Before there was Orange is the New Black or Wentworth or any of the "broads behind bars" stories, there was Chicago — a Broadway musical that opened in 1975 based on a 1926 play inspired by real-life crimes that reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins wrote about.

With music by John Kander, now 91, lyrics by Fred Ebb and choreographed by the legendary dance master Bob Fosse, Chicago was revived in 1996 and has since become the longest-running American musical, performed more than 30,000 times worldwide. But it wasn't always that way — as John Kander reveals:

"When Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse came to Fred and me with the idea for this project — it must have been about 1973, because we opened in 1975 — Fred was ecstatic and I was less so. I didn't admit to my lack of enthusiasm to Bob, but I did to Fred, because I thought to myself, "oh my God, another 'show business is a metaphor for life' piece," which I felt we had already done.

"As it usually happened in my collaborations with Fred, however, when one of us showed enthusiasm over something and the other was not so inspired, we would still support each other and go along to see where it took us. With Chicago, as we began to write and particularly as we worked on the score, I began to fall in love with the piece and felt very strongly about its run on Broadway.


"So, it was very startling to me after we opened in 1975 to receive such lacklustre reviews. We had some bad reviews; we had some good reviews but overall nothing wildly overboard. The show ran for two years and was a moderate success, but disappointing to say the least.

"Then, lo and behold, all these years later, the show was revived into a stunning production and became (and still is) an enormous success. Although the revival is more spare and stark then the original, it is the same choreographic approach, the same dialogue (with expert trims by Tommy Thompson), the same orchestration and the same attitude towards life. The two productions are basically the same and the question I've had all these wonderful years is why? Why, has the revival been so much more successful than its predecessor?

"I've yet to get a satisfactory explanation for this phenomenon. Perhaps it was the O.J. Simpson case or the increased awareness of corruption in our society. Perhaps our culture had changed in the 21 years between the two productions or the climate and competition of the rest of Broadway is different. I still don't know, but whatever the case, I'm glad to have the mystery."

Carmen Pretorius plays Roxie Hart in the musical Chicago.
Carmen Pretorius plays Roxie Hart in the musical Chicago.

When Chicago arrives in Auckland, it means we can expect, according to show star Carmen Pretorius, a sexy, world-class masterpiece of musical theatre:

"This is the longest-running Broadway show for a very good reason. It is fantastic in all the arenas where one would expect a show to be fantastic. From a script that is so slick, it barely leaves room to breathe, to a score that literally melts the heart and fires the soul. Writers John Kander and Fred Ebb are truly masterful.

"And who can forget the incredible Bob Fosse, dance inventor, artist and legend? This show is the version that was choreographed by Fosse's muse and partner, Anne Reinking. The ensemble prowl the stage like 'amoeba panthers'; the characters are real and meaty and the story is relevant and classic. I am proud to say that we have a mind-blowing cast, including some old Chicago alumni. This is a world-class production, overseen by Mr Gary Chryst himself (Anne Reinking's right-hand man).

"This is a story of an age-old social phenomenon that has fascinated and intrigued humanity since the beginning of time. Celebrity. Infamy. Notoriety. Sex. Power. Deceit. Female strength. I think that this piece continues to be relevant and popular because society continues to grapple with its obsession over fame and 'the American dream'. These obsessions are not new ... they are, essentially, part of the human condition. This piece allows the viewer to confront these themes in an incredibly well-written, masterfully choreographed and sexy way. It is the Shakespeare of musical theatre. What makes it even more intriguing, is that this is a true story."

A scene from the musical Chicago, which touches down in Auckland this month. Photo / Jeremy Daniel
A scene from the musical Chicago, which touches down in Auckland this month. Photo / Jeremy Daniel

Barry Weissler, who with partner Fran, has received seven Tony Awards for his productions agrees:

"I think it's because Chicago is probably the most timely show on Broadway today. No could ever have imagined, back in 1975, that the piece could be so pertinent. It talks about celebrity and the reaching for a position in society where, even though you've done some bad things, you use this to make yourself a celebrity. Does that remind you of anyone? I think it's powerful because it makes a statement and it does so in a way where you're smiling through the realisation."