CHICAGO: It Ought to Be a Movie, They Said, and Said . . .

SO why did it take 27 years to make a movie of the hit Broadway musical "Chicago"? With a classy pedigree, a hot, jazzy score and a story crammed with sex, murder and courtroom drama, it seems perfect for the movies. Speculation about who would play the juicy leading roles filled gossip columns for years. But none of the boldface names supposedly attached ever stuck. Was "Chicago" destined to remain a movieland bridesmaid but never a bride? Here's the lowdown on who woulda, coulda, shoulda — and who finally dunnit, and how.

THE FOSSE FILES "Chicago" was born when the director Bob Fosse and the songwriting team John Kander and Fred Ebb (the gang behind "Cabaret" the movie) turned Maurine Watkins's play of the same name into an all-that-jazz Broadway musical. The play told the true story of Roxie Hart, a married woman who blew away her unlucky lover and then hired a flashy lawyer to finagle an acquittal. Watkins's play had already gone Hollywood twice, in a 1927 silent, "Chicago," and in the 1942 "Roxie Hart," starring Ginger Rogers as Roxie and Adolphe Menjou as her mouthpiece, the razzle-dazzlin' Billy Flynn.

Fosse cast Gwen Verdon as Roxie and Jerry Orbach as Billy. To goose the tale with more lust and vengeance, the musical plumped up a minor character named Velma Kelly. Played by Chita Rivera, Velma was a vaudeville star jailed for snuffing the other half of her sister act after finding Sis in the sheets with her husband. In the musical, Roxie and Velma compete to see who can best turn tabloid celebrity — the only kind that counts — into show-biz success.

"Chicago" opened to mixed reviews. Some first-nighters were appalled — appalled — at its undisguised cynicism. And when awards season came around, "Chicago" was steamrollered by that other show-biz musical — you may have heard of it — "A Chorus Line." Still, "Chicago" ran for two years, and plenty of theatergoers who saw it back then would happily take the stand to testify that the staging was Fosse at his peak and that Kander and Ebb had written their very best score.

Fosse had talked about making the movie with Verdon but never came up with a hook for transferring it from stage to screen. When Fosse died in 1987, Martin Richards, the show's original co-producer, thought the movie idea was kaput. "I threw the script into the drawer, thinking it'd never be done," he said.

THE GELBART GO-ROUND In 1994, Richards signed with Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of Miramax, to make "Chicago" into a film. The first director they tried to tango with was Baz Luhrmann, whose "Strictly Ballroom" had just opened in the United States. He said no. So did Herbert Ross ("Footloose") and Milos Forman ("Hair"). Meanwhile, Larry Gelbart ("Tootsie") came on board as writer.

In 1996, Encores! produced a concert version of "Chicago" starring Ann Reinking as Roxie, Bebe Neuwirth as Velma and James Naughton as the lawyer who cares only about love. And Joel Grey was Roxie's hapless husband, Amos. The show got such raves that it moved to Broadway, where it is still running (though the original cast is long gone). So with a new screenplay by Gelbart, a hit revival on Broadway and an uncanny imitation unfolding at the O. J. Simpson trial, "Chicago" suddenly looked like a hot movie property. Again.

THE MADONNA MOMENT Having recently pulled off "Evita," Madonna was keen to play Velma Kelly. And once she got involved, the buzz around "Chicago" got really loud. Suddenly, everybody wanted in.

Goldie Hawn wanted to play Roxie. Rosie O'Donnell wanted to play the prison matron Mama Morton. John Travolta wanted to play Billy Flynn. Nathan Lane wanted to play Amos Hart.

Good cast so far, but what about a director? Alan Parker, who had directed "Evita," was mentioned, as was David Fincher, the director of "Seven" — he had made some music videos with Madonna. For a split second, Robert Iscove, who had directed a successful television version of "Cinderella," had the job. Finally, in early 1998, Miramax announced that the director would be Nicholas Hytner.

THE HYTNER REPORT Although his most recent film was the super-serious "Crucible," Hytner had staged big musicals ("Carousel," "Miss Saigon") on Broadway. But almost as soon as he signed on, the "Chicago" package started falling apart. Rosie O'Donnell was out, to be replaced possibly by Bette Midler, or maybe Pam Grier. Maybe John Travolta wouldn't play Billy Flynn after all. Maybe it would be Kevin Kline or Rupert Everett. And Hytner and Gelbart started coming down with a case of creative differences.

"They didn't see eye to eye," Richards said. Goodbye, Larry Gelbart.

Hytner brought in a new screenwriter, Wendy Wasserstein — they had just made "The Object of My Affection" together. But they lost their leading lady when Madonna dropped out to make another movie. Hytner tried to entice Nicole Kidman into reaching for Velma's gun, but she was cast in Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge." So everybody decided to be his own best friend and move on.

THE MARSHALL PLAN In the spring of 1998, a revival of "Cabaret" that Sam Mendes had staged in London moved to Broadway. When Richards saw it, he decided Mendes was the man for "Chicago." But Mendes was already wrapped up in "American Beauty." In December 2000, Mendes's co-director on "Cabaret," Rob Marshall, met with Miramax to talk about the movie version of another Broadway musical, "Rent." Marshall asked if he could share his thoughts about "Chicago."

They turned out to be the right thoughts. "The tricky thing about the show is that it takes place on a vaudeville stage, and all the numbers are played directly to the audience," Marshall said. "That doesn't work in a movie. I explained that we could see the piece through Roxie's eyes. She's a wannabe, a dreamer, who wants to be a star like Velma Kelly. Conceptually she sees her life unfold in front of her as a vaudeville show. So the movie juxtaposes the grim reality of Chicago, 1928, with Roxie's fantasy world."

Weinstein, at Miramax, opined that while there might be a little bit of good in everyone, there was a lot of good in Marshall. He loved the idea, and suggested several possible writers. The name that clicked with Marshall was Bill Condon ("Gods and Monsters"). Then, because a director can't do it alone, Marshall began casting about for a cast. He picked Catherine Zeta-Jones to be Velma. He got Richard Gere as Billy Flynn. (They had both had musical-theater experience, believe it or not.) Marshall was good to Queen Latifah and hired her to play Mama Morton; and for Roxie's "Mr. Cellophane" of a husband, he got John C. Reilly.

Marshall said the toughest job was finding the right hot honey to play Roxie Hart. He conducted elaborate work sessions with more than 10 actresses. Then he went for Renιe Zellweger.

Richards recalled that he and Marshall had lunch with Zellweger at the Four Seasons before she was cast. "We knew she could act the role. She'd never danced, but she was a gymnast. When she opened her mouth at lunch and sang `Somewhere Over the Rainbow,' we knew we were home."

The movie is to open, at long last, on Dec. 27.

New York Times, September 8, 2002