Forty years ago, a musical called "Chicago" opened on Broadway. It had a decent run of 936 performances, but it couldn't keep up with another show that debuted in 1975 and hogged the spotlight — "A Chorus Line."
Flash forward to 1996, when a revival of "Chicago" took New York by surprise and, after hitting performance No. 7,486 last November, surpassed "Cats" as the second-longest-running show in Broadway history. It's still playing there.
The 2002 movie version of the musical piled up some impressive figures, too, grossing more than $300 million and taking home six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, out of 13 nominations.
Back to the stage show. There have been 16 national tours of the Broadway production, the latest due this week at the Hippodrome Theatre, which last presented the musical in 2007.
One more number: 88, the age that the composer of "Chicago," John Kander, will turn this month.
"I am fortunate to have done an awful lot of other things, but 'Chicago' is a great blessing in my life, and I'm glad it's coming back to Baltimore," says Kander, who wrote the score with his longtime creative partner, lyricist Fred Ebb.
That duo was also responsible for "Cabaret," "Kiss of the Spider Woman" and two works that premiered after Ebb's death in 2004, "Curtains" and "The Scottsboro Boys."
In addition to stage shows, the team's many songs include "My Coloring Book," championed by a young Barbra Streisand in 1962, and the anthem "New York, New York," from the 1977 film of the same name, that became famously associated with Frank Sinatra.
Although "Cabaret" had been a hit in 1966, Kander and Ebb experienced their share of disappointments in subsequent years. Three musicals, "The Happy Time," "Zorba" and "70, Girls, 70," failed to make a lasting imprint.
But then actress Gwen Verdon and her equally celebrated husband, choreographer/director Bob Fosse, secured the rights to the 1926 play "Chicago," about a couple of women acquitted in sensational murder trials. They sought Kander and Ebb to help turn the material into a musical. In addition to supplying lyrics, Ebb shared credit with Fosse for writing the book.
"We were flattered they came to us," Kander says. "It was one of the few times Fred and I thought right away, 'Yeah, this is a good idea.' It wasn't a traditional piece, but we didn't do traditional pieces anyway. And the auspices were optimistic for this show."
The composer and lyricist fashioned a bold score that paid homage to the music of the 1920s (the original subtitle was "A Musical Vaudeville"). It also matched perfectly the wild tale of Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly and, with the aid of an unabashedly exploitative attorney, their wild escape from justice.
The musical takes a bracing look at the whole business of celebrity and gossip, slick lawyers and the media.
"We've got murder, greed and corruption," says actress Roz Ryan, quoting from the show, "all those things we hold near and dear."
In the current tour, Ryan plays the role of Matron "Mama" Morton, the crooked ruler of the Cook County jail where Roxy and Velma are held.
"We go back to the days when criminals were the stars, like Al Capone and them, even though they were killing people," Ryan says. "And people still love a good trial, as you can see by all those judge shows on TV. You get a really good trial" in "Chicago."
Ryan portrayed "Mama" so often on Broadway (starting in 1999) that she has the distinction of giving the most performances of any leading actress in "Chicago" in the show's history — "I call it my good government job," she says with a laugh.
The actress has a ready explanation for the lasting success of "Chicago."
"Kander and Ebb's music is so wonderful," Ryan says. "You can't get the songs out of your head. And then you've got all those scantily clad dancers — we've got some hot dancers, baby. But I think the longevity of this show really comes from the simplicity of it. All you have to do is listen and let us tell you the story. It's pure entertainment."
That's not what everyone thought about "Chicago" back in 1975.
"The curious thing is that when this show opened, the reviews were pretty good," Kander says, "but there was also a lot of talk about how it was 'way too dark.' … The audience today finds nothing shocking about 'Chicago.' Now nothing could be cheerier than a bunch of ladies murdering their husbands."
The continued relevance of the musical's themes and messages does not surprise Kander.
"These are subjects we find ourselves dealing with pretty much as we were when we wrote the show," he says. "People still seem attracted to high-profile murders; we remember yesterday's murderers, not today's heroes. In 'Cabaret,' we were writing about the Holocaust, and some version of that is still going on somewhere every other minute. The world did not change."
Kander and Ebb never shied away from tricky topics, right up the lyricist's death — "The Scottsboro Boys" was based on a historic case of a racially charged miscarriage of justice in the South.
"I don't think there is any topic you can't create art about," Kander says. "What's really hard to write is a boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl story. That's hard. The farther you get away from formulaic work, the easier it gets. You can add so much color."
In "Chicago," a lot of the color comes directly from the music, which can be summed up by one of the song titles, "Razzle Dazzle," and manages to sound old and fresh simultaneously. Vivid, often risque lyrics add greatly to the kick.
"It's not subtle in what we're saying and the means we use to say it," Kander says. "What I like about 'Chicago' is it's very simple and it's out there."
The composer periodically stops by the show in New York — "The last time I saw it a couple months ago, it was as if it had just opened," he says — and keeps an eye on the tours. The current one he describes as "first-rate."
"It's one of the best casts I've worked with in performance, temperament and relationships," she says. "They're happy to be here and we all like each other. When we were stranded in an airport [in February], we all started sharing music, telling stories and acting silly; it was almost like being in your backyard."
(That cast will be joined by a newcomer for one night in Baltimore. Mayor Stephanie-Rawlings Blake will play a couple of small roles on Wednesday.)
While "Chicago" continues on its snappy way in New York and on the road, Kander has a new musical onstage at Signature Theatre in Northern Virginia — "Kid Victory," his second collaboration with Greg Pierce, who wrote the book and lyrics. The show is about a 17-year-old boy who returns home after a yearlong disappearance.
"Greg is one of the most talented people I've ever met," Kander says. "We have established a way of working together. It is so energizing to be working with someone much younger and so brilliantly talented. I don't want to stop. We're already halfway through writing a third piece."
After a preview performance of "Kid Victory" a few days ago, Kander was approached by a woman in the lobby.
"She nudged me and said, 'Aren't you awfully old to be doing this?' I was sort of thrown by that," the composer says with a laugh. "I told her, 'I've got to do something.'"