Chicago (2002) as the Template for a Proper John Waters Musical

I have never seen the 2007 movie musical Hairspray. Despite my bottomless appetite for John Waters #content and my morbid curiosity over the nightmarish images of John Travolta in prosthetic makeup & Divine drag, I’ve just never had much interest in watching the cursed thing. Waters would likely tell you that having such a wholesome, mainstream reinterpretation of his work out in wide distribution is a subversive act in itself, like how Mark Mothersbaugh openly revels in slipping subliminal messages into his corporate advertising jingles. He’s probably right too; the amount of people who’ve seen the 2007 musical Hairspray but not the 1988 original is alarming, and speaks to the power of having your messages amplified by major media players like Warner Bros. I just see more Broadway in the film’s advertising & surface details than I see Mortville or Dreamlanders, and unless I take a sudden unexpected swerve into loving showtunes I doubt that blindspot will be corrected any time soon.

There is a mainstream musical I believe taps into an authentic John Waters sensibility, however, one that was first staged on Broadway when Waters was in his mid-1970s prime. In fact, it’s so mainstream that its movie adaptation won six Oscars in its ceremony year, including Best Picture. 2002’s Chicago is so wrapped up in the mood & signifiers of its source material’s creator that it’s practically a work of Bob Fosse pastiche, regurgitating the iconic imagery & editing trickery of the Fosse classic Cabaret for a post-Baz Luhrmann world. That early-aughts burlesque revival aesthetic has little, if anything, to do with Waters’s own filmmaking sensibilities, which are more akin to a proto-punk landfill than anything as sleek as what you’ll see onscreen in Chicago. Where Fosse & Waters overlap is in their shared themes & storytelling concerns. While the Hairspray musical restages a very specific, single-film John Waters story in a new medium & context, Chicago instead tackles a broad topic that preoccupied Waters for almost the entirety of his filmmaking career (and his private life): tabloid-famous murderers.

When recently discovering Gus Van Sant’s (incredibly underrated) To Die For, it struck me how few mainstream movies there are on its same thematic wavelength. Nicole Kidman stars in the picture as a bubbly femme fatale who greatly enjoys the tabloid fame she earns by murdering her husband, likening it to the celebrity of a prime-time television actress. The only other big-name Hollywood films I could think of on that topic were Gone Girl and, of course, Chicago – in which Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones compete with each other to see who can turn their murderous crimes of passion into bigger press. For his part, John Waters has made at least six films on the subject (Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Multiple Maniacs, Serial Mom, Mondo Trasho, and Cecil B. Demented), most of which star Divine—the greatest drag queen of all time—as an unrepentant serial killer who literally gets off on the fame that accompanies being a murderess. In To Die For & Gone Girl, Kidman & Pike’s thrills over the press their crimes generate are mostly communicated through a wicked spark in their eyes. By contrast, Divine proudly boasts her murderous deeds to the press in stomach-turning monologues, pronouncing things like “Take a good look at me because I’m going to be on the front of every newspaper in this country tomorrow. You’re looking at crime personified and don’t you forget it!” and “Kill everyone now. Condone first-degree murder. Advocate cannibalism. Eat shit. Filth is my politics. Filth is my life!”. The murder-as-entertainment chanteuses of Chicago are a little coyer in front of the newspaper cameras & microphones that swarm them on courthouse steps, but in private they’re just as big of murderous braggards as Divine, which is rare to see in any Hollywood film, much less a musical.

This thematic overlap is likely one of happenstance. While the stage musical Chicago was first performed in the early days of Waters’s career, it was based on an eponymous dramatic play that was first staged a half-century earlier in the 1920s. The play was a satirical exaggeration of real-life tabloid celebrities of flapper-era Chicago who were famous solely because they were a) sexy and b) murderers. In his own life, Waters has long been fascinated by fame-through-crime celebrity, often attending public trials as a spectator as if he were watching live theater. In his first printed memoir Shock Value he writes, “Going to a sensational murder trial is the only way I can relax. Some people collect stamps, others pursue unfathomable physical-fitness programs, but the only way I can completely escape my everyday worries is to hop on a plane and head for the nearest media circus in a courtroom.” This fascination with criminal celebrity has led to real-life friendships with Death Row inmates, former Manson Family members, and eventual honorary Dreamlander Patty Hearst. And since Waters is obviously not entirely opposed to the idea of musical theatre as a medium—given his late-80s two-punch of Cry-Baby and HairsprayChicago feels oddly close to his auteurist preoccupations as a storyteller. He even joked during early rehearsals of Hairspray that his unexpected career shift to Broadway made him feel like he was Bob Fosse. I doubt Chicago was the impetus for this shift (the Hairspray musical was first performed around the time of the film’s 2002 release, so they were essentially contemporaries), but it unexpectedly fits the template of a John Waters story once you look past its Fosse-specific surface details.

It makes sense to me that a proper John Waters musical would turn the director’s career-long, life-defining obsession with unrepentant femme celebrity criminals into a series of showstopping numbers about sociopathy & sexual perversion. The Hairspray movie musical may have Waters’s stamp of approval as an act of mainstream cultural subversion (and his participation in a cameo role as a trenchcoat flasher), but Chicago feels much more narratively in tune with Waters’s directorial career at large. Picture a Pink Flamingos musical where Babs Johnson competes with the Marbles to see who can drum up the most press with their evil, murderous deeds – in song! Or a Female Trouble musical where Dawn Davenport sings her final monologue to her loyal “fans” at home from the electric chair. You could even copy the courtroom circus number from Chicago wholesale for a musical version of Serial Mom. I’m not saying that any of those possibilities would automatically be great, but any one of them would have a greater chance of tapping into a genuine Waters sensibility than the cursed Hairspray musical. All you’d have to do is swap out Chicago‘s cabaret décor & Fosse signifiers for some trash piles and a trailer park. You could probably even keep Zellweger’s casting as the lead, as she’s already tapping into the dazed starlet energy Melanie Griffith’s Honey Whitlock character served in Cecil B. Demented irl.

-Brandon Ledet

Cabaret (1972)

It’s incredible how effective Bob Fosse’s 1972 adaptation of the Broadway stage musical Cabaret still felt to me on a delayed introductory viewing after years of feeling over-exposed to its basic elements. The lush sets & performative androgyny of its stage performances are a tamer, Hollywood-flavored version of the same acts I’ve seen play out at New Orleans cabarets like One Eyed Jacks & The AllWays Lounge for years. Liza Minnelli’s central performance as the lovable Manic Pixie Dream Bawd extraordinaire Sally Bowles might, unfathomably, be the first time I’ve ever seen her in a proper film, but I’ve already spent plenty of time with her persona in television clips, audio recordings, and local drag impersonations. Most notably, I had seen the 1993 filmed-for-television, Sam Mendes-directed adaptation of the same stage play several times before, as it had been singled out to me as the ultimate version of the source material available (mostly thanks to Alan Cumming’s definitive performance as the menacingly horny emcee). All this pre-exposure to Cabaret’s general milieu had prepared me to feel jaded & underwhelmed by Fosse’s Oscars-sweeping, Hollywoodized take on the material, but that wasn’t my experience at all. In the earliest sequences of the picture I was totally drunk on the pansexual bacchanal on display, and by the end I genuinely felt sick to my stomach, which I mean as a huge compliment. Fosse did not clean this property up for mass appeal. If anything, he found a way to make an already powerful substance even more dangerously potent by emphasizing the tools & tones of cinema to justify the act of adapting it in the first place. This is a great film in its own right, regardless of the virtues of any other form its story has taken since it was first published in the 1939 novel Goodbye to Berlin, the Broadway play included.

Fosse’s fame as a dancer & a stage choreographer had me expecting a version of Cabaret somewhat close to the Mendes broadcast. Wide, static shots that value choreographed dance over camera movement & editing trickery are the norm for this kind of adaptation; at least, they were in an earlier era when Old Hollywood would regularly churn out big-budget crowd-pleasing musicals in an almost vaudevillian tradition. The 1972 Cabaret is much more aggressively cinematic than what that tradition prepares you for. Quick cuts of intricately arranged bodies captured in sweaty, leering closeups immediately excite the audience in the film’s earliest stage performances, completely blowing open the possibilities of what a stage musical can look like with the camera roaming around, under, and behind the dancers who’d normally only be viewed from a safe, fixed distance. Fosse directs the hell out of these performances, using harsh backlighting & grotesque closeups of audience reactions to completely disorient the audience into a shared drunkenness with the Berliners frequenting its central club. Gradually, though, the party sours and the cabaret performances become less energetic & less frequent as the lives of the performers and the politics of the world outside the club sink into fascism & despair. As much as this is the personal story of Sally Bowles and her latest drama-filled love affair, it’s in a larger sense the story of a sexually, morally liberal Berlin that’s lost over the course of the movie. It isn’t until we fully return to the immersive, camera-on-the-stage performances of the Kit Kat Klub in the film’s final moments that we realize just how much has changed over the course of the film and just how devastating that loss is. It’s a harsh blow to the gut, especially in how reminiscent that quiet decline into fascism is to the world outside our own pleasure-dome bubbles in the 2010s.

Cabaret builds much of its in-the-moment drama around two central romantic affairs – one in which Sally Bowles finds herself navigating a bisexual love triangle with her roommate & a financial benefactor who’s quietly bedding them both, and one in which a young Jewish couple perilously navigate the heavily policed class lines that divide them. There is some genuinely upsetting, heartfelt melodrama shared between these four friends, particularly in Bowles’s existential crisis as a freewheeling cabaret artist whose career is going nowhere. If nothing else, her self-lacerating breakdown in the line, “Maybe I’m not worth caring about, maybe I’m nothing,” is pure heartbreak. Still, the real substance of the movie is in how a larger, political drama plays out in the background, largely unnoticed by these self-absorbed libertine artists & intellectuals. Set in a 1930s Berlin, the film quietly tracks the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany. At first, its members are treated as fringe lunatic bullies who aren’t welcome in the Kit Kat or any other club around Berlin, ostracized for their hateful hooliganism. By the end, the lewd, amoral performers of the Kit Kat are performing for an audience comprised entirely of Nazi scum. The war for who defines the spirit of Berlin was lost just under their noses as they minimized the Nazi threat as an ugly fad and continued about their personal dramas, unaware of the seriousness of the party’s rise to power. There’s a quiet menace to the way Swastikas become incrementally more ubiquitous as the film goes on, a gradual temperature change that Fosse expertly handles to the point where it doesn’t really hit you until you’re already boiling alive. Even being familiar with Mendes’s version of the play and knowing exactly where the movie was going, I still felt physically ill by the film’s final scenes. It’s effectively handled on a technical level but also just feels true to how Nazi ideology is currently on the rise in American politics as well. We may already be past the point where they’re just fringe hooligans who can be ignored as we go about our daily business, deliberately unaware.

This direct correlation with current events is not some unintended happenstance either. As much as the film carries a spiritual reverence for the sexual hedonism & defiant artistry of pre-War Berlin, it’s also very much a product of its own time. A few 70s-specific blouses & mirrored “disco” balls (which, admittedly, had been nightclub fixtures for decades) loudly barge their way into the production design, drawing attention to the way hippie counterculture had already been pulling aesthetic influence from the pre-War era. If the Kit Kat Klub performances were just a tad grimier (and far less artfully documented) you could almost pass them off as footage of San Francisco bohemian weirdos like The Cockettes or contemporary proto-punk glam acts like The New York Dolls or The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The sickening feeling I caught from Cabaret was likely just as potent in the early 70s, which had its own gradual rise in Conservative fascism to combat in the era’s anti-War, Free Love protests. In a best-case-scenario where our current bout with Nazi ideology is stomped out before it gains any more momentum, there will still likely be a quiet fascist contingent to keep at bay as the most vulnerable among us simply try to live fulfilling lives without having to constantly fight off oppressive bullies. In that way, the themes of this film are just as evergreen as the excitement of its stage musical cinematography, the drunkenness of its rapid-fire editing, and the sartorial pleasures of its sparkle-crotch tap costumes. That might not be good news for the world at large, but it speaks well to Cabaret’s value as a feature film adaptation, a work that’s apparently remarkably effective no matter how familiar you are with its source material or its real-world thematic substance.

-Brandon Ledet