Pop culture icon, former mayor of Cincinnati, and sometimes controversial purveyor of tabloid life, Jerry Springer is again centerstage in the hit musical Chicago. He’s already wowed television audiences with his turn on “Dancing with the Stars.” This month, Springer will be dancing under the stars of the Fabulous Fox Theatre, playing the fast-talking lawyer Billy Flynn.
So, how did Jerry Springer came to be a part of the show? “He needed the money,” jokes producer Barry Weissler.
“Seriously, we have reached out to talent of all kinds over the 11-plus years the show has been running, and when Jerry’s name came up, it was such a natural fit. He loved the idea, and he does a really wonderful job that might surprise a lot of people who didn’t know he had such talent for the stage.” Springer successfully performed a six-week run of the show in London’s West End before joining the cast stateside.
Springer is best known for his antics on “The Jerry Springer Show,” which turned the former mayor of Cincinnati into something of a pop icon. Springer also has been a featured character on “The Simpson’s,” graced the covers of Rolling Stone, Esquire, Vanity Fair and New York Magazine. In 1998, Barbara Walters chose Springer as one of her “10 Most Fascinating People.” His eponymous TV show has inspired a fictionalized film version, Ringmaster, and a musical, Jerry Springer-The Opera.
Chicago, itself, is something of a pop culture icon — not only because of its wildly popular Broadway and movie versions, but also because of the innately “American” story it tells.
“There’s a dark message here that says if you’re rich enough, if you’re beautiful enough, if you’re sexy enough — you can get away with murder,” Weissler says. “[It] is a vaudeville approach to the socio-political environment we live in. It’s a bit cynical, but covers its cynicism with brilliant entertainment, so that you enjoy every moment.”
Weissler has produced many well known musicals, including Sweet Charity, Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof, My Fair Lady and Grease, but he likes Chicago the best. “It’s some of the best music and lyrics written for the stage, and I mean that with all sincerity,” Weissler says. “Anne Reinking, the choreographer, has remained faithful to her mentor, the late, great Bob Fosse, for the dance numbers, and the whole experience is truly spectacular for audiences.”
Critics and audiences seem to agree. It may not have been a resounding success when it first opened in 1975, but the 1996 revival of Chicago won six Tony awards and holds the record for longest-running revival on Broadway. The 2002 film version, starring Renée Zellwegger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Queen Latifah and Richard Gere, won six Oscars.
Set against the dazzling backdrop of the 1920s (it is based on a play from that period about real murderesses), the musical tells the story of Roxie Hart, a housewife and nightclub dancer who maliciously murders her on-the-side lover after he threatens to walk out on her. Desperate to avoid conviction, she dupes the public, the media, and her rival cellmate, Velma Kelly, by hiring Billy Flynn, Chicago’s slickest criminal lawyer. Flynn uses the power of the media to win sympathy for the cold-blooded killers he represents and get them off scott-free.
The story of how these vicious women become glamorous celebrities has only become more modern with age. And perhaps that’s part of the allure. It’s easy to imagine their story appearing in today’s tabloid headlines. What’s surprising is discovering that our celebrity-obsessed culture is nothing new.
Chicago: The Musical plays the Fabulous Fox Theatre Sept. 8-13, 2009.
Daniel Burnley is an Atlanta stage and film actor, writer and freelance advertising/marketing communications consultant.