comedy, “This is the creative team behind Cabaret” pointed out Griffin, “they are used to doing dark humour and I think Chicago is probably their pièce de résistance.”
For Krishna, Chicago is all about the idea of performance. The show draws its musical inspiration from 1920s Vaudeville, and the characters are always aware they are performing to an audience. According to Chicago, “life is just a stage,” observed Krishna, “and it’s very derisive of that.” The genius of the show is that it is told from the perspective of those who must live their life as a performance in order to survive. As Krishna put it, “It’s so paradoxical and ironic because it’s about the reality of being fake.”
Chicago is a show that revels in its own theatricality. When I asked Krishna and Griffin what they had found challenging about directing, they discussed the logistics of trying to deliver such a spectacle. “The most iconic numbers, Cell Block and All That Jazz, are logistically quite difficult to put together because there are physically just a lot of moving parts on stage,” explained Krishna. Griffin added with thirty-strong cast of busy, sought-after performers, the most difficult part could be getting everyone in the same room in the first place.
Both remained brimming with positivity however, as Krishna was quick to remark, “fortunately people have been very accommodating. It’s been very easy to get across to people what the vision of the show has been to people who are organising it, and for that reason it’s been a of a challenge we look forward as opposed to something that we don’t want to do.”
Making that vision distinctive was obviously important to Krishna and Griffin, and they were eager to discuss how they were putting their own stamp on the musical. “It’s a piece of art,” Krishna stated, “there’s lots of creation and creativity that can be taken in everything from the tech to music. Our techs had a lot of fun planning what they’re going to do for this musical, there’s going to be some really sick stuff going on.” Krishna was similarly excited about their cast’s interpretations of the musical, particularly their two leads: “The girls we’ve cast for Roxie and Velma are no Renée Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones. We were very specific in that we didn’t want carbon copies of those girls, but the beautiful thing about the people we’ve cast in general is that they do have an intuitive understanding of the character.”
Zellweger and Zeta-Jones, of course, were the stars of the Oscar for Best Picture-winning film adaptation from 2002. Thanks to the film and the hugely successful 1996 revival, Chicago is now the second longest running musical ever on Broadway. With such a strong image in the public consciousness, Krishna and Griffin are determined that their production will offer something different. “This is not the movie version, this is not the Broadway show, this is the St Andrews version of Chicago,” declared Griffin. He went on to say that they had expressly told their actors not to listen to any cast recordings or watch the film. For Griffin, there was no worth in the cast watching the film, “Otherwise it’s just a pantomime of the movie.”
The other aspect of production that the two directors were keen to communicate was how much of a collaborative process it has been. When asked if there were any oft-overlooked members of the team they wanted to highlight, the list kept on going. Both immediately highlighted the hard work of the band and how much they had achieved with so little rehearsal time. Krishna was also quick to emphasise the creativity of their technical team. The directors’ philosophy was, in Krishna’s words, “if you have cool ideas, we want to see them.” Krishna also felt that St Andrews productions could do more to appreciate the creative skills of the backstage crew, reflecting “I feel like a lot of techs in this town have amazing ideas and then just don’t get to use them.”
Finally, I asked the pair what they were most excited for audiences to see when they came to Chicago. Krishna had an answer instantly, saying, “Fingers crossed, every girl in the audience has that immediate ‘yes!’ moment when Cell Block Tango comes on. I want every girl to feel like after that number they could do anything.” A story about women taking matters into their own hands, the feminist themes in Chicago are not hard to find and Krishna has evidently enjoyed bringing them out. Over the course of the interview she spoke excitedly about having the girls pick out empowering costumes, and how important the show’s feminist references are, particularly to an audience of St Andrews students.
Griffin answered this last question more broadly, simply hoping that the audience will see the passion the actors and the crew have for the source material. Griffin is aware of the high expectations that comes with a musical as beloved as Chicago but appeared confident that their hard work will pay off. There is no doubt that the name Chicago will generate some excitement within the St Andrews bubble. As Krishna put it, “Chicago is iconic for a reason, why would you miss out?”
Chicago will be playing at the Byre Theatre, Tuesday 12 November – Thursday 14 November at 7:30pm