Tuesday, July 18, 2006

On the Subject of Chicago ... Locally

Chicago will be playing at the Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck. Opening this Friday, this production features a number of actors and actresses I have worked with before, so I am pretty excited about going to see it and supporting them. Unfortunately my schedule won't allow a visit until August 6th!

Chicago is a musical, based on the play Chicago by Maurine Dallas Watkins. Its book was by Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb.

The Story:
The play Chicago was Watkins' retelling of two very public trials for murder that occurred in Chicago in 1924, those of Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner. Watkins had been a reporter for the Chicago Tribune and later wrote a play based on her coverage.

The Show:
The play was produced in 1975, starring Chita Rivera as Velma Kelly, Gwen Verdon as Roxie Hart, and Jerry Orbach as Billy Flynn. Liza Minnelli served as a replacement for Gwen Verdon for a month in 1975, and her Broadway "comeback" generated publicity which helped lengthen the run of the show. When Verdon left the show, Fosse's girlfriend Ann Reinking stepped into the role.

As part of the City Center "Encores!" Series, the show was revived in 1996, directed by Walter Bobbie and choreographed "in the style of Bob Fosse" by Ann Reinking. It starred Joel Grey, James Naughton, Bebe Neuwirth, and Ann Reinking. This version, which transferred to Broadway, opened on November 14, 1996 and is still running as of June 2006. It also continues to play in the West End at the Adelphi Theatre until 22 April, and at the Cambridge Theatre from 28 April 2006.

The musical was adapted for the movie Chicago in 2002, starring Renée Zellweger as Roxie and Catherine Zeta-Jones as Velma. The story was told by staging the vaudeville acts as fantasies of Roxie Hart, by eliminating some songs, lightening the character of Roxie, and by changing the role of Mary Sunshine from male to female.

The History:
On April 3, 1924, in the bedroom she shared with her current husband, Beulah Sheriff Annan shot Harry Kalstedt in the back. She sat drinking cocktails and playing a foxtrot record, Hula Lou, over and over for about two hours as she sat watching Kalstedt die, then called her husband to say she'd killed a man who "tried to make love" to her. Beulah's story changed over time: first, claimed she shot Kalstedt in self-defense, fearing rape; later, she confessed to the murder. Then she claimed she had told Kalstedt she was leaving him, and that he reacted angrily and she shot him. Prosecutors surmised that Kalstedt had threatened to leave Beulah and she shot him in a jealous rage.

Her final story, at trial, was that she had told Kalstedt she was pregnant, they struggled and...that's when they both reached for the gun. Herr husband Albert Annan stood by her, pulled his money out of the bank to get her the best lawyers, and stood by her throughout the trial. The day after the trial ended in acquittal, his wife announced, "I have left my husband. He is too slow." And she divorced him.

Here's how Watkins covered "Beautiful" Beulah's trial:"I'm the only witness," Beulah boasted. "Harry's dead and they'll have to believe my story."But which one? The confession she made to Assistant State's Attorney Roy C. Woods (with a court reporter present) in her apartment at 9 o'clock the night of the crime, when she said she shot Kalstedt, whom she barely knew, to save her honor as he approached her in attack? Or the statement that she made at the Hyde Park police station (also with court reporters present) three hours later? Then she broke down and admitted that she shot him in the back. Her case was taken up by mob lawyer William W. O'Brien, and Maurine Dallas Watkins was assigned to cover the trial.

One of the defense ploys was announcing during the trial that Beulah was pregnant: she was not. Watkins' played up the "sob-story" aspects of both cases and her coverage may well have played a role in the not guilty verdicts both obtained. With these two additions, there were six women on death row in Chicago, but Watkins dismissed four of them as unnewsworthy: "Two of those left are colored: Minnie Nichols and Rose Epps. The other two, Sabella Nitti and Lela Foster, are middle aged and well, neither is cursed with the grace or the beauty of Diana. Then too, Beulah and Belva killed young men friends, and these ladies only 'bumped off' their husbands."

Watkins played up the exciting aspects of her two cases: two "jazz" babes corrupted by men and liquor, the one of them, Beulah Annan, the "beauty of the cell block", and the other, Belva Gaertner, characterized as the "most stylish of Murderess Row." Gaertner's story was that Law might have killed himself: she was acquitted.

Another sensational murder case was soon to occur in Chicago, Bobby Franks's body was discovered May 23, 1924; Beulah was acquitted of murder two days later, on May 25, 1924.

Watkins did some reporting on the Leopold and Loeb case, which quickly overshadowed the coverage of the Belvah Gaertner verdict, but she soon left journalism to take up playwrighting, studying under George Pierce Baker at Yale University. As a class assignment in his famous 47 Workshop playwrighting course, she wrote a fictionalized version of the two murders she had covered as a reporter, calling it first The Brave Little Woman, then Chicago, or Play Ball, and finally Chicago.

Beulah Annan became "Roxie Hart"; Belva Gaertner became "Velma Kelly". Albert Annan became "Amos Hart". The two lawyers, William Scott Stewart and W. W. O'Brien, became a composite character, "Billy Flynn". Why these names? There's only one that has a clear antecedent. In 1913, near Watkins's hometown of Crawfordsville, Indiana, a man named Walter Runyan shot and killed Arlie Stull to stop him from telling Walter's wife that Walter was having an affair with a woman named Roxie Hart!

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1 comment:

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Erica, What an exceptional historical perspective you shared. I knew that Chicago had roots in reality, but the detail you provide is astounding.

You mentioned Leopold and Loeb -- have you ever seen a production of "Never the Sinner"? It's an amazing play (I'm still hoping for an opportunity to see the musical "Thrill Me" somewhere).

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