On Friday, March 23, the lights will go down, the curtain will go up and the audience at the Palace Theatre will be swept away to Chicago, a world of rising young vaudeville starlets crossed with two-timing lovers.
If you’re in that audience, you’re taken in by a high-energy spectacle of story, song and dance. Seemingly out of nowhere, a crew of some 20 performers transforms your world, for an evening or maybe for longer.
Pop. Six. Squish. Uh uh.
To Broadway diehards and theater novices alike — partly thanks to the 2002 film adaptation of Chicago made famous by Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renée Zellweger — these lines likely stir up a gritty, smoky scene of a 1920s prison cell and six self-described wronged women belting out tales of the mischievous, no-good men they murdered to get there.
Later this month, the Palace Theatre will bring the production to life on its historic stage under the direction of artistic director Carl Rajotte as part of its 2011-2012 Citizens Bank Performing Arts Series. The Palace’s last production of Chicago was in 2005, and it was the theater’s most well-attended show that season and one of the top five best-selling shows in the Palace’s history. Rajotte had been trying to get it back ever since.
Rajotte is working from the revival version of renowned actor-dancer-director Bob Fosse’s original Chicago musical. The revival, like the 2002 film adaptation, feels more modern, sexy and dark than the original musical’s vaudeville style, Rajotte said. Still playing, it is the longest-running musical revival on Broadway.
“I think it’s a more contemporary feel that the audience can relate to,” said Rajotte, who has been the visionary behind the Palace’s productions for the past decade. “It’s a lot like the movie, which is probably the best movie musical in the last 10 years,” and which won six Academy Awards in 2003, including Best Picture. “The movie did a great job of keeping it sexy and fast, and that’s what we’re striving to do live on stage.”
Nearly everything about this Palace production is fast. The dancing, the dialogue, the rehearsal time — two weeks’ worth — during which everything has to come together. A dancer by training, Rajotte has a style that’s athletic and precise. His reputation precedes him. His cast knew how much they would be challenged when they showed up for rehearsal and how quickly they would need to work to make it all happen.
Chicago is a story about lust, loss and the near-maniacal desire for fame.
Before becoming a musical, it was a play written in 1926 by Chicago Tribune reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins. As part of her beat, Watkins covered the separate and sensational 1924 murder trials of two women, Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner.
Watkins based Roxie Hart, her play’s leading lady, on Annan, who allegedly shot and killed the man with whom she was having an affair. Gaertner, a three-time divorced cabaret singer and suspected murderess, was the inspiration for Watkins’ other femme fatale, Velma Kelly, played by Zeta-Jones in the 2002 film. Annan and Gaertner were acquitted as were Hart and Kelly in Watkins’ play, which she originally titled “A Brave Little Woman” and wrote while she was taking classes at the Yale School of Drama.
Films inspired by Watkins’ play were to follow, beginning with the silent film Chicago, produced by Cecil DeMille in 1927, and Roxie Hart, starring Ginger Rogers and Adolphe Menjou in 1942.
In 1975, Bob Fosse’s musical version of the play opened on Broadway, with music by composer John Kander and a book, or spoken word, by Fosse and lyricist Fred Ebb. A Broadway revival of the musical, directed by Walter Bobbie, opened at Richard Rodgers Theatre in 1996. The next year it moved on to Shubert Theatre, where it enjoyed a run of nearly six years before moving to the Ambassador Theatre, where it is still playing today.
The play and musical depict a 1920s Chicago lacking in decorum and overflowing with deception. Murder is common, and liquor is endless. Jazz is the word, or music, of God.
Vaudeville singer and performer Velma Kelly has murdered her husband and performer partner sister after finding them in bed together. Meanwhile bright-eyed aspiring starlet Roxie Hart has shot and killed her lover after discovering he never intended to help catapult her to stardom. Hart tells her dimwitted and sympathetic husband, Amos, that the man was a burglar whom she killed in self-defense, a lie he initially believes. However, when the police show up and mention the murder victim’s name, Amos realizes (and announces) that the burglar was no stranger to him or Hart, and Hart is arrested and taken to Cook County Jail. There she meets corrupt prison matron Mama Morton, Velma Kelly and the five other Merry Murderesses.
A turf war of sorts ensues, with Kelly and Hart struggling for the vaudeville spotlight and the attention of sly attorney Billy Flynn, who expertly manipulates his defendants and the press during his circus-like press conferences. Kelly tries to convince Hart to join her in a double-act. Hart is at first unimpressed and fakes pregnancy in a desperate attempt to remain relevant and news-worthy.
The rest of the musical includes Hart’s trial date, more crimes and confessions, and for those who like loose ends tied, some closure. All throughout, an array of energetic and dazzling musical numbers, many of which have survived the test of time, including “All That Jazz,” “Cell Block Tango,” “Roxie,” “We Both Reached for the Gun” and “Razzle Dazzle,” bring the production’s conflict and drama to vibrant life.
The role of a lifetime
Lindsey Clayton is no stranger to the Palace stage. In fact, she took her first dance steps on it at the age of 3.
Clayton grew up in Manchester and went to Manchester High School West. She acted and danced and sang and then after graduation moved to New York City, where she lives with two close theater friends, to go to school and pursue performing arts professionally.
Before she had much time to get her feet wet in the Big Apple, Clayton was cast to perform in a national tour of Grease. She was 18, fresh out of high school and acting alongside Chubby Checker and Frankie Avalon. Clayton left school and set out on her first national tour.
“I was auditioning for Broadway shows and national shows and having a lot of luck,” said Clayton, whose voice bubbles with energy and enthusiasm. “It was the first of four national tours [I did]: Grease, My One and Only, I played the lead in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and then most recently I’ve spent four years as an associate choreographer and one of the characters in Hairspray.” Clayton has performed in 48 states and in Canada, China and Japan.
“I’ve been really fortunate to have so much work over the last 10 years, especially when there are so many talented people out there,” said Clayton, whose family still lives in Manchester. “I’ve spent a lot of years living out of suitcases, but I’ve gotten to do a lot of regional work between tours, which is nice because it means I get to stay in one place. I call New York home now, and I like that I can stay closer to home.”
Clayton will play Roxie Hart in the Palace’s production of Chicago. She said accepting the role from Rajotte was a “no-brainer.”
“I jumped at the chance to play Roxie Hart,” said Clayton, who grew up taking dance lessons with some of her Chicago castmates. “This is like a dream role for a dancer. It’s a part I’ve been wanting to play my whole life. I am so excited for the challenge.”
Clayton’s audition for the lead part was not a traditional one. Her last appearance at the Palace was as Miss Adelaide and the show captain, a cast member who assists the director, in Guys and Dolls. She calls the Palace’s run of the show one of the best times of her life.
“I had done so many shows in so many places, but I was blown away by Carl [Rajotte] and how the Palace had changed,” she said. “He talked to me about Chicago and asked me to play the lead.” Her audition for Chicago was essentially the entire run of Guys and Dolls, said Clayton, who was able to showcase her singing and dancing on stage every night of the production. She later helped Rajotte with casting Chicago in New York.
Clayton heard about Rajotte years prior to working with him. Growing up, her younger cousins, Missy and Max Clayton, were also heavily involved with Manchester’s performing arts. Chuckling, Clayton said she forced Missy to perform in a talent show with her at Hampton Beach every summer. Missy, who performs with the American Music Theatre in Lancaster, Pa., will play one of the Merry Murderesses alongside her cousin in Chicago. Max is currently studying at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music.
“I had known Carl was fantastic because of my cousins,” Clayton said. “They kept saying I had to work with him. ... He just gets it. He comes to rehearsal so prepared; he has a clear vision of what he wants. You want to work hard for him because disappointing him would be like disappointing your dad. He’s one of the best directors and choreographers I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with.”
Like her castmates, Clayton got to Manchester late last week for rehearsals. The production opens next Friday. She and the rest of the cast are rehearsing eight hours per day, dancing, singing, acting, adapting to the stage, their characters, each other.
“We’re shot out of a cannon really,” Clayton said. “We have two weeks to learn the numbers, songs and blocking. ... It’s unreal how little time you have to present this finished product to the audience; that’s part of the challenge. The show is very physically demanding, too. Roxie has to be a real triple threat — dancing, singing and acting.”
She’s also assisting Rajotte as show captain, acting as his second set of eyes to help rehearse her castmates and get the show running. Clayton is ready. She has carried her script around with her for weeks. She knew enough about Rajotte and the production to recognize the necessity of being “off-book” for Day One of rehearsals.
“If you’re holding your script the whole time, you’re not going to be able to grow and learn your part,” she said.
Bringing Chicago back
There are many hoops to jump through to get a major production like Chicago on a performing arts center’s stage. The process usually begins with the theater seeking the rights to the play or musical in question.
Rodgers and Hammerstein, Baker’s Plays, and Musical Theatre International are a few of the major royalty companies that own the rights to shows. (Royalty company Samuel French owns the rights to Chicago.) After figuring out which company owns the show in question, a theater will submit an application for performance rights, which requires details such as the dates the production will be performed, the number of seats in the theater, ticket prices, whether or how much the actors will be paid, and more.
“It can take as long as six months to hear back,” said Rajotte, and Chicago is usually one of the shows that will take that long, he said. The Palace has applied for Chicago’s rights every year since 2005, but Samuel French has denied the theater’s request because of lack of availability.
“It’s tough for us because we’re so close to Boston, so if a national tour of [Chicago] is coming to the area the [royalty] company will black out that production in the area,” for a certain amount of time, Rajotte said.
The Palace got word of Chicago’s availability last March. Rajotte was thrilled.
“It’s one of my favorite shows of all time,” he said. “It’s so funny, and there’s so much style to it.”
Last September, he flew to New York City, where he holds auditions twice per year for all of the upcoming season’s productions. The New York casting call, which included both singing and dancing, drew nearly 700 actors all vying for a part in Rajotte’s interpretation of the celebrated Broadway musical. This past January, Rajotte held a local audition in Manchester, which saw about 50 auditions, as well as a follow-up New York City audition the same month.
“What I’m looking for in leads is what I call a star quality — a natural appeal that a performer can exude on stage that’s effortless, where the audience is just enthralled by this personality or the stature of this person,” said Rajotte, who began training as a dancer at age 3. He says you don’t see this star quality a lot. One out of every five to seven people auditioning for a lead role might have it.
Then it comes down to creating a visually appealing picture on stage, a look and feel that work well together, said Rajotte, who will take actors’ height, hair color and body type into consideration while creating this picture. He often videotapes auditions for later reference and creates a “Wall of Casting” with actors’ headshots to help him narrow down his options. Once he makes his decisions, contracts are sent out to the actors, who have three to five days to respond. Soon after, Rajotte holds an “inspiration meeting” with the Palace’s staff, his crew for the production. It is the first of many meetings to come during the life of a show at the Palace.
Rajotte’s own introduction to the Palace stage was as a performer. He grew up in Haverhill, Mass., and when his mother passed away, his father, a veteran, moved to Manchester to be closer to the VA medical center.
“My father told me there was a professional theater in Manchester, and I didn’t believe him,” said Rajotte, laughing.
Fourteen years ago, he auditioned in New York City for a role in the Palace’s production of 42nd Street.
“That’s how I was introduced to [Palace president and CEO] Peter Ramsey, and the relationship grew from there,” Rajotte said. Later, he was on tour with Swing Dance America, and Ramsey saw him and asked him to direct Singing in the Rain for the Palace, he said.
“I knew all my life that this is what I wanted to do,” Rajotte said. “I had a professional [dance] career and got a major knee injury that stopped me from doing everything I wanted, but fortunately I found out I had a talent in directing and choreography.”
But it’s not just talent. It’s also passion, hard work and a respect for the past that has helped Rajotte accomplish as much as he has. He does his homework. He says he tries to learn everything he can about the original production when he is directing a show. He researches and pores over the choreography before giving it his own treatment.
“I think it’s important to know where it came from,” Rajotte said. “Bob Fosse was a huge inspiration for this show. His style is intricate; every part of the body has a place in every move. It’s not fast or athletic, but it’s very precise.”
It’s not just about the dancing; it’s about telling a story through movement, Rajotte added.
What more could a dancer-director ask for?
“Real World: Musical Theater”
Lucas Coatney is all excitement when he answers the phone during a recent trip to Los Angeles. Right away, you can tell he’s from out West — Scottsdale, Ariz., to be exact. His voice exudes warmth and familiarity, like he’s been your friend since grade school. He refers to Manchester as “ManchVegas” and seems genuinely excited to come back.
Coatney, who will play a reporter in Chicago, last appeared at the Palace as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray last year. Since he had auditioned in person and worked with Rajotte in the past, Coatney sent in a video submission to audition for Chicago. He was originally offered a part in the Palace’s 2005 production of the musical, but the timing didn’t work out, he said.
Coatney also completed a near-three-year residency program at the Palace, where he assisted with costumes, sets and other backstage work for the theater’s productions. Though Coatney calls Manchester one of his favorite places to work, the chilly weather wasn’t the only thing that took some getting used to.
“It took forever to make friends,” he said. “I’m from the West Coast, so I make friends with people easily. New England is very protective and private, and it became such a challenge for me [to make] these people love me. I said, ‘This is my goal. I am staying here until these people love me,’” Coatney explained, laughing. After that, “they would bend over backwards for you,” he said.
Like his castmate Clayton, Coatney knew he would have to show up fully prepared.
“I’ve worked a lot in the business, and it’s the fastest rehearsal process I’ve gone through,” he said. “If you don’t take what you’re given home and rehearse [it], you’re screwed.
“Carl’s choreography is a lot more athletic [than Fosse’s]; he makes it more dance-y,” Coatney said. “You have to make sure you eat enough and stretch because that’s Carl’s forte. You’re going to be out of breath. You have to physically prepare [and] you have to sustain your stamina.”
One way Coatney works on his stamina is singing while running at high speed on the treadmill. But he saves this exercise for the privacy of his home, he said.
“We’re thrown into this fast-paced, rigorous schedule,” he said. “You first go through the rehearsal process, and then you get into this historic Palace Theatre and that just boosts your adrenaline 20 times more.”
Another draw of working at the Palace is living in a house with your castmates, Coatney said.
“It’s like ‘Real World: Musical Theater,’” he said. “It’s so fun to get to know the people. In other places I’ve worked, you get your own hotel room, but here you’re forced to live with all your coworkers.” After rehearsal, castmates explore Manchester, make dinner together, and have game and movie nights, he said.
“It really helps out with the relationships on stage because you’re getting to know these people on a really personal level.” This translates into a genuine, honest portrayal on stage, said Coatney.
Coatney, who lived and acted in New York for seven years before moving back out West, has been acting since he was a kid. After his parents signed him up for youth baseball and found him spending more time singing, dancing and making grass angels in the outfield than playing ball, they enrolled him in a theater workshop. He was hooked.
He says he looks forward to working with Clayton, whom he knows from the performing arts world but has yet to work with. He also can’t wait to work with Rajotte again.
“What I like about working with him is that he has this vision for every single show,” said Coatney. “His advantage is that he really knows what the people of Manchester want and he gives it to them.
“Plus, you should see him dance.”
Finding a good balance
Jess Moryl is a petite, red-haired ball of energy. As the Palace’s costume designer and an actor-dancer in most of its productions, she needs to be.
A native of Westminster, Mass., Moryl has been with the Palace for five years and has been dancing all her life. She will play one of Chicago’s six Merry Murderesses.
In an airy workshop next to the Palace’s administrative offices, Moryl is working on costumes for the show on a recent weekday afternoon. Small, black lingerie-inspired pieces are spread out on a high table that resembles a workbench. Moryl ordered the pieces, which the murderesses will wear, online and recently received them. Light pours through the room’s big windows, which face Hanover Street, as she adds details — studs, straps, rhinestones — to the tiny articles of clothing.
Moryl said she usually starts working on costumes two to three weeks before a production opens. There isn’t much time between the Palace’s productions, so starting earlier isn’t an option. She works closely with Rajotte throughout the year and travels to New York with him for auditions so she can begin thinking about costuming. She says she works from Rajotte’s vision for each production, which is introduced to her and the rest of the team at each production’s “inspiration meeting.”
“I try to get [the cast’s] measurements ahead of time, so I can visualize what we want,” Moryl said. “I order most of the costumes online, and then I ‘Project Runway’ them,” she said, laughing and referencing the fashion design reality television series.
Intricate costumes with heavy bead-work take a long time to create, Moryl explained, more time than she has. The simpler stuff, she “builds,” or makes herself.
For Chicago, Moryl is working to incorporate the musical’s dark, tough and sexy feel into the pieces.
“It’s not lace and bows,” said Moryl, who studied music theater and took costuming classes at Shenandoah Conservatory in Virginia. “But leather, studs and harder stuff because, well, they’re murderers.”
Production numbers, such as “All That Jazz” and “Razzle Dazzle,” are where Moryl will be able to add some glamour and glitz. The latter number includes fully-beaded bustiers, costing around $200 each, which are completely handmade.
This is not the first time Moryl has been involved in a production of Chicago. She played a different Merry Murderess years ago for a summer stock theater.
“I like the characters and that it’s about strong women,” Moryl said. “They kill but they’re not afraid to say it. Not that I’m condoning murder.” Moryl laughs. “The dancing is hard-hitting.”
Moryl says that Chicago rehearsals are eight hours per day, with dancing pretty much the entire time. Rajotte includes as much dancing as he possibly can, she added. Sometimes it’s a challenge to dance and sing at the same, which she said takes practice.
“Carl is like a dancer’s dream,” said Moryl, who has lived in the Palace’s cast house for the past four years. “He takes what you do well and emphasizes it, and he always has a good reason to why something is done a certain way.”
She says it can be hard to find a good balance between working on the stage and behind it. Dance rehearsals cut into her costume time and vice versa. But she doesn’t think the Palace’s costumes have suffered because of it, she said. And it helps to have multiple perspectives.
“I know the girls, and I don’t want people to be uncomfortable,” she said. “It helps that I’m dancing, too, so I know what not to put people in.”
With just one week left before Chicago’s dress rehearsal, which will be open to theater series sponsor Citizens Bank, the bits and pieces of the production continue to come together. Palace production manager Whit Privette and his team have been planning and assembling the set — a large staircase for the bandstand with lots of “glimmer and shine,” said Privette — off property since late last month. They will have two days, this coming Sunday and Monday, to transport and assemble everything for the actors to test out before the dress rehearsal and next Friday’s opening night.
“The main challenge is time,” said Privette, who came to the Palace in 2008. “That is our main obstacle. It’s such a short turnover because [Rajotte] needs the stage for rehearsals.”
Once Privette and his team get the set in and assembled, they have to be sure there are no problems and make adjustments as needed. He’s also responsible for making sure the production stays on budget (roughly $100,000 for Chicago), keeping track of production hours, and behind-the-scenes staffing.
“There’s always something that will slow you down, like lighting issues,” he said. “We have to think about everything as a whole because the set is all [in pieces] before we bring it in to put together.”
Like costume designer Moryl and the rest of the cast, Privette is always mindful of and working from Rajotte’s vision for the production, which is fairly minimalist as far as the set goes.
“The set will stay true to the original design of Chicago,” Rajotte said. “There will be a live band on stage, a light-up staircase, signs that fly in. The set will be created so you can focus on the style of the performers — like the Broadway set but brighter.”
Next door to the Palace Theatre, upstairs in its administrative offices, PR director Kerri Christopher and marketing director Cate Burns, are working to get the word out and fill the theater’s 840 seats for each night of the production.
“It’s a balancing act,” said Christopher. In general, Palace “diehards expect pure musical theater, but we want [to include] some unexpected twists and artistic [surprises] to attract new people as well. Carl knows his audience.”
The goal is that on opening night and every subsequent performance of Chicago, this audience will lose itself in the production, in its twists and turns, intricate footwork, sequined production number costumes and sultry music, in the actors’ energy and honesty on stage. If all goes according to plan, the audience will be soaking in the present moment at the historic theater, not thinking of the whirlwind two weeks spent preparing for it.