Chicago…and all that jazz!

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Chicago…and all that jazz!

Francine Wolfisz speaks to stage producer Barry Weissler, ahead of the revival of his smash hit show in the West End

Francine Wolfisz is the Features Editor for Jewish News.

If you’re a celebrity, you could be president of the United States; if you get enough publicity, you can make a fortune; and if you’re beautiful and rich enough – you can get away with murder,” laughs Barry Weissler.

The Tony-Award winning stage producer is speaking about the hotly-anticipated return of Chicago, which opens in London in just under a fortnight and stars Cuba Gooding Jr in his West End debut. But, taken out of context, Weissler, who hails from New Jersey, might just as well be making a comment about the world as we see it today.

“There’s no doubting the subject matter is very timely, especially with today’s #MeToo movement.

“The story was written originally in the 1930s, but it was always before its time. It could just as well be an immediate story of what is happening now.”

Following its London debut in 1979, which ran for 600 performances, the razzmatazz-filled musical returned in 1997 to enthrall audiences for another 15 years – making it the West End’s longest-running revival. It picked up six
Tony Awards, two Olivier Awards and a Grammy.

Chicago was inspired by the captivating, real-life court trials in 1924 of two unrelated cases of Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner, who were both charged with murdering their lovers but later acquitted.

In this fictionalised version of events, femme fatale Roxie Hart (Sarah Soetaert) and cell-block rival Velma Kelly (Josefina Gabrielle) seek to defend themselves against their homicide charge with the help of smooth-talking lawyer Billy Flynn (Cuba Gooding Jr).

The cast also includes Ruthie Henshall (who played the very first Roxie Hart in 1997) as corrupt cell block matron, Mama Morton.

Aside from its stellar cast, Chicago showcases Ann Reinking’s sizzling choreography in the style of Bob Fosse and John Kander and Fred Ebb’s toe-tapping score, which features the classic songs, Razzle Dazzle, Cell Block Tango and All That Jazz.

With a successful career alongside his partner and wife, Fran, which spans more than half a century and includes seven Tony Awards, it’s difficult for 79-year-old Weissler to pick out Chicago above his many other stage hits, which include Othello, Fiddler On The Roof, Gypsy, Annie Get Your Gun and My Fair Lady.

“You can’t choose one over another; each one is unique to itself, each one is a special oil painting and not duplicable and each experience is lovely.”

Stage producer Barry Weissler

There is, however, a special place in his heart for the global smash hit, which has played in 36 countries to 31 million people around the world and grossed a whopping $1.5billion.

Aside from its riveting story and thrilling music, the show’s success can also be partly explained by the huge names that have flocked to take part in its cast.

From Denise Van Outen to Melanie Griffiths, Brooke Shields, Jerry Springer and Usher, there’s no shortage of celebrities queuing up to don their flapper dresses or pinstripe suits and spats.

What attracts these A-listers – some of whom have never performed before in the West End or Broadway – to sign up to Chicago?

Weissler explains: “It’s not easy to find fully-fleshed out characters and in this piece, Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb found a way to create very complete characters who are compelling, dangerous and sexual. For the actors, it’s a pleasure to play the show.”

Now 21 years since it first played in London, I ask Weissler if he has made any changes to the show for its latest run, which is already taking bookings until October.

“If I made it bigger and better, I would ruin it,” he laughs. “It’s sparse, it’s stark, it’s black-and-white and trimmed down to the essence. If you add to it, you take away the joy of your imagination filling all the gaps. We don’t need a set on stage, we need the audience’s imagination.”

Keeping an audience captivated is something the seasoned producer knows all about – but it was on the stage, rather than behind the scenes, where Weissler first started his theatre career as a budding actor.

“While at college, I found this little theatre on campus and discovered that’s where I belonged,” he reveals.

His decision to pursue acting more seriously and move to New York to study under Stella Adler was not welcomed by his Russian and Polish immigrant parents – indeed, they disowned him for many years.

“Being an actor to them was like prostitution,” he recalls. “You don’t become an actor, you become a lawyer, or a doctor, or go into retail. But I didn’t want to do any of that.”

Cuba Gooding Jr stars as Billy Flynn in the revival of Chicago in the West End

Having been cut off from his family, he struggled at first to make ends meet, but fortunately one of his classmates took him under his wing. His name was Robert De Niro.

Weissler smiles: “He was good enough to always buy me breakfast, so I never went hungry.”

In 1964, shortly after graduating, Weissler met Fran, whom he describes as “my rock” and the pair started their own touring theatre group. Within 20 years, they brought Medea and Othello to Broadway, with the latter earning the couple their first Tony award.

Today the couple, who have two children, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, divide their time between homes in New York and Palm Beach, and, despite working in the business for 50 years, Weissler is showing no signs of wanting to put his feet up just yet.

“For two-and-a-half hours the audience go on a journey, forget themselves and go into another world. That for me is the excitement of what I do.”

Chicago is booking until 6 October at Phoenix Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London. Details: 0844 871 7629

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