Of Problematic Representations and the Dichotomy of Intentions versus Bias: Jazz in Chicago, the Musical
In their respective reviews for The New York Times of the Chicago musical and film, writers Leah Frank and Elvis Mitchell state: “The show's fascination hinges on the fact that it relies on theatrical razzle-dazzle to make entertaining its coldly cynical story of two murderesses who parlay the lurid press coverage of their crimes into a vaudeville career. There are no sympathetic characters in “Chicago”, and the tendency is to root for deceit over decency.” (Frank); “The retread nature of the material, centering on America's thrill-hungry, low-attention-span press and public, is undeniable. This hoary attack on sensationalism has been covered in almost every newspaper picture of the 1930’s.” (Mitchell)
Indeed, both reviews touch upon the fact that Chicago, one of the most celebrated musicals of the last century and onward, has continued to enjoy success because of the entertaining way it handles its sensitive subject matter, as well as its continued relevancy. With its Roaring Twenties setting and jazzy soundtrack, Chicago seems like a rounded exploration of the societal dynamics which facilitated jazz’ advancement. As we, in the 21st century, get further from its historical setting, the musical is often hailed as a brilliant snapshot of the bygone era, with all its intricacies.
But a more critical analysis of Chicago begs a certain nuance: important historical elements are given little platform, when they are not completely overlooked. Moreover, key figures in the development of jazz in the context of theatre and show business in the city of Chicago are sorely disregarded, which leads me to consider the following question: is the selective portrayal of jazz in the 1920s in Chicago the result of its creators’ personal blind spots and cultural bias, or is it representative of the complex social and historical dynamics of the time?
Beyond the fact that this musical is one of my favorites, this study was not done just for the sake of it. It's been interesting, recently, to re-explore the many stories I loved growing up, with the added weight of what I know now about the world, that I did not know then, and it’s been simply eye-opening. Interestingly, some stories stand the test of times while others begin to look wholly different, opening up new avenues of conversation for me. This, more than anything, is what's been gratifying.
Deconstructing this complex question demands deliberate care, which is why I chose to break it into three parts: a first, devoted to exploring the many ways in which Chicago captures the essence of the Roaring Twenties accurately; a second, which puts in sharp relief the many ways in which it does not (which includes inadvertently participating in the long tradition of pejorative and/or negligent receptions of the artistic contributions of social minorities); and a last which offers the aforementioned nuance, by scrutinizing the dichotomy between the creators’ intentions and their possible biases, and the semantics involved in the complicated issue of jazz as music or as a metaphor.
Bear with me guys.
Although Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb’s musical is, at its core, a story about crime and the corruption of institutions, it manages to also tell the story of the Roaring Twenties, through its characters, especially Roxie Hart, Velma Kelly, Amos Hart and Billy Flynn. Scott Miller interprets the musical in the following way: “The primary premise of Chicago is that the world of crooked lawyers and a public who craves violence is as frightening in its own way as the crimes themselves” (qtd. in Scott Miller 2000).
Indeed, all four are illustrative of a different facet of the historical period: Roxie Hart is a chorus girl who dreams of becoming an actress, or at the very least attaining some level of fame, if she can’t actualize her ambitions. She is hedonistic, a young woman who lives her life very differently from women of yore, and does not burden herself with the consequences of her actions. But that is not the most interesting thing about Roxie: it’s fact that she murders her lover as he is leaving her, and with the help of Billy Flynn, cons the public and the justice system into acquitting her of the crime (of which her conscience is, incidentally, never once bothered): she is the modernized woman of the 1920s, modeled on chorus girls and flappers of the time.
Velma Kelly, the weathered and cynical vaudeville singer who also relies on Billy Flynn to acquit her of the murder of her sister and husband, is representative of a different kind of woman. She is married, unlike Roxie, which would suggest more traditionalism, but unlike her, she is much more cutthroat and has experience with circumventing the status quo. She represents the Prohibition-era entertainer and city dweller who is unafraid to break rules in order to get what she wants and make a statement to the establishment and institutions.
Billy Flynn, the successful, entitled, arrogant lawyer uses his questionable talents to do his job, regardless of the moral and ethical fallout: he represents the 1920s Industrial Age, with its decadence, opportunism and opulence. In many ways, the three are no different from the rampant Chicago gangsters of the day, as Scott Miller points out: “Chicago is set in the middle 1920s, a time of public rebellion (mostly against prohibition, but against other legislated morality as well) and tremendous lawlessness” (qtd. in Scott Miller, 2000).
On the opposite spectrum, Amos Hart, Roxie’s doltish husband who stands by her despite her affairs, her incarceration and even a false pregnancy, is the personification of the dying traditions of the past, in the face of a new, exciting—and often overwhelming—age. Professor Jeffrey Jenkins weighs in on what made this particular ere so inspiring for playwrights, noting that although the post-World War II era brought along the “golden age” of Broadway (200), Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb capture the intricacies of this sliver in time, in between two wars.
More importantly than its historical accuracy, it’s Chicago’s ties to the entertainment scene, and jazz in particular, which have cemented it as one of the most celebrated musicals. Civil rights activist Dempsey Travis asserts: “From 1893 to 1950 there was not a single city in America that could compete with the Chicago jazz scene” (85), and indeed, the musical makes that relationship even more evident. The characters operate within the world of jazz and show business, and the plot is advanced through the iconic musical numbers composed by John Kander. Chicago’s emergence as one of the major hubs for the expansion of jazz during the Great Migration was undoubtedly fostered by the city’s societal structure: jazz finds itself at home in speakeasies and cabaret clubs which begin to emerge in 1920s Chicago.
Furthermore, it starts to cross over into the theatre arts, and eventually Broadway. Author David Savran explores this symbiotic relationship, often referring to William Howland Kenney:
The crucial role of the popular theatre in appropriating, developing, and propagating jazz underlines the fact that there was significant overlap between jazz and theatre both performatively and institutionally. During Prohibition, jazz cabarets and nightclubs often would stage elaborate floor shows that patrons could watch (and participate in as social dancers). … [T]hese speakeasies provided a highly theatricalized setting in which “new styles of personal liberation — clothes, insiders' slang, cigarettes, bootleg gin, marijuana (called ‘gage’), sexual expressiveness, and interracial mingling” functioned “to add drama to the new music.” Particularly in Chicago, Kenney reports, “cabaret floor shows . . . put musicians on display and focused increased attention on visual dimensions of musical performance”. (461)
Vaudeville is particularly significant; not only is Velma Kelly a vaudeville performer, but the genre introduces a very specific musical crossover which occurred in the 1920s: the “Jazz-Vaudeville drama”. These plays used elements of jazz and vaudeville to frame societal satires and critiques. According to David T. Turner, “[o]ne of the most promising experiments was that of Jazz-Vaudeville drama, an attempt by left-wing dramatists to use the vigor and originality of jazz and vaudeville to provide a rhythm and a tempo for their criticisms of American society” (110). Later, he states: “As vaudeville provided a method, so jazz provided a rhythm and a tempo” (112). This is echoed by Paul Wittke who asserts:
The most popular theatrical entertainments of the period, vaudeville and musical comedy, quickly accommodated themselves to and literally cashed in on the new musical craze by using jazz as scoring or underscoring for songs, dances, and scenes. (275)
With its scathing takedown of the manipulative and shallow mentality of the American people during the Roaring Twenties, set to the tune of songs rife with intricate symbolism, Chicago is, in many ways, the authentic “Jazz-Vaudeville”. Jazz as a musical form is not completely overshadowed by the theatrical aspect of that relationship, however. “All That Jazz” contains many elements referencing the scene, as well as notable figures: “I hear that Father Dip/Is gonna blow the blues/And all that jazz”. “Hot Honey Rag” is reminiscent of ragtime music, which was often incorporated into jazz. “We Both Reached For the Gun” is quite similar to E.C. Cobb and his Corneater’s “Transatlantic Stomp”, recorded in Chicago circa 1929, and “Mr. Cellophane” eerily resembles Louis Armstrong and the Dukes of Dixieland’s “South”, among many other examples.
Beyond its iconic score and its close authenticity to the setting, it’s the themes explored in the musical which have contributed to its longevity: in his review for the Huffington Post, David M. Morton writes:
Ever inspiring and feeling even more timely now then [sic] when it was written, the female driven double murderess song and dancer is a romp through the corrupt prison and court systems of the 1920s. It feels as upbeat, smart and on point today as when it was written in 1975.
Indeed, the universal themes of the American public’s obsession with sensationalism and calamity are as relevant today as they were during then, albeit with a different setting. As such, it’s the groundbreaking way that the musical approaches themes of female sexuality in the 1920s which root it firmly in its era. The Roaring Twenties are notable for heralding efforts for the social emancipation of women, by women. These changes, however, were superficial, and small in comparison with the changes in decades to come, as the double standards women were still being subjected to could attest. Nonetheless, Chicago explores those themes without condemning or passing judgement on the women at the forefront of the story. In fact, they are the main characters, three-dimensional, fully fleshed-out and human; apart from Billy Flynn, the men of Chicago are props. This is all the more revolutionary considering that women in entertainment were either objectified, or scorned. In her analysis of this particular subject, Angela Latham writes:
When a woman's body came to stand almost exclusively for her sexual potential, as it certainly did in some of the most popular entertainments of this decade, her human worth was also, more often than not, summarized on the basis of her physical allure. When she ceased to appeal to her audience as an object of sexual pleasure, she usually ceased to have a career. Clearly, there were those as well to whom the care with which a woman cloaked rather than displayed her sexuality was a crucial measure of her worth. (457)
This is echoed by Judith L. Stephens:
In October, 1927, seven years after the vote had been won, Current History published a series of articles on “The New Woman.” The editors claimed impartiality but stated that “There is perhaps no aspect of present day social history more controversial in character or more delicate in its implications than that of the new status of women”. (183)
The emancipation of women was often accompanied by reactions which ranged from anxious and hypocritical criticism to derision and condescension. The latter is especially true in the case of chorus girls like Roxie Hart. This is apparent in the musical, in which Roxie desperately tries to break into show business, but the stigma of her occupation makes an unspoken pariah out of her. Angela Latham writes:
Female choruses were indispensable to several theatrical genres, including … vaudeville …. Notwithstanding their inevitable presence in the theatre and in the press, the individual women of the chorus were and remain, in many respects, invisible. … [T]hey were routinely codified as a group rather than noted as individuals. The monolithic identity of chorus girls seemed itself a curious by-product of the unanimity suggested by their collective performances. These women whose bodies were everywhere on display in the American Theatre … were the subject of voluminous conjecture and caricature in the popular press. The folklore that accumulated about chorus girls not only distorted their real identities but also contained them within an undesirable image. They were considered “gold diggers”, vamps, unintelligent, and generally of weak moral fiber. (468)
Instead of shunning those stereotypes, Chicago embraces, then upends them: in fact, all the women are affixed with stereotypes which they challenge. Roxie Hart, knowing full well how women like her are viewed, simultaneously uses her sexuality and pretends to be naïve in order to manipulate her way to the top of the social ladder; Mama Morton, the prison matron, is a shrewd and opportunistic businesswoman; Velma Kelly, a woman scorned, does not wallow in her misery or stay with an unworthy husband. She takes her cold-blooded revenge, and in “All That Jazz” croons “No, I'm no one's wife/But, oh, I love my life”.
As such, Chicago, with its setting and its handling of controversial subject matters appears to be a well-rounded portrayal of 1920s life. On the surface, it gives a voice to underrepresented members of the time, namely women, and puts them at the center of the narrative, seemingly contradicting our thesis which states that the musical’s viewpoint is selective. But a closer look makes this assumption rather dubious: Chicago is not problematic in its representation, but rather, in its lack thereof. The many complexities of the time which are not present become glaring when one studies them more closely, and for reasons which will be explored below.
The most flagrant example is the lack of minorities in Chicago. In the 2002 film adaptation, Mama Morton is brought to life by Queen Latifah, a part that is occasionally played by a white woman on stage, indicating that Mama Morton’s character, history and significance is not anchored to her race. Taye Diggs plays an unnamed musician who also serves as an omniscient presence in the film, appearing in some of the other characters’ daydreams. He is alluring, but his mysterious nature translates into a lack of effort from the creators in giving him any purpose: his presence is for show, he has no real substance. Many of the inmates are minorities (such as singer Mýa), and while their appearance in “Cell Block Tango” is memorable, they are figureheads, rather than actual characters. In the many stage adaptations of the Broadway musical, this same tendency repeats itself: minorities are never fully on display. There is no mention of the Great Migration, which, along with the many African-Americans traveling from the South, brought New-Orleans jazz to Chicago. Considering such deep ties between black musicians and jazz, this erasure is not only nonsensical, it is unsettling, as will be examined below. In her studies of the ties between black musicians and mainstream American culture, through the classic works of Toni Morrison especially, professor Madhu Dubey qualifies the Great Migration “as a moment of crisis in black cultural history” (293). She develops this idea further, quoting Morrison:
Morrison expresses further reservations about jazz and black urban music in general, explaining why this music cannot operate as a force of cultural sustenance for black Americans: “For a long time, the art form that was healing for Black people was music. That music is no longer exclusively ours; we don't have exclusive rights to it. Other people sing it and play it; it is the mode of contemporary music everywhere” (340). … [B]lack musicians now began to perform “in bars, bordellos, or for entertainment”. (294-295)
In many ways, this deplored “commodification” of black music is illustrated by the musical: jazz is used and explored throughout, but the black musicians behind its many inspirations have become invisible. Many authors’ opinions on this issue exist on a spectrum; some admit to black contributions to the genre, while never diminishing the roles of white artists and musicians; on the other spectrum, however, others reject any such beneficial input of whites in the domains that black artists and musicians may have pioneered. William Howland Kenney, in the introduction to his seminal Chicago Jazz: A Cultural History, 1904-1930, attempts to temper the issue:
The notion of jazz as a musical art form is central to the field, but should be broadened to include white artistic confrontations with African-American musical traditions. … [T]his book affirms that black South Side Chicagoans were chronologically well in advance of the city's white musicians in developing the music, but whites soon made their contributions, too. Members of all races, however, felt many of the impulses that generated jazz. The primacy of black jazz in Chicago during the twenties resulted from craftsmanship developed in response to musical ambitions and economic opportunities in a white society that had long expected and encouraged African-Americans to make music. (xii-xiii)
Others like Mary Herron Dupree and Ted Vincent, however, are less restrained in their criticism of this oversight. In speaking about the way some musicians like Gershwin and Whiteman utilized jazz as art music, Dupree comments on the “emasculation of jazz”, and states that “those few writers who held the view that true jazz was the earlier, black, improvisational style considered Paul Whiteman the prime culprit behind the “vanilla epoch of jazz”” (296). Vincent chooses to look at the business aspect of the Chicago music scene:
A generalization that the Jazz Age occurred simultaneously with the 1920s has contributed to the oversight of black input at the business end of the music. … In Chicago, Jazz Age black music appears to have been mostly under the control of African Americans from 1918 into late 1921 or early 1922. In fact, black initiative on the organizational front was evidenced in the years just before the Jazz Age proper, when the music industry was first beginning to experiment with the types of show places that would, in time, evolve into the modem nightclub. (43-44)
What is more, Paul Wittke shows that this extended beyond the nightlife. Black artists and musicians also found success in the musical theatre industry: “Is it sheer accident that composers were/are Jewish (usually second-generation) and burst on the theater scene in the twenties at the same time as the emergence of black-music jazz?” (278). Yet, these very important contributions and notable artistic milestones are nowhere to be seen in Chicago, which somewhat cripple its authenticity. These omissions are not solely limited to the musical setting. The thematic core of Chicago is its commentary on the sensationalist press and the American public’s thirst for scandal. These issues were not exclusive to white audiences only, however. Professor Stephen Knadler studies the fascinating phenomenon of “women with knives”, black women who engrossed the press in the 1920s for (justifiably or not) murdering their husbands and lovers, sparking a conversation about domestic violence and gender roles. It aligns itself perfectly with the subject matter of the musical (“these "tabloid-style" stories pandered to the public's desire for gossip, celebrity, and entertainment” (102)) and yet, as mentioned above, black women are secondary, almost nonexistent characters in Chicago. This obliviousness, which will be explored more in depth below, is nonetheless touched upon by Knadler:
However, in challenging the dominant patriarchal script … , feminists in the past have universalized the stand-point of white middle-class women as the norm, creating a false sense of unity in the anti-violence movement, while obscuring the specific situation of low-income women and women of color. (100)
It would have been interesting for Chicago to compare the public’s respective reactions to a white woman, Roxie Hart or Velma Kelly, and a black one committing a same crime, as a conversation starter on race and feminism in the 1920s. Indeed, Knadler underlines how these black “women with knives” were labelled “promiscuous Jezebels or outspoken Sapphires with an attitude” (100), a sharp contrast with the angelic-yet-manipulative Roxie Hart who is met with leniency and indulgence by the American public.
The musical, which had previously been labeled as groundbreaking because it purported to give a platform to those underrepresented voices in society, and in entertainment in particular, appears slightly less progressive. In fact, it appears to stand directly in a long tradition of selective historical narratives in which credit given to innovators is either minimized, or else granted to others entirely. In other words, when the artistic merit of black artists or minorities is recognized, it is either framed in a white narrative, or it is lambasted. Black vaudeville singers such as Mae “Baby Vamp” Fanning, the Whitman sisters, Helen Mitchell and the Hyers sisters enjoyed success in varying levels, but are often overshadowed, or compared with their white counterparts. Angela Lantham and Madhu Dubey make several observations on these contrasting attitudes dispensed towards black women in entertainment. Lantham writes:
The reality of African American marginalization within the entertainment industry was lost on many but not all white observers at the time. … “They [the women of the chorus] crowd the wings. Behind them, the negro wardrobe woman waits, patient and with a shade of sullenness—knowing herself handsome in another kind, she bides blinking at all that white beauty—those open-eyed confident white girls in their paradise of bright dress.” … [I]n black revues, women were usually light-skinned to appeal to white beauty standards, yet they projected an exoticism that was read by whites as animalistic and therefore sensual. (466)
Dubey likewise states that:
Questions concerning the authenticity of jazz and blues in this period often hinge on the commodification of black (and especially black feminine) sexuality in which these musical forms were actively complicit. … Hazel Carby describes the "moral panic" characterizing new public discourses about urban black female sexuality that emerged in Northern cities in the 1920s to police the allegedly licentious sexual conduct of black women. (300)
Considering the double standards to which they were subjected (damaging marginalization or exotic objectification), black jazz singers and vaudeville actresses, in the legal troubles in which Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart found themselves, would have no doubt caused pandemonium in the 1920s.
When the performers were not being criticized, it was the music itself associated with them. Jazz was labelled as a licentious, savage music by critics who were, in reality, projecting their prejudices on the race of the musicians. William Howland Kenney makes the following observation:
As a 1906 newspaper article from the white Chicago Tribune, reprinted in the black Chicago Broad Ax, put the matter:
… the Negro has a future in music … .There is no prejudice against the Negro in music … . He need not fear that race prejudice will antagonize him. Music is the universal art and language and begins where speech ends. (xiii)
However, this is absolutely not true. Some of the more hostile criticism of jazz would, for all intents and purposes, see it banned and labeled the cause of a moral crisis in the 1920s. The more moderate observations rejected the idea of jazz as art music (“because intellectual effort and discrimination did not go into the composition of jazz, it lacked seriousness, passion, and profound emotion. … [G]ood music should be difficult to create and difficult to understand” Mary Herron Dupree, (299)), but the harsher ones were much more transparent in their views. Says Dubey:
Contemporary characterizations of jazz as "a whorehouse music" fed prevalent perceptions of black urban culture as pathological. … Regarded as an epidemic of moral anarchy, jazz became the prime signifier of a new urban culture that was perceived as threatening to social stability and order. (300)
Maureen Anderson’s findings are even more appalling:
Articles analyzing, judging, appraising, and condemning jazz flooded into publication. Titles such as “Unspeakable Jazz Must Go” … , “Students in Arms Against Jazz”, “Why ‘Jazz’ Sends Us Back to the Jungle”, and “The Jazz Problem” … appeared in mainstream publications and revealed the political and racial endeavors of hostile white critics. … [M]any jazz critics … publicized their dislike of jazz music in order to express their dislike of African Americans. (135)
And yet, when it is performed by white musicians, “jazz is no longer seen as so severe a problem and may even be enjoyed, yet black jazz music remains “savage” and “evil”.” (Maureen Anderson, (143)). Legendary musician Tom McIntosh recounts his experiences as one of the few black artists at Juilliard, where he quickly came to the realization that, “at Juilliard, one of the most notable schools in the country, jazz did not exist. In fact, any black music wasn't really worth considering, it seemed” (28).
What these rather straightforward observations highlight is that there was not much place and/or favorable circumstances for minorities in the arts to feel validated, even when their contributions were important, or would have been valuable. Despite being steeped in the culture of the city, and in the world of jazz and show business, Chicago offers so little insight and diversity that one must consider different hypotheses to explain this disquieting fact. On the one hand, perhaps the creators (playwright Maurine Dallas Watkins and musical creators Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb), in full cognizance of the many complicated issues relating to race and show business deliberately chose to stay away from them, fearing it would potentially be insensitive or distract from the premise of their story. On the other hand, perhaps they did not even realize they were staying clear of these issues, and these oversights were direct results of their corresponding societal privileges. This leads us to acknowledge a dichotomy: namely, between the creators’ biases and their deliberate intentions.
Let us consider the former. If Chicago can be interpreted as a feminist musical, which touts the aforestated ideas of a woman sexually liberated and in control, while neither condoning nor judging her, it is certainly not intersectional. While it is progressive for its portrayal of women during the Roaring Twenties who attempted to upend the societal and political constraints tethered to them for so many centuries, its narrative is a direct product of its creator. Maureen Dallas Watkins was a white, educated woman whose journalistic and literary successes landed her in Hollywood as a screenwriter. The only contact she would have had with the worlds of black entertainers and musicians, jazz and/or the nightlife of Chicago would be through observations made as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. As such, she could never have the insight required to touch upon the aforementioned subjects, either because she would not have had those experiences (being black, and/or a musician or a singer), or because her privileged social status slanted her objectivity.
While there is absolutely no evidence that she was racist or had any kind of malicious prejudice, it does not seem coincidental that, of the many real-life inspirations she could have chosen to tell her story, she opted for that of two white women, like her. One could speculate that like the society in which she lived, which did not consider black men or women’s stories worth telling, Watkins unconsciously favored that which she knew, which is symptomatic of a selective kind of entitlement that professors Nagueyalti Warren and Judith Stephens touch upon respectively:
The Black women leaders of the early twentieth century were feminists who simultaneously fought against both sexism and racism. In the second wave feminist movement that emerged patterning and following the Civil Rights Movement, feminism took on unacceptable connotations for many Black women. That the movement was racist and led by middle and upper-class White women is undeniable; however, so was the first wave feminist movement. (21)
Part of the materialist feminist project is to uncover and acknowledge differences among women according to class, race, and sexual identification, as well as gender … , encourage an exploration of class and race divisions among women which the feminist movement must confront before any real sisterhood “which extends beyond women who are white and middle class can be established” … . Feminist theory encourages the study of theatre as the representation of race, class, and gender, but most feminist studies have focused on issues of gender. (329-330)
More so than its selectiveness, a study of the dynamics between the characters and their personifications, which were explained in the first part, paints Chicago in a decidedly less subversive light. At the end of the musical, Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly have been acquitted, but it’s a bittersweet victory. Their fifteen minutes of fame are over, because the feverish public has found a more interesting scandal to dissect. Amos Hart has finally realized that his beloved wife is not the woman he thought, and subsequently left, and Billy Flynn, callous and cool as ever, has moved on to another case. If Roxie represents the wide-eyed ideals of the 1920s flapper, and if Velma Kelly is the modern, independent woman, the future does not bode well for them. The past and the traditions have finally abandoned them (Amos), as have the ruthless and bewildering future (Billy Flynn).
Better still: if Chicago is supposedly progressive, why is it that ultimately, it’s the rich white man, a crooked lawyer, who “wins”, and not the white woman, the black man, and certainly not, at the very bottom of that order, the invisible black woman? Let us not forget that Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb have an even greater vantage point than Watkins, which their race and gender gives them. The issues of visibility in Chicago opens up a debate on the larger scope of representation and acknowledgment given in historical and artistic events: the version of History we are offered can never be anything other than subjective, as the reality is often at odds with the selective perspectives which are privileged, intentionally or not.
Professor Elsa Barkley Brown makes a thoughtful observation on the phenomenon, using jazz as a metaphor (a notion which will be dissected momentarily):
History is also everybody talking at once, multiple rhythms being played simultaneously. The events and people we write about did not occur in isolation but in dialogue with a myriad of other people and events. … As historians we try to isolate one conversation and to explore it, but the trick is then how to put that conversation in a context which makes evident its dialogue with so many others … . Unfortunately, … few historians are good jazz musicians; most of us write as if our training were in classical music. We require surrounding silence — of the audience, of all the instruments not singled out as the performers in this section, even often of any alternative visions than the composer's. That then makes it particularly problematic for historians when faced with trying to understand difference … . (297-298)
She concludes her thoughts with an argument that closely aligns with the theory of bias that Fosse, Ebb and Watkins may have experienced:
We need to recognize not only differences but also the relational nature of those differences. Middle-class white women's lives are not just different from working-class white, Black, and Latina women's lives. It is important to recognize that middle-class women live the lives they do precisely because working-class women live the lives they do. White women and women of color not only live different lives but white women live the lives they do in large part because women of color live the ones they do. (298)
Let us now consider the alternative, where the story told in Chicago, perspectives and characterization included, was the result of a calculated effort. First of all, it follows that the point of view chosen to tell any given tale will offer a different result from another perspective taken: despite the problematic aspect of it, this is the story of two entertainers, inspired by real-life counterparts, as well as their crime and the corrupt justice system that tries them. This is what Watkins, then Fosse and Ebb, set out to accomplish, however narrow their vision. It is futile, in some respects, to expect it to also tell a detailed account of, for example, a black cabaret singer trying to escape the confines of the racist and sexist society of the 1920s, or a black trumpet player, fresh from New Orleans and trying to make it in Chicago and reconcile with his fractured sense of identity. In some sense, these stories would seem mildly out of place in a tale that aims to condemn the hypocrisy of the patriarchal society regarding white, seemingly immaculate, women.
But even more importantly: perhaps Fosse, Ebb and Watkins precisely intended the characters to be white in order to, by subverting the favorable stereotypes given them because of their perceived privilege, make a broader commentary on that society. In other words: what makes the characters of the musical so interesting is the fact that they wholly embrace their archetypes, while internally operating in contradictory, ambiguous ways. Roxie Hart is painted as an innocent lamb who could not hurt a fly: three of the notable actresses who portrayed her on stage and on film (Ginger Rogers, Phyllis Haver and Renée Zellweger) were blonde and doe-eyed beauties who captured the outwardly childlike aura of the character. This is meant to highlight her false chastity, and explain why the public becomes so enraptured with her, as demonstrated so exquisitely in “We Both Reached for the Gun”. Even when she admits to murder, adultery and “loose” behavior, the response she receives is: “Oh you poor dear I can’t believe what you have been through/A convent girl! A run-away marriage!”.
The seductive Velma Kelly (played with carnal intensity by Bebe Neuwirth, Chita Rivera and Catherine Zeta-Jones notably) is able to charm her way out of prison because, unlike the African-American “jezebel”, her sexuality is desirable, not threatening (operating within and oscillating between the “Eve-Mary”, “Prostitute-Madonna” or “Fair Virgin and Dark Lady” (188) phenomenons touched upon by Judith Stephens). Similarly, despite the almost blatant crookedness of Billy Flynn, he is able to get away with it; the song “Razzle Dazzle” is meant to reassure Roxie Hart that her trial can be won by blindsiding the jury (“Though you are stiffer than a girder/They'll let you get away with murder/ … Give 'em the old Razzle Dazzle/ … Long as you keep 'em way off balance/How can they spot you've got no talents?”), but in truth, he might as well have been speaking about himself: he is the talentless fraud who is able to blindside the world, because his status in society allows it.
In other words, if Fosse, Ebb and Watkins had told the same story, substituting the characters for black ones, their criticism might have been lost: a black counterpart to Roxie Hart or Velma Kelly could not have conned the public, simply because black women were not seen as pure creatures who needed to be protected from the vices of the world. A black counterpart to Billy Flynn could not have swindled his way to success because his honesty, integrity and credibility would not have been given the benefit of the doubt in the first place. What is more, the musical explicitly aims to highlight the double standards and corruption of white America, not praise them by omitting minorities from its narrative. In fact, the above conclusions (the idea of a black chorus girl enjoying the public fascination and eventual pardon being laughable, for example) can be made by anyone who notices the absence of African-Americans. By their lack of presence, these elements are that much more conspicuous in Chicago, and by extension, the musical might be criticizing a society which not only has its priorities woefully wrong, but which also does not value the complexities of things and people such as jazz or minorities, and the way they interact.
This becomes all the more evident when studying critics’ reactions to the creators’ respective visions. Scott Miller writes the following:
Fosse's message is that publicity subverts justice. Courtrooms have become circuses, as cameras in courtrooms have created a whole new breed of celebrity lawyers who perform for the television audience while they're presenting their case. Roxie is acquitted because of the media, the right clothes, good acting on the stand, a crooked lawyer, and a fake pregnancy, not because she's innocent. Fosse feels no sympathy for this heroine. … Chicago is about the blurred line between good and evil in America, even more prevalent today than in 1975, and the show biz in everything (especially the judicial system). … Today, Chicago is an even more biting commentary on other, equally grisly cases, mothers who kill their children, young men who kill their parents, wives who mutilate their husbands, men who stab their ex-wives to death. (qtd. in Scott Miller, 2000)
David Morton is more lenient towards the caustic moral:
The show is a testament to the power of the music and libretto, which blaze out past the absence of big sets and scenery. What started as a witty tear down of established story telling and personal mores has become a timeless classic poking fun at the sins and sinners we accept, if they’re beautiful, and the ideals we live by, like honesty and justice, which we’re ready to give up if we choose to forgive two desirable criminals, and we do, rooting for them right to the end.
If the above dichotomy proves anything, it’s that the issue is a bit more complicated than it appears, and leaves more open questions than answers. In fact, when the underlying themes of the musical are considered, it appears to be less about the music than the social commentary, which brings about the topic of jazz as a metaphor rather than an art form. In the first part, jazz, especially in the context of musicals and vaudeville, was shown to be the integral part of Chicago, regardless of its incomplete representation. However, given the fact that this was not meant to be a story about jazz’ history, nor the people who helped popularize it, one must reconsider the definition of jazz going forward, beyond the musical confines.
The first indication that Fosse and Ebb may have been endorsing this nuance can be seen in the song “All That Jazz”. Jazz is, here, less a concrete definition than a deliberate tongue-in-cheek euphemism for all things scandalous, namely lust and indulgence (“Find a flask/We're playing fast and loose/And all that jazz/ … Oh, she's gonna shimmy/Till her garters break/And all that jazz/ … Come on, babe/Why don't we paint the town?/And all that jazz”). The metaphorical and literal definitions of jazz have been hotly debated for decades. William Howland Kenney attempts to offer a definition, by making the important distinction between jazz and the Jazz Age:
[T]he word also carried, in the 1920s, a much broader, cultural signification … While it is true that Chicago's great jazz musicians of the 1920s often succeeded in recording music with an appeal that lasted well beyond the moment of its creation, it is also true that those same artists habitually performed as musical entertainers when creating their jazz art. As a result, during the late nineteen teens and twenties, Chicago jazz nearly always stimulated and responded to Jazz Age cultural sensibilities in Chicago and the nation. Therefore, a distinction can be made between “jazz”, as innovation in musical art, and the phrase “jazz age”, that can be used to describe “Roaring Twenties” social dance music and associated activities, such as going out to dance halls and cabarets, … dressing like … “flappers”, and drinking bootleg gin. These activities, like jazz itself, were “jazzy” urban behaviors that expressed the excitement, adventure, glamour, sensuality, and daring stimulated in young urban Americans. Jazz Age sensibilities did not require any overt confrontation at the intersection of race and music. (xiii)
That last sentence is particularly jarring, because it encapsulates and nuances the thesis: if Chicago is a musical about the Jazz Age rather than jazz, its exclusion of racial issues is completely justified, and the idea of blind spots no longer makes sense. In other words, jazz in the context of the Roaring Twenties did not necessarily align with the purely musical, racially-linked jazz, fostered by the Great Migration, whether this is something that Watkins, Fosse and Ebb wanted or not. Kenney's following statement underlines the fact that jazz is mutable and does not necessarily belong in the context in which it is often placed, and is no less legitimate in nightclubs, for example, as it is in Broadway:
Chicago Jazz proved capable of expressing a range of emotions that stimulated and reflected the excitement of the Roaring Twenties and sometimes achieved a level of musical expressiveness which attracted critical praise long thereafter. Some musicians … played more consistently in clubs associated with jazz, while others played some jazz numbers among other styles of popular music in venues not exclusively identified with jazz. (xiii-xiv)
David Savran draws attention to this very same idea:
The identification of jazz with vaudeville, revue, and musical comedy was so strong that as early as 1917, one commentator, searching for the etymology of the word “jazz”, turned to a vaudevillian who noted that “the phrase ‘Jaz [sic] her up’ is a common one to-day in vaudeville”. … Broadway, with its glittering, seductive, and often taw dry entertainments, became a metonym for and emblem of jazz. Both were imagined as being the "expression of the times, of the breathless, energetic, super-active times in which we are living”. … Given its many manifestations, guises, contexts, and performance venues, jazz thus represented the most significant form of cross-mediated performance in the 1920s: a form that undermined the autonomy of dance and concert music, cabaret, social dancing, vaudeville, revue, and narrative theatre. It was, in short, less a musical form than a practice … . (462)
The elusive connotations of jazz in the context of the Jazz Age are further explored respectively by musicologist Isaac Goldberg and Mary Herron Dupree who study the word beyond its musical ties:
Jazz is all things to all ears. To the theological dogmatist it is a new guise of the ancient devil, to be fought as a satanic agency. To the pagan, if he is minded to interpret novelties in the language of social ethics, it is the symptom of a glorious release from the bonds of moral restraint. The musician, if he is one of the old school, looks upon it with mingled amusement and disgust; if he is of the modernist persuasion, he beholds in it rich possibilities of a new style. (qtd. in Savran 459)
Jazz once conveyed broader meaning than it does today. In a general sense it sometimes referred to contemporary attitudes and modes of expression. … Conceptions of what constituted jazz ranged widely in the twenties, and few writers, in fact, sought to define jazz in musical terms. (287)
Perhaps this ambiguity is not a hindrance, but an advantage. Not only is it a testament to jazz’ pervasiveness and the grasp it had on 1920s society, but it liberates the word and its significance from concrete definitions, turning it into a metaphor. Jazz, at the center of the musical Chicago, held between a fascinated reception and criticism of the harshest kind can be seen as an allegory for the ideas of legitimacy and validity. By any means possible, Roxie Hart tries to make her ambitions become reality, as she is simultaneously eulogized and condemned for who she is:
As cultural legends both envied and repudiated, these women were tortuous reminders of America's cultural and moral schizophrenia. The chorus was a vehicle by which to “glorify the American girl”, usually by emphasizing her sexual allure; and yet, no profession except for prostitution so stigmatized women. To interrogate this paradox is to reveal much about the history of women's curious entrapment between the empowering potential of performance and its equally powerful potential to immure. (Lantham, (471))
Velma Kelly is a different kind of metaphor: Scott Miller sees her as the personification of vaudeville, noting that “[s]he killed her own vaudeville act by killing her sister, paralleling the death of vaudeville itself in the late 1920s” (qtd. in Scott Miller, 2000). If this is a story about corruption and outdated standards by which some members of society are held, jazz is the vehicle, (rather than the actual focus) through which these comments are made. In the same way that jazz is malleable, mutable, undefinable and treated with double standards of attitudes, so are the institutions which are supposed to serve one purpose, but end up serving another (the corrupt prison and legal systems); so are the women who endure the patriarchal society; so are the black men and women, whose seminal contributions in the arts are so unacceptable to the mainstream public that they are shunned or else derided.
As such, while the sliver of history it offers is rather accurate, Chicago is not an all-encompassing portrayal of jazz in the Roaring Twenties, and should not be treated like an educational, historical piece. But the question is less manichean than it appeared at first. It may have to do with the bias of the creators unconsciously seeping into their story; it may have to do with their desire to offer one unique viewpoint (white protagonists) in order to, by their absence, make a statement about the lack of representation of black musicians and artists during that era. But ultimately, whether the end result is the product of one or the other matters little in the grander scope. The definition of jazz has always been a subject of controversy, and that in and of itself is representative, as indicated in the thesis, of complex social and historical dynamics that went well beyond its identification as a music genre. The distinction of jazz in the context of the Jazz Age makes its already nebulous definition even more so, and untangling it is a thorny endeavor. Perhaps that is what has contributed in making Chicago such a timeless classic: like the music that inspired it, it can be analyzed and dissected countless times, and its true significance often remains elusive, but no less fabulous.
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