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The history behind the musical ‘Chicago’: How 1920s crime and vaudeville inspired the show

February 25, 2022 by Caitlin Berg
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Chicago

I saw the film version of Chicago for the first time this year. While I’d tried to watch it with my family as a kid, my parents, both lawyers, turned it off, explaining that the movie did a horrible job at depicting how the law actually worked. 

I always assumed my parents were right: I’ve spent countless days watching them in the courtroom, and it was nothing like Billy Flynn distracting the jury in “Razzle Dazzle.” However (and this will probably be the only time this happens), my lawyer parents were wrong. Chicago is incredibly realistic. If anything, it’s as dramatic as 1920s Chicago legal history, which inspired the show. 

The record-breaking, second-longest-running show in Broadway history, Chicago tells the story of Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, both accused of murdering their husbands, as they prepare for and eventually go to trial. They’re inspired by the hundreds of women who committed similar crimes in 1920s Chicago, and instead of becoming pariahs, they became celebrities. In the musical, Roxie and Velma compete for the attention of smooth-talking lawyer Billy Flynn, who gets their stories on every city newspaper’s front page.

John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Bob Fosse modeled the musical after a vaudeville revue, a popular performance type in the ’20s, to emphasize the sensationalized nature of criminal trials back then. What parts of Chicago are accurate and what’s just all that jazz? Read on to find out.

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How the Chicago musical represents life in 1920s Chicago

Picture this: It’s 1923, and there have been three Presidents in three years. The 18th Amendment (Prohibition) is in effect, so you can’t even drink (legally) as you complain about the revolving door of leaders. Everything is changing around you after the end of World War I, as industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and evolving gender roles, resulting from the ratification of the 19th Amendment (white women earning the right to vote), pave the way for the pinnacle of the Jazz Age.

Chicago is set in this landscape, which clearly influences the musical. Velma embodies changing gender roles; she’s a classic flapper figure — complete with short hair and a sharp attitude — who headlines a vaudeville act with her sister (er, headlined) and calls the shots. Plus, amid all that sociopolitical turmoil, it’s no wonder that people wanted something to distract and entertain them. Chicago residents didn’t have true crime podcasts or TikTok investigations back then, but they had newspapers and a willingness to devour juicy stories of sordid crimes.

Chicago

True crimes that inspired Chicago

The Chicago musical was inspired by Maurine Dallas Watkins’s 1926 play, which, in turn, was inspired by two real-life trials: those of Beulah Annan and Belva Gaetner. The women inspired Roxie and Velma, respectively: Beulah was a housewife cheating on her mechanic husband (she shot her lover, like Roxie), and Belva was a cabaret singer. Belva killed her lover, too; this was changed for the musical, as Velma kills her husband and sister. But Belva, like Velma, did claim she blacked out and doesn’t remember what happened.

Watkins, a Chicago Tribune reporter, covered the women’s trials, joining other newspapers in characterizing them as attractive “jazz babies” corrupted by liquor and men. Though she was as sensational a reporter as anyone, she took a satirical approach to the Chicago play, making fun of the legal system as an entertainment form. (This is probably because Watkins believed Beulah and Belva were guilty, even though they were acquitted.)

Beulah and Belva were part of a long string of women accused of murdering their spouses. The trend began in 1919, when a woman named Emma Simpson was accused of shooting and killing her husband. Between 1921 and 1930, 186 women were accused of the same crime within Cook County alone. Imagine if “Cell Block Tango” had included all of them — the song itself could be its own musical!

Chicago

Vaudeville performance of the 1920s

Chicago isn’t just a legal history musical. The show also embraces 1920s culture, most specifically the rise of jazz music, evolving gender roles, and especially vaudeville revues. These shows could include dancers, singers, acrobats, magicians, animals, and a host of other entertainment types.

Vaudeville revues were popular before the 1920s, with the dance style’s peak in the mid-1910s. However, women were not widely embraced in the art until the 1920s, when newspapers throughout America began advertising for all-female vaudeville groups, similar to Velma and her sister’s revue or The Six Merry Murderesses.

With a jazzy score composed by John Kander, Chicago uses 1920s culture to not only teach the audience this piece of 1920s history, but also to make fun of how court cases were dramatized. An emcee introduces each musical number and some scenes in Chicago, as though it was a variety show act. These “performances” include a press conference, Roxie’s trial, and even a hanging. (We won’t spoil whose.) Gymnastics, puppetry, singing, and dancing all come into play as these events play out, like acts in a vaudeville revue.

How accurate is Chicago to 1920s history?

It was incredibly rare to be convicted for matricide in 1920s Chicago: Of the 186 accused women, only 24 were convicted, and some of those cases were overturned. Only 12 women served their full time and were convicted. Instead, many of these women were lauded as celebrities, with the two most popular Chicago newspapers, the Chicago Tribune and Hearst Papers, publishing columns dedicated to the trials.

Accused women were thus encouraged to fear little from their trials, besides a possible lack of fame if someone else dominates the headlines at the same time. The American legal system is based on precedent, after all: Previous judgments on cases will be used to determine new judgments. So once a handful of these women walked free, that became the norm. 

The true story behind Chicago may seem unbelievable, but similarities remain. Look at modern-day celebrity trials of people like O.J. Simpson and Amanda Knox. Our contemporary obsession with true crime isn’t all that different from the 1920s public’s obsession with the murder trials of hundreds of women, and that’s why Chicago is still such a popular show. 

It’s a satire of celebrity culture that still exists 100 years later. But even — or maybe especially — if you’re one of the true crime obsessors that Chicago pokes its fun at, Chicago is one of the most entertaining nights you’ll have in a theatre, with plenty of old-fashioned showbiz flair. Bring on the ol’ razzle dazzle!