The pulsating rhythm of "All That Jazz" has invaded our collective cultural consciousness since Chicago first tapped its way onto the Broadway stage in 1975. Inspired by actual murder trials in the 1920s and the resulting media frenzy, this Kander and Ebb masterpiece takes a cynical but accurate look at the themes that continue to permeate our society: celebrity and scandal.
Chicago presents a panoramic view of not just an era but of humanity itself with its central themes of celebrity, scandal, and the public's fascination with both. It explores these themes with biting satire and sharp wit, dropping memorable lines that encapsulate the era's spirit yet still resonate today. Take Billy Flynn's famous quip, ‘It's all a circus, kid. A three-ring circus. These trials - the whole world is…’ certainly rings true in our current political and social climate.
Set amidst the glitz, glamor, and sordidness of 1920s Chicago, the musical reflects the transitional nature of the society of that time. With women gaining more independence and visibility in society and the rise of the tabloid press, it accurately depicts how the thirst for 15 minutes of fame morphed into a full-blown obsession. The media circus following Roxie's and Velma's trials offered not just entertainment but also a distorted reflection of changing social norms and values.
Fast forward fifty years to the 1970s, when the musical first premiered, a time characterized by the widespread questioning of traditional norms and values, the rise of celebrity culture, and a voracious media cycle seeking the latest sensation to captivate its audience. Chicago resonated deeply with viewers, holding up a mirror to the urgent, ever-present need for fame and external validation that characterized the era.
In 2023, these themes still ring true with the chords of contemporary society, which is arguably even more obsessed with fame and scandal. In an age where a social media post can make or break careers, where influencers are the new celebrities, and scandals unfold not in newspapers but in real-time on social media platforms, Chicago continues to hold the power to enthrall and enlighten us – a timeless reminder of our society’s never-ending love affair with scandal and celebrity.
Today’s concept of celebrity has undergone massive shifts, with the advent of social media subverting traditional routes to fame. Platforms like Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok are churning out a new breed of celebrities: influencers. These individuals build their fame not on talent or significant achievements but through cultivated personal brands and the voyeuristic appeal of sharing their daily lives. In essence, they bear striking similarities to the characters of Chicago - it is not what they do, but rather their personality and the public's infatuation with their private lives that defines their celebrity status.
If we examine a few recent scandals in pop culture, we can perceive the stark echoes of Chicago's themes in the modern era. Take the high-profile legal battles between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, for instance. Their tumultuous relationship, accusations of abuse, and the subsequent fallout monopolized media attention, demonstrating our insatiable appetite for celebrity scandal. Similarly, the public attraction to true crime, exemplified by the popularity of true-crime podcasts and Netflix's documentaries, reflects a morbid fascination with the macabre and scandals that harks back to the trials of Velma and Roxie.
However, significant differences between our era and that of Chicago also need acknowledgment. The internet's democratization of fame has provided a platform for voices often silenced by mainstream media and allowed for a wider range of representation. Yet, on the flip side, we must acknowledge our concerning readiness, like the audience in Billy Flynn's courtroom, to participate in public trials conducted on social media, often jumping to conclusions without careful consideration of the facts.
In our digital age, the way society handles scandal has drastically shifted. One such development that has gained prominence is the concept of 'cancel culture,' a form of public shaming where individuals, primarily celebrities, are bluntly dismissed or 'canceled' by mass online communities, often for controversial actions or statements. These actions can be current or resurfaced from the past, leading to swift and often unforgiving public backlash.
In this socio-cultural climate, we also see the rise of 'celebrity-dayflies,' or individuals who surge to fame overnight, often due to a scandalous event, only to find their star fading as quickly as it ascended. The driving force behind the rapid rise and fall of these 'dayflies' is the accelerated pace of the internet, especially on platforms like Twitter and TikTok, that allows the rapid viral spread of information be it good or bad.
While the central characters of Chicago, Roxie and Velma, are indeed infamous for their ill-doings, their fall from grace isn't instantaneous as we often see with 'canceled' celebrities today. Instead, they cunningly manipulate their scandals to maintain the spotlight, a luxury today's celebrities facing scandal rarely have.
Chicago, in its portrayal of scandal and fame, illuminates the transient nature of celebrity. We see Roxie and Velma, who revel in their fame, only to face the harsh reality of their descent once their scandals lose significance. That continual rise and fall, central to the musical’s narrative, reflect our society's voracious appetite for the latest scandal, the newest face, and the ensuing hastened disposal as the next trending topic emerges.
Arguably, in contrast with the cancel culture so prevalent today, the musical serves as a reminder that scandal was once not instant career-ending material but instead a twisted avenue toward fame. However, it also parallels the modern world in demonstrating the fickleness of public fascination, leaving a poignant message about the fleeting nature of fame. Whether sustained by talent or scandal, celebrity is elusive.
Publicity and all that comes with it - fame, influence, attention - is a double-edged sword. For celebrities, it means living a life under scrutiny, where every move can be open to speculation and misinterpretation. This public exposure places a certain responsibility on their shoulders to uphold a particular image, to behave beyond reproach, and, quite literally, to perform to their audience's expectations.
Bringing this back to Chicago, we clearly see Roxie and Velma using sensationalized publicity to sway public opinion and game the system. They don on the persona of innocent victims and brilliantly enact a performance that plays right into their audience’s (the jury and broader public) expectations. This manipulation of the image, which leads to their acquittal, brings to light the formidable power celebrities wield over public sentiment.
One of the most profound insights Chicago offers is its critique of the audience's complicity - that includes everyone from the court spectators in the show to the audience in the theater and, by extension, viewers of the media in real life. The musical holds up a mirror to its viewers, forcing us to confront our appetite for scandal, whether it stems from lurid crimes, celebrity feuds, or political controversies.
The show also purposefully blurs the line between entertainment and reality, a parallel too apparent in today's world, where news often bends toward theatrics, and reality TV presents a warped perception of real life. This complicity is an uncomfortable concept to grapple with. Are we, the consumers of media, indirectly responsible for perpetuating the thirst for scandal? Are we enabling the misuse of power by celebrities, politicians, or the media?
Exploring the continuing relevance of Chicago, we see that its themes of celebrity, scandal, and public manipulation still speak candidly to a 21st-century audience. A century on from the Roaring Twenties and half a century since its first performance, Chicago remains a piercing reflection of our ongoing fascination with fame and scandal.