“Chicago” may take place in the 1920s, but many of the issues the musical deals with are still relevant today. Torn Ticket II’s production of the show, which runs March 30 through April 1 in Cohen Auditorium, will explore sexism, xenophobia and corrupt media — all issues that have been making headlines recently.
Chloe Hyman, a senior majoring in art history, plays the lead female role in “Chicago,” Roxie Hart. Hyman has been studying acting since the age of seven and singing since age nine, but “Chicago” is the first musical of her Tufts career. As a performer, she has explored other media at The Institute Sketch Comedy and the Tufts University Television (TUTV) miniseries “Pantheon University.”
“I always told myself I would audition for a musical if the right one came along, like the perfect one,” Hyman said. “So when ‘Chicago’ came around my senior spring, I was like, ‘I absolutely have to audition for this.’ I like ‘Chicago’ because every number is like a vaudeville number and you get to really perform it.”
Simone Allen, a senior majoring in music, is the musical director of “Chicago.” Chicago is the 11th production that Allen has worked on during her time at Tufts; others include “Into the Woods,” “Little Shop of Horrors” and her own short musical.
Allen explained that female characters in musicals are often boxed into stereotypical roles, which grew out of opera.
“There are character types for women especially. Usually there is the ingénue, who is a young and innocent soprano who is not very three-dimensional. Or there’s the alto, who is sexy and might have worse moral character. The nice thing about ‘Chicago’ is that there are not any female characters who fit either of those,” Allen said. “Often in operas, the music is beautiful, but the plot is not very complicated and the characters aren’t always three-dimensional,” she said. “In the early days of musical theater, I think they were drawing more on that model.”
Hyman explained how Roxie Hart breaks this mold. Roxie is a young woman in an unhappy marriage who dreams of becoming a vaudeville star. After a fight, Roxie murders her lover on the side and finds herself in prison.
“You want to call her the villain because she murders her lover, but there’s a lot of humanity there,” Allen said. “At the same time, you want to categorize her as a heroine or some sort of ingénue character, but she’s way too manipulative to be that character.”
Hyman added that “Chicago” is a feminist show because of its wide variety of female characters.
“We talked a lot over the course of our show whether the show is a feminist show and whether our characters are feminist characters, and we came to the conclusion that it is a feminist show because the characters are just women. Every woman is different. We’re full of many different qualities.”
One of the most crucial characters in Torn Ticket II’s production of “Chicago” is Hunyak, a Hungarian immigrant in the same prison as Roxie. The only words in English that Hunyak knows are “not guilty,” which she repeats throughout the show.
“[Hunyak] is the only [woman in the prison] who can’t defend herself because she is the only one who can’t speak English,” Hyman said. “She’s the one who — spoiler alert — dies. All these other women are able to use their privilege to get themselves out of prison, and that is something that really rings true today: that people in a position of privilege are more easily able to get out of the system.”
Since President Donald Trump issued the travel ban on Jan. 27, prejudice against immigrants has entered the national spotlight, perhaps more so than in the recent past. Hunyak’s death reflects some of this current xenophobia.
“A xenophobic frame of mind is what led to her execution. That’s very relevant today,” Hyman said.
Allen added that while the media portrays Roxie as a beautiful, tragically misunderstood vaudeville performer, Hunyak is a foreigner who cannot defend herself.
“The media doesn’t know what to do with that, so they don’t try to get her out of jail,” she said.
Allen links the media today and the role of media in “Chicago.” Referencing the use of the phrases “fake news” and “alternative facts” in today’s headlines, Allen said, “Something that we’re trying to emphasize in the show is people viewing the media more for shock value than for actual facts.”
For example, in the song “We Both Reached for the Gun,” Billy Flynn, the lawyer for Roxie and other inmates, feeds the media Roxie’s completely made-up alibi. He tricks the media into sympathizing more with Roxie than the person she murdered.
“He completely manipulates them, twists the facts and twists everybody’s perception,” Allen said.
According to Hyman, Torn Ticket II will slightly queer the “Chicago narrative.” In traditional Broadway productions that strictly follow original choreographer Bob Fosse’s stage directions, Billy Flynn sings with scantily-clad female members of the ensemble behind him, while men in suits dance behind Roxie when she sings.
“There’s an uncomfortable dynamic. There’s a power thing there,” Hyman said, pointing out the double standard implicated by this trope.
In the Torn Ticket II production, the entire ensemble wears similar costumes, and both male and female members dance behind Billy and Roxie when they sing.
Hyman also explained that Bob Fosse’s choreography included gendered dance moves in which male and female performers would move in very specific ways. Performers in the Torn Ticket II production were given the option to experiment with these moves outside the bounds of gender.
“We were given the option to play with that, so that people could explore Bob Fosse movements without feeling overly gendered,” Hyman said.
Allen said that the choreography of “Chicago” will be quite provocative.
“Our show is very sexy. There are a lot of scantily-clad dancers on the stage,” Allen said. “We are trying to do it in as progressive a way as we possibly can, in a way that the dancers feel empowered and comfortable with one another.”
Sophomore Rich Kirby, junior Deborah Greene and senior Megan McCormick — who also plays the character Mary Sunshine — choreographed the production.
“Chicago is really a choreographer’s dream,” Kirby told the Daily in an email. “Deborah [Greene], Megan [McCormick] and I all created 15 dance numbers that all had very contrasting styles, ranging from Fosse to burlesque. I think the hardest challenge for me as a choreographer was ‘Razzle Dazzle,’ since I had to teach the dancers how to be sexy. The BDSM theme of the song was a little foreign to me at first.”
Allen hopes that “Chicago” will challenge the audience.
“I really hope that it makes people think and that they’re slightly creeped out and disturbed by the end,” she said.
She also hopes that the show will prompt reflection on the current issues of immigration, xenophobia and press censorship.
In addition to serious contemplation, “Chicago” will be a source of energy and entertainment for the audience.
“It’s just a really fun show,” Allen said.