|Vol. 17, No. 11||Nov. 13, 1997|
Tom Pauly, English, knows all about the influence of the press. Not only is it the subject of his research, it's also played a role in his own life. You could say the power of the press has taken him from the hallowed halls of academia to the footlights of Broadway.
In a nutshell, because the New York press helped make a smash hit of the revival of the musical Chicago, Pauly's book by the same name, about the original comedy and its origins-sensational press coverage of real life murders in Chicago in the 1920s-is doing well, too.
If the revival had been a flop, the book probably would have remained an academic work. Instead, it's selling in the lobby of the Sam Schubert Theatre in New York where the Tony Award-winning Chicago continues to draw capacity crowds. There are plans to sell it in conjunction with the touring company as well.
Similarly, theatre critics' rave reviews of the musical helped Pauly get an article he wrote on the show's origins published in The New York Times.
"A week before the musical's opening night, a Times editor called to say they were interested in my article but would only run it if the show was a success. If the show was a flop, it would be, 'thanks anyway,'" Pauly explained.
Obviously, the show was hit, the article was published and the next thing Pauly knew Court TV was inviting him to appear on a show to discuss Chicago, and press coverage of crime. And, Pauly is not unaware of the irony here.
"If the press hadn't liked the show, if it hadn't gotten rave reviews, this wouldn't have happened," he said.
It's been an unexpected flurry of activity for something that began in a rather low-key way.
As Pauly was researching crimes from years gone by, he started noticing the public's fascination with the trials of O.J. Simpson, the Menendez brothers and Amy Fisher.
"I was interested in crime as it got fictionalized in the 1920s. Then, like now, there was an enormous amount of actual crime being conveyed into movies, plays and novels," he said.
In his research, he stumbled upon Chicago, a comedy originally produced on Broadway in 1926. It was written by Maurine Watkins, who as a young reporter for the Chicago Tribune, had her humorous news reports run on the front page and made media darlings of some of the women killers on Chicago's "Murderess's Row." Two of these women-tough-talking Belva Gaertner and Beulah Annan, whom Watkins called "the prettiest murderess" were the basis for the fictional characters in her play.
"It was the perfect story for my research," Pauly said. "Her comedy was a good example of fiction inspired by facts. [The plot] is a reminder that lurid murders were as aggressively commercialized 70 years ago as they are now.
"Roxie's (the lead character) resourceful progression toward acquittal is a rollicking indictment of a news-as-entertainment culture. Much of the humor derives from the fact that everyone...prefers Roxie's outrageous fabrications to the hard evidence of her lover's corpse.
"Her transformation from vengeful killer to tabloid saint feeds a voracious public appetite for diversions and earns her celebrity, exoneration and a career in show business.
"Chicago is not just a witty portrait of how crimes get converted into personal gain: it is itself an exploitation of actual events," he said.
To illustrate his point, Pauly's volume contains Watkins' newspaper stories and the script of her play.
Pauly's reprinting of Watkins' script marks its first reappearance since 1926, and the first republication of her newspaper articles.
The play's 1926 success (182 performances) brought conflicting emotions to Watkins, who surpressed the fact that the show had been developed on her newspaper articles.
"[She] worried about how her audience might respond, were it to know how involved she had been in the process she was mocking," Pauly said.
In later years, she is said to have been overcome with guilt for her role in the acquittal of the real-life murderers. Although the play was the basis for the 1928 movie Chicago and the 1942 film, Roxie Hart, starring Ginger Rogers, Watkins never again released the rights to the play during her lifetime.
In the 1950s, director and choreographer Bob Fosse became interested in converting Watkins' comedy into a musical.
However, it took him almost 20 years to secure the rights which were not released until after Watkins' death in 1969. Pauly ran into similar frustrations securing the rights for his work as well, and fortunately had a signed contract for them before the recent revival ever opened.
Many, including Pauly, think the 1975 Fosse production would have been more successful than its 898 performances and be better remembered had it not opened in the same season as A Chorus Line.
The 1996 revival netted Tony Awards for stars James Naughton and Bebe Neuwirth and director Walter Bobbie, and earned the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical. Ann Reinking, a Fosse protégé, also starred in the revival and won a Tony for her choreography. (She has since left the show and her part is being played by Marilu Henner.)
The production also received a Tony for lighting and is being planned as a movie with Madonna in the lead role.
Chicago continues to be the hottest ticket on Broadway, and tickets have to be purchased three or four months in advance, Pauly said.
And, as Pauly has discovered, it all started with young Maurine Watkins, her reports of the lovely Beulah Annan faking a pregnancy to win jury sympathy and her quotes of Belva Gaertner's memorable reflection, "Gin and guns-either one is bad enough, but together they get you a dickens of a mess."