Chicago: First, a quick synopsis: Roxie Hart kills her lover when she learns he was using her for sex and indeed was not her ticket to a singing career. Earlier that same night, the famous singer Velma Kelly killed her sister and husband for sleeping with each other. They both end up in the same prison, and from there on out the story becomes a tangle of lies and greed as each woman vies for the spotlight any way she can get it.

Though I have never seen the stage production, I can guess what it’s like: lots of flashy costumes, crazy dance numbers, and relatively sparse sets. That’s how musicals generally are, and that’s fine. Songs can be dialogue, interior monologue, or exposition in a musical without feeling like the story has been interrupted. So what if a bunch of chorus girls wearing absurdly large headgear pop up in the middle of a courtroom? In a musical, that’s perfectly fine. A movie, however, is different. The sets are detailed, realistic – too realistic to make said chorus girls look anything other than out of place. Things have to start out a little surreal and larger-than-life, as in Moulin Rouge or Singin’ in the Rain, for the audience to not be startled by people suddenly bursting into song.

Chicago takes a different approach. Instead of incorporating the songs directly into the story, they are performed as sort of dream sequences, mostly in Roxie’s mind. Whenever a song begins, the action cuts back and forth between the real world and an imaginary vaudeville. This of course could not happen in the theater, as the costume changes would be impossible, but it is an interesting attempt to bring the stage to the screen without actually blending the two worlds together.

I can’t decide how I feel about this approach. On the one hand, it provides opportunities for some interesting symbolism – the husband as the sad clown, the lawyer as the puppeteer – but on the other hand, the constant switching back and forth is distracting. I did stop and think about the film from an artistic angle for quite a while afterwards, however, so in the end I suppose that comes out in its favor. But I’m sure the stage show is better.

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