|Written by||Maurine Dallas Watkins|
|Date premiered||December 30, 1926|
Chicago is a 1926 play written by Maurine Dallas Watkins. It was based on two unrelated 1924 cases of two women, Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner, who were both suspected and later acquitted for murder, that Watkins had covered for the Chicago Tribune as a reporter. The play would later inspire a 1927 movie; Roxie Hart, a 1942 movie; and a 1975 stage musical, which in turn inspired the 2002 Best Picture-winning film. Watkins wrote the script (originally titled "Brave Little Woman") as a class assignment while attending the Yale Drama School. The play debuted on Broadway at the Sam Harris Theatre in late December 1926, directed by George Abbott, where it ran for 172 performances. To avoid confusion with the musical play and rights held by that show's producers and creators, the play is now titled Play Ball when it is performed.
Annan, the model for the character of Roxie Hart, was 23 when she was accused of the April 3, 1924, murder of Harry Kalstedt. The Tribune reported that Annan played the foxtrot record "Hula Lou" over and over for two hours before calling her husband to say she killed a man who "tried to make love to her". She was found "not guilty" on May 25, 1924. Velma is based on Gaertner, who was a cabaret singer. The body of Walter Law was discovered slumped over the steering wheel of Gaertner's abandoned car on March 12, 1924. Two police officers testified that they had seen a woman getting into the car and shortly thereafter heard gunshots. A bottle of gin and an automatic pistol were found on the floor of the car. Gaertner was acquitted on June 6, 1924. Lawyers William Scott Stewart and W. W. O'Brien were models for a composite character in Chicago, "Billy Flynn."
Watkins' sensational columns documenting these trials proved so popular that she decided to write a play based on them. The show received both popular and critical acclaim and even made it to Broadway in 1926, running for 172 performances. Cecil B. DeMille produced a silent film version, Chicago (1927), starring former Mack Sennett bathing beauty Phyllis Haver as Roxie Hart. In comparing the play to the silent movie, critic Michael Phillips writes, "Watkins' play is harsh, satirical and cynical; the movie, less so. It's more of a melodrama, and to appease the censor boards, producer DeMille meted out punishment to his sinning characters where none existed previously." The story was later remade as Roxie Hart (1942) starring Ginger Rogers; but, in this version, Roxie was accused of murder without having really committed it.
In the 1960s, Gwen Verdon read the play and asked her husband, Bob Fosse, about the possibility of creating a musical adaptation. Fosse approached playwright Watkins numerous times to buy the rights, but she repeatedly declined. However, upon her death in 1969, her estate sold the rights to producer Richard Fryer, Verdon, and Fosse. John Kander and Fred Ebb began work on the musical score, modeling each number on a traditional vaudeville number or a vaudeville performer. This format made explicit the show's comparison between "justice", "show-business", and contemporary society. Ebb and Fosse penned the book of the musical, and Fosse also directed and choreographed.
- Machinal, another play from the 1920s, inspired by a real-life case of a woman convicted of murder.
- Phillips, Michael (2010-04-08). "Silent 1927 'Chicago' to make a musical comeback". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 2010-06-02.
- "Stagings of Chicago". Retrieved 2010-06-02.[dead link]
- Tomell, Renee (2010-03-15). "'Play Ball’ — inspiration for ‘Chicago’ — hits Geneva stage". On The Go. Retrieved 2010-06-02.
- Grubb, Kevin Boyd (1989). Razzle Dazzle: The Life and Work of Bob Fosse. New York: St. Martin's Press. pp. 193–203. ISBN 0-312-03414-8.
- McConnell, Virginia A.Fatal Fortune: the Death of Chicago's Millionaire Orphan, p. 62 Fatal Fortune: the Death of Chicago's Millionaire Orphan (books.google), Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005, ISBN 0-275-98473-7. p. 62