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Musical Theatre and Law: Chicago, The Musical

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Ambassador Theater in New York City [Photo by Geraldine Davila Gonzalez]
The American Theatre Wing announced today their nominees for the 73rd annual Tony Awards. While reading about this season’s nominees, my head automatically went into thinking about the different ways musical theatre, in its artistic or production form, relates to law. While researching the relationship between law and musical theatre, I came across the true stories that inspired the longest-running American musical on Broadway.

Chicago was originally meant to be a straight play. Written by Maurine Dallas Watkins in 1926, it featured two murder cases of women who were held on murderess row at the Cook County Jail in 1924.

Watkins moved to Chicago to pursue a career in journalism. She quickly got hired at the Chicago Tribune, where she was designated as a crime journalist and was assigned with covering cases of women on murderess row.

She came across Belva Gaertner, a cabaret singer who was accused of fatally shooting her lover, Walter Law. He was found dead in the front seat of Gaertner’s car with a bottle of gin and a gun lying beside him. Gaertner was found later at her apartment with blood-soaked clothes on the floor. She confessed that she was drunk and was driving with Law, but couldn’t remember what happened. She was arrested on March 12, 1924.

Watkins also met Beulah Annan, who was also accused of killing her lover, Harry Kalstedt, out of anger. They were both in her marital bedroom, which she shared with her then-husband, Albert Annan, when she and Kalstedt got into an argument. They both reached for the gun, which Beulah grabbed first, and she shot him. She played the foxtrot record “Hula Lou” repeatedly for hours and watched him die slowly while she sipped on cocktails. She later called Albert to say that she killed a man who “wanted to make love to her.”

Both Belva and Beulah were all over the news thanks to Maurine, who wrote about them constantly in the Chicago Tribune. The articles authored by Maurine are held here at the Library of Congress in the Newspapers Reading Room of the Serial and Government Publications Division.

Possibly due to the press coverage, and the fact that they were deemed “stylish” and “beautiful,” both Belva and Beulah, in their respective cases, were acquitted by the jury; Annan in May of 1924 and Gaertner a month later in June. Belva’s defense counsel established that she didn’t remember what happened and the crime was ruled a suicide. Meanwhile, Beulah’s story changed over time but then settled on her having faked a pregnancy and Kalstedt having intended to kill her out of anger, and she had defended herself from him by getting to the gun first.

After leaving the Tribune, Watkins later joined the Yale School of Drama, where she wrote the original script for Chicago, drawing inspiration from Belva and Beulah to create Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart respectively. Jeff Flannery from the Manuscript Division was able to find the original copyright deposit manuscript of the play written by Watkins. The original manuscript submitted to the Library of Congress has Watkins’ handwriting and in the document, she had both possible titles for the play, Chicago or Playball. The play will become part of public domain in approximately 2022.

The original play opened on Broadway and ran for 172 performances at the Music Box Revue, now renamed the Music Box Theater.

In the 1960s, Bob Fosse approached Watkins to make Chicago into a Broadway musical, although she originally declined his multiple requests. After her passing in 1969, those in charge of her estate sold Fosse and his then-wife Gwen Verdon the rights and the show began development. He collaborated with composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb to develop the score. It premiered on Broadway in 1975 at the 46th St Theater, now renamed the Richard Rodgers Theater. Starring Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera, the show ran for 936 performances before closing in 1977. The show was revived in 1996 and it is still open, making it the longest running American musical of all time.

Gwen Verdon donated Fosse’s papers to the Library of Congress after his passing and they are currently held in the Music Division. Fred Ebb passed away in 2004 and his papers can be found in the Manuscript Division of the New York Public Library.

The show went on to become a movie, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2002.

The Law Library of Congress only collects Federal appellate and Supreme Court records and briefs. For persons doing research on state court cases, we recommend they contact the state archives.

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