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Gere, Zeta-Jones, Zellweger Wow Audiences in <i>Chicago</i> - 2003-01-04

A Broadway favorite since the 1970s finally makes it to the big screen and revives hopes for a return of the musical movie genre. Richard Gere, Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones co-star; and Alan Silverman has a look at Chicago.

It's been 28 years since Chicago: A Musical Vaudeville first opened on Broadway. The witty songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb and the razzle-dazzle staging and choreography of co-writer Bob Fosse made it an instant hit that has been revived numerous times (in fact, it's still running); but for a quarter century Chicago resisted all efforts to turn it into a film . . . until now.

The story of celebrity and murder . . . of women who killed the lovers who did them wrong is set at the end of the 'roaring 20's.' It opens in a steamy jazz club in old Chicago.

As star attraction Velma Kelley vamps onstage, Roxie Hart watches from the audience and dreams of being a star herself.

But Roxie's path to fame takes a detour to the Cook County Jail where she joins her idol Velma in a chorus of women sent up for killing their lovers.

Between the chorines is Billy Flynn, the slickest attorney in town, who does his singing and dancing in front of a judge and jury.

As Billy Flynn it's no surprise that Richard Gere can sing. Musical theater was part of his early career, but Gere says learning to tap and dance at the same time was something new . . . and humiliating.

"You think you have a connection with your feet because you've been using them your whole life, but you don't," Gere says. " First of all, it's a real workout; it's like a boxer's workout. Then to do the simplest step in repetition is impossible. The nerves are not there, the muscles are not there and it literally was months before anything would happen that would make me feel relatively comfortable about it."

Catherine Zeta-Jones sang and danced before her movie career; but now 33, the Welsh-born actress admits getting into shape to play Velma was a task.

"I started dancing when I was a kid. I did musical comedy as a teenager, then I stopped," she says. "That was another life. I never picked up another pair of dance shoes again."

"Cut to the first day of rehearsals," she continues," I'm there looking behind me at the best dancers in the world [and asking] 'Why am I out in front? Can I go behind that girl? The really good one who's really pretty, too. I don't want to be up front.' It took me a long time to get into the swing," Zeta-Jones admits, " and many a hot salt bath to ease the pain."

It was all new for Renee Zellweger, who had no musical theater experience.

"You're using muscles you didn't know were there," says Zellweger. "The 'high heel' muscles were definitely new and needed some developing, that's for sure."

But as Roxie she learned how exciting it can be when all the pieces the singing, the dancing, the lights come together, especially in her big number staged in front of a series of mirrors.

"Peter, the camera operator had to be there in the mirror. I had to see him when I made the turns and if I stepped just an inch that way too far, then it was no good," explains Zellweger. " If I turned my head wrong or missed the word or any of these things or so many things could go wrong: if the light didn't come over at the right time, if one of the guy dancers had a moment where he went - 'what am I doing?' we'd have to start all over again."

"So we go in to it: turn and look in the mirror - please God, let him be there. He's there! two more steps turn into the mirror. He's there, yes! Go this way three more steps do the thing, turn, sing the song, don't forget the words, don't forget your face, don't forget touching the mirror, more your shoulder, don't get tangled and.... he's there!" Zellweger continues. "This went on for five minutes. It's a sequence that doesn't stop and everything kept going right. Every time something went right, the pressure would pile up. 'Don't mess it up now.' And we did it.... the back walk over and out the door and they were still rolling on the guys and I was jumping up and down just outside the frame because it all went right!"

Chicago is directed and choreographed by Rob Marshall. The cast also includes wonderful turns by John C. Reilly and Queen Latifah.