Dallas — The unrelenting charm and intrigue of the 1975 musical Chicago may be owed to its ever-relevant plot and iconic, larger-than-life characters, or the brilliance of its score, or Bob Fosse’s strong, characteristic choreography. Perhaps it is a perfect blending of it all. In any case, what John Kander and Fred Ebb managed to create has endured decades with unyielding pertinence. Its story of sex, corruption, and greed, set against a dynamically boisterous musical backdrop, yields a quintessential charm that makes it a fan favorite through countless reinterpretations on stage and in film, earning the title of the longest running American musical in Broadway history.
Now, premiering to the world with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra is the newest, freshest take on this classic: Chicago In Concert. A ringing reimagination of the show’s original score, with new orchestrations provided by Bill Elliot, this production will feature a powerhouse troupe of Broadway veterans in interpretations of the well-known characters, like Roxie, Velma, Billy, and the Merry Murderesses of Cook County. But, more to the point, this production will shed new and engaging light on the music that made the show famous.
The cast features Bianca Marroquín as Roxie Hart, Tari Kelly as Velma Kelly, Lewis Cleale as Billy Flynn, Emily Skinner as Mama Morton, and Matthew Deming as Amos Hart and Mary Sunshine.
In advent of the show, which plays the Meyerson Symphony Center this weekend, we chatted with Rob Fisher, conductor and musical director for Chicago on Broadway. His illustrious career has seen international recognition as a leading figure in American music. As founding music director of Encores! at New York City Center, Fisher is experienced in the reimagining of traditional American musical theater through revivals and concert settings. He talked to us about that and his upcoming collaboration with the DSO.
Note: Below the interview we have a ticket giveaway.
TheaterJones: So, this is the world premiere of this particular production of Chicago In Concert?
ROB FISHER: That’s correct, and we won’t know exactly what it is until we get there. It’s an adventure into new territory.
In this sort of reimagination of Kander and Ebb’s musical, what do you think this type of presentation does for the original as far as how it exists within the canon of musical theater?
The reason that John Kander is so excited about this is it’s a different kind of focus on the score. This is a close-up on the score, allowing it to be explored in a different way. It just continues to prove what a sturdy score this is. It’s a particularly good show for this treatment because there are no duds in this score, and people who know this show look forward to every song as it’s coming up. Another thing is that this presentation opens up the possibility to people who are just great singers. The dancing requirements are so high for the show itself, so this can call for a new population to come and sing these roles. They still have to be the characters; it’s still the characters you know.
When you take a fully staged production with a fleshed-out narrative and pare it down for a concert setting, what do you gain through reimagining it this way? What might you lose?
I’ll start with what you might lose. It’s visually going to be so different without dancing and staging. However, we gain two things. Artistically, we do hear it even better when there’s no visual. It’s a different experience, with the focus clearly on the material. There are such great lyrics in this, too. The other practical thing that this can mean is that symphony orchestras really want ways to present musicals to their audiences. In a way, this is an experiment to see if this is a viable way—and a pleasing way—for an audience to experience a musical. I find that an audience is happy to show up with their imaginations open, and to have that be a requirement for the full experience.
Do you think that is something that can be said regardless of the style or genre of the musical being reinterpreted in the concert setting, or does it take a particular type of score?
I don’t know that it’s very particular, but I think some lend themselves to it more than others. Often it depends on the strength of the score, and if the score isn’t strong, then the show relies on all those other things going on.
Where do you hear in Mr. Elliot’s reworking of the Chicago soundscape the starkest differences in terms of the texture when compared to the original score?
We specifically emphasized certain colors. Having a strong section is vastly different. We have a single violin in the show. And so, that color and the way it’s deployed is really, really different. We also made the decision to not have saxophones — to only have symphonic instruments. So, there are trombone, clarinet, and trumpet solos that are reminiscent of the ’20s sound of the original scoring. Bill is a master at period sounds, so when we chose to do something that sounds ‘20s or reminiscent of the original, he really achieves that.
There are moments like “A Little Bit of Good” or “Class” that will be enhanced because they are already operetta-esque — more classical-sounding songs. Also, having a bigger brass section will be more fun in the overture and entr’actes; the audience will notice more heft and oomph because each section is bigger.
Does the feeling from the rostrum differ?
Sure. Extrapolating from my experience, I think it’s going to be a new enjoyment for me to be directing the flow of that many people involved and to have the greater number of colors in front of me. The original orchestration is one of the most brilliant ever, I think, for a Broadway show. Ralph Burns [jazz pianist and arranger who provided original orchestrations for the 1996 revival of Chicago] was such a genius. It’s hard to get what he did out of your head, so we honor a lot of what he did, but translate it to the symphony.
You’ve had a very successful career directing and conducting on Broadway and elsewhere, and the breadth of characters you’ve worked with is fascinating. When you work with names that range from Garrison Keillor to Kristen Chenoweth, I imagine you’ve developed a knack for cultivating a language with different artists. How do you go about doing that?
I don’t think the development of that language is intentional. I just think it’s a constant expansion of that language, and, hopefully, present and open in the moment to what the particular artist is bringing. I do think that having experiences that span the spectrum—from classical to pop—gives you an expansive vocabulary and lots of different ways to talk about the same thing.
With all the shows you have done in this concert setting, is there one that you have not yet done that you believe should be reinterpreted in a symphonic setting and you look forward to being a part of?
You know, one that I want to do is A Little Night Music by Sondheim. I think it would be perfect for this kind of situation, and it would be so enhanced by a symphony orchestra. Unfortunately, people aren’t sure that title would sell enough, which makes me crazy.
In this particular production, is there a specific movement or number that you connect with or enjoy working with? Or, is there one that lends itself in a special way to this new setting that you hear in a new light?
I’m gung-ho about the whole thing, and I’m also terrible at favorites. But, it might be “Class.” John Kander is so excited about that. It’s one of the things he’s proudest of. He wrote a beautiful art song with arching melodies and beautiful harmonies, on top of which Fred has these rough, bad grammar lyrics. That juxtaposition is so brilliant, and I think the symphony will enhance the beauty of what John did and will provide an even bigger contrast to those lyrics coming out of those two broads.
Anything else you want to add?
I’m just grateful to everyone down there for being enthusiastic about it, and I hope that enthusiasm spreads to the audience. It feels like we’ve invented a new thing, and I think Dallas is going to be a great place to try it out.
» We have several pairs of tickets for the Friday night (7:30 p.m.) and Sunday matinee (2:30 p.m.) performances. To be entered to win, email firstname.lastname@example.org and put CHICAGO IN CONCERT as the subject line. In the body, include your name, phone and address, and if you'd rather have tickets for Friday or Sunday. You have until 11:59 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 2 to play; we'll notify the winners by Thursday morning.