The Not-So Secrets to Chicago's Success

Chris Peterson

The show doesn't feature flying witches nor casts gloriously costumed as members of the animal kingdom. It doesn't even feature a love story. Yet somehow, someway, a re-imagined revival has endured for almost 20 years and is now the 2nd longest running show in Broadway history.

But what Chicago has done isn't some sort of miracle. They've just succeeded in areas that every Broadway show aims for- good timing, smart casting and financial savvy.

What I give the creative team the most credit for, is taking a musical that wasn't well received to begin with and turning it into a New York institution. A lot of people forget that when the original production opened in 1975, it was met with mixed reviews by critics. And despite the fact that it was nominated for 11 Tonys, it went home empty handed while A Chorus Line dominated that evening.

So getting back to what has made this revival so successful. The first is good timing. After the original production closed, the material would lay dormant until 1996 when Walter Bobbie and Ann Reinking staged a concert version of the show for NY City Center's Encore! series. After a much buzzed about run, the production was reworked and moved to the Richard Rodgers Theatre and the rest is history.

What was different in 1996 rather than in 1975 was that America was now becoming fascinated by the celebrity criminal. Remember, these were the times where names like Lorena Bobbitt, Lyle and Erik Menendez were household names. We had just gone through the OJ Simpson trial. The timing for a show like this was never better.

Combine topical subject matter with the sexiest choreography in New York, and you've got something. Since then, the production has been aided by the ever popular movie version which won the Oscar for Best Picture. It's the first time I can remember that a movie version of a current running show won the award.

Chicago has also benefited from some smart casting as well. They've seemed to master the art of celebrity casting.

Some of those who have graced these roles have included Usher, Michael C. Hall, Jerry Springer, Brooke Shields, Patrick Swayze, Billy Ray Cyrus, Gretchen Mol, Rita Wilson, Alan Thicke, Melanie Griffith, Taye Diggs, Carol Woods, John O'Hurley, Ashlee Simpson, Jennifer Nettles, Marilu Henner, Christie Brinkley, Kara DioGuardi, and Sofía Vergara.

While some of these have been better than others, what can't be denied is the fresh buzz and interest that comes with every new celebrity to fill these shoes.

The production is about to receive a fresh jolt of energy with Brandy Norwood completing her "Remember Me?!?" run to make way for Dancing with the Stars Champ, Rumer Willis on August 10th. 

The third not so secret is financial savvy. The concert version of the show was a scaled down production with a minimalistic set. That same design philosophy was brought when they moved to Broadway. With that kind of operating cost, you're setting yourself up to make a lot of money. One former show source told me that the weekly operating costs are among the lowest in New York.

With low costs, tickets to see the show are incredibly affordable to tourists and theatre lovers alike. Weekly grosses have hovered around $500,000 ever since it opened and are showing no signs of slowing down.

As I mentioned above, the revival of Chicago is going to be celebrating its 20th Anniversary next year with no plans to close any time soon. While there certainly have been bigger shows, those shows have come and gone and yet, a production consisting of nothing more than chairs and dancers has become one of the most successful productions of all time.