Interview: Returning to Chicago, Everything Old Is New Again
The incoming stars of Chicago — a production that won't let the pandemic interruption steal the thunder of its 25th anniversary season — have their own unique histories with the classic John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Bob Fosse musical. For 20 years, on and off, Bianca Marroquín took the stage on Broadway and across the world as Roxie Hart, and now, for the first time, she's graduating to the role of Velma. Lillias White returns to the show, and the plum role of Matron Mama Morton, for the first time since 2006. Paulo Szot made his Billy Flynn debut in January 2020, and was scheduled to return to the role just days after theater shut down (he's making up for lost time now, 18 months later). As for Ana Villafañe, now doing her first tour of duty as Roxie, well…she says she'd never even seen the show.
All the better for director Walter Bobbie, who is back, perhaps for the very first time since the show debuted, in the rehearsal room with his full cast, rebuilding the show from the ground up. It's a joyful yet somber occasion — the pandemic, yes, but it's also the first run of the revival on Broadway since its beloved choreographer and original costar, Ann Reinking, died late last year. But with her memory in mind, the Ambassador Theatre will once again be that whoopee spot come Tuesday, September 14.
These conversations have been condensed and edited for clarity.
This is probably the first time in 25 years that Chicago is being fully re-rehearsed with the whole company. What is this experience like for you as both veterans of the production and newcomers?
Lillias White: It's been a real plus. It's so rare for a show that's been running this long to actually have a rehearsal period again.
Bianca Marroquín: Whenever someone would get an offer to come into the show, they just rehearse with the stage manager and the dance captain, and then we just put them in.
Paulo Szot: When you step into a role, you don't have this luxury. Now, everyone is relearning their roles — and we have this company of people who've been with the show for so many years and are the anchors of the whole process. I think the challenge is to not allow your muscle memory to talk louder than the rebuild of the show.
Bianca: We're starting from scratch with our director, Walter Bobbie, and building it together again. It's allowed us to revisit the script and every single detail about the show.
Paulo: It's a matter of allowing yourself to be open and to listen to what Walter wanted, his suggestions, and explanations.
Lillias: Walter is giving it a real fresh take.
Ana Villafañe: He wants to bring it back to what it was. It has such staying power because it has all of these universal truths, and the incredible choreography and music, but there did need to be kind of like a new coat of paint, if you will. They've revamped the theater, gotten new sound, new lights, all this stuff. And I didn't have a point of reference — I'd never seen the show, so it allowed me to really discover my Roxie based on their brilliant guidance, and just based on being a woman in America, which is, like…enough in and of itself.
How do you feel about coming back, since we're still in the middle of the pandemic?
Lillias: I'm not nervous or afraid about the pandemic. The producers, the stage managers, the whole team has been very strict about the protocols. Everybody's vaccinated, we're wearing masks, we're washing our hands, and we're being very, very careful.
Paulo: We also test two times a week.
Bianca: But the fact is, and the truth is, we don't know what's going to happen if the cases start going up after we open. They're truly doing their best, but you never know. We have to be ready for that, too.
Paulo: It's uncertain times, but we're hoping everyone will be safe.
Lillias: Someone told me years ago, "The key to liberty is eternal vigilance" — that's a famous quote; I don't know who said it — and I believe it's very, very true. If we are vigilant and careful, we take care of each other.
Ana, you have a particularly daunting task ahead of you — it's your first time in the show and you're Broadway's first Roxie since Ann Reinking died last year. How do you feel about where you are right now?
Ana: Thank God I started running during the pandemic! It's just so foreign to me in terms of the dancing. The energy it takes to even stand like that. That part's exhausting. But I did On Your Feet! for over three years and I didn't leave the stage in that show, so I'm like "Wait, I get to go to the bathroom now?"
I've been like a little sponge. I take the energy of Ann Reinking no longer being with us, and being the first person to step back into this role, very seriously. I really wanted to honor her and I'm very much trying to do her show. The third day of rehearsal, I spoke to Greg Butler and asked him, like, "If there are 10 options of what move to do, give me the one Ann did and we'll start there and see if it works." It's been an undertaking, a challenge, but a really welcome one.
And Bianca, you put in 20 years, in and out, as Roxie, and this is your first contract as Velma. How do you feel about where you are right now?
Bianca: It's such a challenge, but a delicious one. I'm very excited. I've always wondered what it was like to play Velma, and I've always admired my past Velmas because of their physicality — these numbers are no joke. And I would always watch them, because Roxie has to sit there through Velma's numbers, and on Saturday matinees I'd go "Oh my god, look at them." I've texted them all to render my respects and admiration.
I auditioned for Velma seven years ago and got offered the part several times, but I could never do it [because of other commitments]. I'm grateful it came to me now, because I don't think I would have seen myself as Velma before. Because of experience, because of things that I have lived through, because of where my body and voice are, this was the right time. The universe is wise.
What emotions are you going to feel on Tuesday?
Bianca: I can't even tell you. Very excited. Nervous. Excited.
Lillias: It'll be good to be back in front of an audience. As performers, we need them, and they need us. I want people to be glad that they're out of the house and off the couch and here in the theater with a live performance. I think it's going to be breathtaking. I can't wait to hear the roar of that crowd.
Paulo: It's going to be magical, and I'm very, very emotional. I'll have to hold myself up and not cry the first moment. But I think it's going to be inevitable.