Making a murderess: The true stories behind hit musical Chicago

True crime and all that jazz

Image: Paul Kolnik
Before it was an Academy Award-winning film, it was a hit Broadway musical and, before that, a series of murder trials. Today, we know it for its dark humour, sharp dances, raw energy and unforgettable music. In short, Chicago is timeless, and it’s on its way to Beijing this November.

The story
America's Roaring Twenties shattered all known boundaries of decorum, entertainment and societal expectations. Twenties women didn’t stuff themselves into corsets and wait for marriage proposals – they painted their faces, bared their shoulders, and danced wildly to outrageous music called ‘jazz’. And nothing went better with smoky clubs and muted trumpets than illegal liquor.

Image: Jeremy Daniel

Ironically, the Prohibition Era, which banned alcohol from 1920 to 1933, actually created the bar culture whose shadowy form we still enjoy today. A host of 'speakeasies', or illegal clubs, created myriad opportunities for vice, corruption and crime – especially in Chicago.

Set against this pulsating backdrop, the musical Chicago celebrates the criminal-turned-pop idol. Vaudeville singer Velma Kelly catches her husband with her sister and offs them both, while wannabe Roxie Hart’s lover lies about making her a star and pays by taking three in the chest. Hart then convinces her simple, dull husband to stand by her and even fabricates an unborn baby for the press. Their celebrity lawyer Billy Flynn can bamboozle any jury, and prison matron Mama Morton knows how to buy and sell favours. Meanwhile, reporter Mary Sunshine bleats about the tragic innocents corrupted by jazz and liquor.

The backstory
And the story is rooted in fact – namely, the 1924 murder trials of Beulah Annan (Roxie) and Belva Gaertner (Velma), and bolstered by the saccharine reporting of the Chicago Tribune’s Maurine Dallas Watkins (Mary Sunshine). At that time, jurors (and most criminals) were men; merry murderesses drew both admiration and pity as victims of the Jazz Age – and got away with murder.

Belva Gaertner
Belva Gaertner looking at her defense lawyer (1924). Image: Chicagology

Annan changed her story repeatedly and invented a pregnancy, but still shook off charges of killing her lover. Worse, she publicly left her inexplicably loyal husband the day after the trial. For her part, Gartner killed her married lover in her car, citing an alcoholic blackout. Walker knit her popular columns into a 1926 hit play and silent film the following year, and Chicago evolved from there.

Beulah Annan
Beulah Annan. Image: Chicagology

Originally debuted in 1975, the musical Chicago was a modest success, but even the cynical ’70s weren’t ready for a chilly story about murder as a form of entertainment. But with today’s reality shows and televised trials, nothing is sacred. The 1996 revival holds the record for Broadway’s second-longest running show and spawned the hugely successful 2002 film. Furthermore, John Kander and Fred Ebb’s classic score only got stronger; try finding a chorus or cabaret show without ‘Razzle Dazzle’, ‘All That Jazz’, ‘Funny Honey’, ‘Mr Cellophane’ or even ‘Cellblock Tango’ on the programme.

The characters
But the truth doesn’t stop with real-life murderesses; in a flash of brilliance, Kander and Ebb created a vaudeville-style show where the characters also echoed personalities of iconic performers. Mama Morton was jazz great Sophie Tucker, and Billy Flynn was band leader Ted Lewis – who coined the phrase ‘Is evvverybody happy?’. But it’s with the ‘jazz babes’ that things get interesting.

Before Judy Garland and Billie Holiday, there was Helen Morgan, the prototype for the moody chanteuse Roxie Heart. The throaty laments she warbled in smoky Prohibition-era nightclubs struck a chord with both mobsters and molls. But Morgan had her own demons. Born in 1900, to a dirt farmer in Danville, Illinois, she made her way into films but let alcohol destroy her. Many believe her trademark of singing sprawled across the piano (think Roxie in ‘Funny Honey’) developed because she was too inebriated to stand up. Morgan died at age 41 of cirrhosis of the liver.

helen morgan
Helen Morgan. Image: The Everett Collection

Born in Waco, Texas, 1884, former Sunday school teacher Texas Guinan became the symbol of the Roaring Twenties, and inspiration for Velma Kelly. A vaudeville singer who become America’s first female film cowboy (and who did all her own stunts) she later owned a string of Chicago speakeasies complete with 40 scantily clad fan dancers. Constantly raided, each club had a maximum six-month shelf life but Texas was Teflon: after all, she sold mixers – if customers brought their own hip flasks, she couldn't stop them.

Texas_Guinan_Warner c1920
Texas Guinan.

Media and patrons alike revelled in her sharp wit and quotable quips, and when she greeted her customers by shouting ‘Hello Suckers’ (à la Velma in Act II), they screamed for more. Guinan is celebrated in literature, theatre and cinema; homages and portrayals range from Damon Runyon stories to Star Trek: Next Generation. Even Mae West adopted her characteristics. It was amoebic dysentery that finally ended her life, but some personalities never really die.
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