As Williamstown prepares to step back in time to the roaring ‘20s — a time of hot jazz and even hotter murderesses—we spoke to Paul Watson about his vision for the show, how he prepares himself to direct a production, and why Chicago is such a relevant musical for this day and age.
Theatre People: Can you tell us a bit about your version of Chicago?
Paul Watson: Our Chicago is a return dramatically to the original 1970's production, but we have kept the aesthetic of the 90's revival. We wanted to use the production as a chance to pay homage to not only all the vaudeville stars that the characters and numbers are based on, but also to Bob Fosse himself. We have referenced many things he has touched over his career and we also pay homage to his favourite set designs, choreography and styles, and also his ‘darkness’ and how he loved to play for satire, pathos, and make cynical social commentary. Fosse was a very clever man, not only on stage but behind the camera as well, and so I’ve taken some of his film work and paid homage to that too. I guess it's really a celebration of Bob Fosse more than anything else. We are very proud of the show.
TP: What was your primary focus when approaching this production?
PW: My focus was to create an aesthetically pleasing show that was simple and frugal, like a band of vaudeville players moving from theatre to theatre with nothing but a small suitcase to hold a small costume and nothing else. Even though it is placed in 1920's prohibition, and it has that speakeasy, smokey, gin-soaked motif – it's still timeless! I very much wanted to focus on the ‘middle finger’ Fosse intended the show to originally be. The ‘70's version was all about media and legal systems turning crime into celebrity, and Fosse really wanted to pull back the curtain and expose the legal system for what it was. The original intention of “Razzle Dazzle” was an orgy sequence, because Bob basically wanted to tell the audience, “Unless you have fame, money, or both, the legal system will screw you!” I find it still so relevant today—perhaps even more so. The fame we make out of such notorious celebrities such as O.J Simpson, Michael Jackson, The Menendez Brothers, Lorena Bobbit, Lindsay Lohan, Britney [Spears], etc… Chicago is essentially the musical version of Natural Born Killers.
I wanted to also expose the audience and ask them to point a moral compass at themselves and ask why they are cheering for murderers and those who lack morality. I've tried to take away the big show-acting from the revival and head more to conversational dialogue that lets the numbers truly be the 'form as content' style Fosse was always after. Thank god I have such an amazing Choreographer in Vanessa Peach who took our melting pot of ideas and fashioned choreography with meaning. Fosse loved 'form as content'. Think Cabaret, and Pippin. He used it in Chicago, too, possibly to greatest effect. The false glamour of show business was also a metaphor he used a lot. Fosse hated the very industry that he thrived on. The false glamour was his metaphor for life.
TP: How did you prepare yourself to direct Chicago?
PW: Research is my favourite part of any show. I love to get into the show by researching the period, styles, events of the time… But with Chicago, once I had done all that research, I realised that the best thing I could do was to try and get into the head of Fosse and try to understand what he was trying to do in the ‘70s and why he did it so successfully. Understanding him, I feel, is the true essence of this show and we’re definitely not making it a Broadway number or fashioning something new out of it. I said to my cast early on "it is called Chicago not ‘New York.’ It has to be dark, moody, illegally gin-soaked and cynical. That was Chicago in the ‘20s! If you want Broadway, there is a show called Guys and Dolls!” Fosse was never going to try and make another Guys and Dolls!
The making of Chicago is also highly documented as the movie All That Jazz which is autobiographical and is based around the time when [Fosse] was putting Chicago together. If you watch the film, even the set model they use is based on the original Chicago set! Many moments of that film marry up with Chicago very closely— his ex-wife in the lead role, his muse in the wings, etc. The “Take Off With Us” number is essentially, I believe, Fosse showing us the “Razzle Dazzle” orgy he was trying to get past the producers of Chicago.
In the end, I always feel that knowledge is power and the more you can prepare yourself, the better your choices can be as they will be educated choices. Research, preparation, background work, for me, is the number one thing you need to be able to create good theatre.
TP: What drew you to Williamstown’s Chicago?
PW: Basically three reasons:
1. I have always admired Bob Fosse, particularly as a filmmaker.
2. I have not worked in a small intimate space for a while and I thought Chicago would work very well at Williamstown. I thought Williamstown would be able to provide me with everything I needed and at the same time I knew Williamstown were looking for a director to push a few boundaries and stretch the company and its venue. That was something that appealed to me. When a producer says to a creative director, “get creative" it's hard to turn that down!
The third reason is simple – it’s close to home!
TP: You are directing and designing the set. Do you think that each role helps the other?
PW: I honestly believe the most important relationship in theatre is between the director and set designer. Sure, Director and Choreographer is important, or Director and Musical Director, Creative Team and Cast, Creative Team and Producers etc. All these relationships are vital, but, in regards to the show, I feel that the only two roles that are ever 100% on the go at all times are those two. Maybe add in lighting design (depending on the show) and costume design as well. That is not to say I think any department is less valued. Everyone has a job to do.
I love to design sets. I'm not the best by a long shot, but it does help me be a better director by knowing the world I'm working in. I visualise myself in that world and once I know all the locations I can really think about how to present the show as best I can. I never like to use locations just to use them so I try to find important reasoning as to why someone is on a staircase or which doors to use. For me it all has purpose and I can find that purpose when I know the settings intimately. I think theatre is all about getting inside the heads of the people creating it. It helps me to be involved in the design process.
TP: What is your favourite song/scene?
PW: There are so many in Chicago, but as a director of the show I think anything that pushes style boundaries is what attracted me to it. The absurdist courtroom, the fractured blocking of the second act… But the one thing I am proudest of is the way we have presented the second half of the Act II. Amos making a choice, Billy showing his truth, the girls’ self-discovery… Anything that is a challenge and hopefully that we execute really well is my favourite moment!
TP: What do you think is the most exciting thing for audiences of this production?
PW: The energy! It pretty much blows the roof off that little venue. Dan Heskitt and his jazz band on stage, a stellar cast, amazing lighting by Jason Bovaird, incredible sound by Marcello… it is going to be rocking!
TP: What have you learned from being a part of this production?
PW: I need to take a break!
Chicago is completely sold out, including an extended season (sorry).