When Natalie Bassingthwaighte and Alinta Chidzey started rehearsals for the new Australian tour of Chicago, they were given a warning: several of the actors who have played Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly have ended up hating each other. The 1975 musical tells how these two Jazz Age women – both on trial for murder and dreaming of even greater fame – end up locked in bitter rivalry as they await their fate. But sometimes that rivalry has spilled over into the off-stage relationship between the two actors who play the musical’s two leading ladies.
“I guess certain shows can breed an energy like that,” Chidzey says. “I’d hate to be living every day feeling that. Doing eight shows a week is enough, and having something like that on top would just be exhausting.”
In fact, if there’s one thing both Bassingthwaighte (who plays Roxie) and Chidzey (Velma) are taking from the show, it’s the power of women standing together. It’s clear that the two actors genuinely adore one another and are relishing the opportunity to share the stage.
“I said to Alinta the other day: imagine doing ‘Nowadays’, the last dance where we’re together and supposed to be completely in sync, and hating the person next to you. You just couldn’t do it,” Bassingthwaighte says.
The duo share the stage with an ensemble of brilliant supporting players and dancers, as well as Jason Donovan as Billy Flynn, the slick but shady lawyer who could be their ticket to freedom, and Casey Donovan as Matron Mama Morton, who oversees the prison where the musical unfolds. The production, based on the stripped-back and sexy 1996 Broadway revival, places the emphasis on the spectacular dance, choreographed by Ann Reinking in the style of Bob Fosse, and John Kander and Fred Ebb’s sizzling jazz score, performed by an onstage orchestra.
Chidzey and Donovan both say they’re playing dream roles, but for Bassingthwaighte it’s been a long time coming. Before she had become a TV and pop star thanks to Neighbours and her band Rogue Traders, Bassingthwaighte was playing ensemble roles in major musicals. After finishing in a run in the Australian premiere of Rent in 1999, she joined the tour of Chicago, understudying Roxie. Unfortunately, early on in the run she broke a rib and never got to play the role.
“If I did have the opportunity to play her, I would have been 23, and that’s too young,” Bassingthwaighte says. “Roxie is supposed to have life experience. I feel like it wasn’t meant to happen then. But I just knew I had to play this role; it was the one that got away. A lot of people assume I was just handed it on a silver platter, but I went and auditioned like everyone else, and it was tough.”
Likewise, Velma is a significant coup for Chidzey, who is no stranger to having to fight for her place on stage. That battle is a central part of her inspiration in playing Velma.
“She’s knocked back so many times,” Chidzey says. “She keeps presenting these ideas and then getting cut down. When I think about it, it’s like a mirror image of what I do as a performer. I’m always auditioning, and 80 or 90 per cent of the time, you get rejected. You’re consistently dealing with being turned down. Velma just keeps coming back with: I can do this, I’ve got this, I’ve got these ideas and I believe in myself.”
Chidzey is also looking to choreographer Bob Fosse, whose sexy and idiosyncratic style is printed all over this production.
“He was always criticised for the way he hunched his shoulders, and there were other things that he didn’t love; like how he didn’t have much hair. He added those things to his choreography: he put on a hat, he hunched his shoulders. And the negative turned into a positive – he changed his flaws into a motif that now everybody knows.”
In Velma, Fosse and his co-creators crafted a sassy, tough-as-nails, smart but vulnerable character, whom Chidzey says is an absolute pleasure to play, and a rare thing in musical theatre.
“Not a lot of women characters are always written well. It’s a real bonus if you get a script where she’s really well thought out and isn’t painting women as just another damsel. That’s really boring to play, and this is definitely not that.”
In fact, there are no damsels in this show, which includes Matron Mama Morton. She gets one of the show’s best songs, the double entendre-laden vaudevillian ‘When You’re Good to Mama’. It’s an early showstopper, giving Casey Donovan a chance to put her rafter-shaking vocals to good use.
“It’s so dirty,” Donovan says. “There’s so much innuendo, it’s ridiculous. I love that, because I love storytelling. You can’t see the audience, but you can direct lines to individual people: ‘There’s a lot of favours I’m prepared to do.’”
Like the other actors, Donovan says part of the joy of this production lies in the way each has been able to put their own stamp on their characters. This all started early on in the rehearsal process, when the American creative team invited each actor to do their own character development.
“The question got thrown out: What is she? What’s her sexuality? And I was like, ‘I just think she’s Mama’. I think she loves everyone, but she doesn’t do anything for nothing.”
Chicago isn’t a show that Donovan had ever seen herself in until the opportunity to audition presented itself. But she says it’s a thrill to be in a show that’s extraordinarily entertaining but dripping with cynicism and relevance.
“This almost predicted what the times would change into,” Donovan says. “And now with social media, everything is so much quicker and you don’t have to wait for a scandal, you just go and find one.”
Bassingthwaighte agrees: “I think it speaks to us in so many ways. And then there’s the fact that there’s two female leads. There’s such a big movement at the moment of all these beautiful films and TV shows lead by all these women, and it’s blowing my mind. It’s a really female-empowering time.”
For Chidzey, the show’s currency also relates to what it says about the US and how it’s reached the place it currently finds itself.
“The most hilarious line comes at the end: ‘We are living examples of what a wonderful country this is.’ And they get away with murder!”
Chicago is at Arts Centre Melbourne from December 14 to February 21.