Renee Zellweger, Chicago
Credit: Chicago: David James

As conceived for Broadway in 1975, ”Chicago” dissected a 1920s jazz-age murder trial with lots of salacious, hip-swiveling dance moves by Bob Fosse and supercynical songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb. That production was overshadowed by ”A Chorus Line,” but a 1996 revival that won six Tonys and is still running made the show hot again. But how to turn it into a movie musical?

The answer eluded Miramax for years. Could Madonna and Goldie Hawn play the story?s pair of unrepentant man killers, one of whom (Roxie) yearns to bump the other (Velma) from the tabloid-newspaper limelight? Would John Travolta play their slick, egocentric lawyer? Scripts by Larry Gelbart and Wendy Wasserstein were commissioned and scrapped. Then Miramax met with director-choreographer Rob Marshall, who?d scored strong ratings for ABC with an adaptation of ”Annie.” (He did the Whitney Houston/Brandy ”Cinderella,” too.) Though in talks for a movie of ”Rent,” Marshall actually longed to do ”Chicago.” So he pitched what he calls a mind?s-eye-story version of the show, where most of the numbers would be triggered by ”the reality of a trial,” but then segue into stylized, figments-of-Roxie?s-imagination showstoppers.

With a spur from ”Moulin Rouge”’s high-profile launch, the picture became a $40 million-range A-list priority for Miramax. Hugh Jackman was considered for the lawyer role, but he was wrapped up with the ”X-Men” sequel. So the spotlight turned to Gere, who got his showbiz start in theater (including musicals) three decades ago. Says Gere, ”I could play five instruments and sing, and my hair was down to here.” Still, he was nervous about mastering the vaudevillian vibe of ”Chicago”’s lyrics. ”We all could sing,” he says. ”But what we knew how to sing wasn?t this stuff.”

Zeta-Jones (Velma), who had given birth a year earlier, worried more about her thighs than her cues. ”I felt like a heffalump,” she says of costume fittings beside rail-thin dancers. ”No carbs for me!” But her biggest bugaboo was the smoking required to set the hazy, speakeasy vibe. ”We did ‘All That Jazz’ and the dancers were smoking these herbal cigarettes,” she says. (She puffed the real thing.) ”God, they?re like smoking cowpats. I said, ‘Hey, these might be better for you, but I feel like I?m dancing in a stable.”’

THE LOWDOWN Miramax has visions of attracting the multigenerational audiences that ”Moulin Rouge” did last year. But can ”Chicago”’s more traditional show tunes snag a pop-minded demographic?

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