Nearly 30 years before Renée Zellweger starred in the Oscar-winning movie adaptation of Chicago, Gwen Verdon originated the role of Roxie Hart on Broadway. Videos of Verdon in Chicago aren’t as easy to access as Zellweger’s interpretation or even the numerous other actresses who have portrayed Roxie onstage. But as the person who helped to define this iconic character and fought to Chicago become a musical, Verdon’s version is worth watching.
According to Playbill, the original production of Chicago ran for 936 performances from May 1975 to August 1977. It would be the last show that Verdon would star on in Broadway, but she lived to see it be revived in 1996 with none other than Bob Fosse’s other longtime love — Ann Reinking — as Roxie. (Reinking also choreographed the revival in the style of Fosse.) The revival is still currently on Broadway, making it the second longest-running show after The Phantom of the Opera. As of May 2019, Playbill reported that the Chicago revival has had more than 9,300 performances — so roughly 1,000 percent more shows than the original run.
In that time, a lot of performers have taken on the role of Roxie. For the 22nd anniversary of the revival in November 2018, Broadway Box reported that 46 actresses had portrayed Roxie since 1996 with Charlotte d’Amboise having the longest tenure with over 2,135 performances. Other notable performers who have portrayed the merry murderess include Christie Brinkley, Melanie Griffith, Melora Hardin, Marilu Henner, Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child (not the star of Gwen/Verdon), Bebe Neuwirth (who was the original Velma in the revival), Brooke Shields, Ashlee Simpson-Wentz, and Rita Wilson. But Verdon was the originator of the role long before any of these actresses.
Listening to Verdon’s Roxie is easy enough with the Original Broadway Cast recording available on Spotify, which also features Chita Rivera as Velma Kelly and Jerry Orbach as Billy Flynn. Unfortunately, videos of her time in the role are harder to come by. But here’s what the internet has to offer of Verdon in Chicago 45 years after the fact.
The above video is grainy, but it shows a few numbers from the original production — all starting with a snippet of Verdon performing "Roxie." It even ends with a version of the original ending of Chicago. Rather than it being "Nowadays," Rivera explained in the 2015 PBS career retrospective A Lot of Livin’ to Do that the original ending was a song called "Loopin’ the Loop" with her on drums and Verdon on saxophone.
"Roxie" Audio Only
Although you won’t be able to see Verdon in this performance of "Roxie," you can still hear how charismatic she was in a live setting and how well the audience responded to her in this full audio of the song.
"Nowadays/Hot Honey Rag"
This video of the Chicago final number comes from a promotional performance that Verdon and Rivera did on the talk show The Mike Douglas Show. (The entire segment with interviews is also available on YouTube.) There’s a lower-quality version of them performing "Nowadays" on Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell as well.
"Nowadays" At The 1984 Tonys
About a decade after they debuted the roles of Velma and Roxie, Rivera and Verdon took the stage for the 1984 Tonys. Liza Minnelli introduced Rivera as she sings an abbreviated rendition of "All The Jazz" before Verdon joins her for "Nowadays."
As Fosse/Verdon will show, Verdon didn’t do every performance of Roxie in the original production. Minnelli filled in for a month when Verdon was sick. And Reinking replaced Verdon in 1977 (check out this photo of Reinking in character from the New York Public Library) 20 years before she would do the revival. But Verdon was the OG Roxie and who knows if Chicago would have even been the successful musical it is without her. So while the 50-year-old Verdon was far from ingénue age when Chicago premiered, she helped to create a female leading role on Broadway for women of varying ages and proved she still had her star power in the process.
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