Jules Fisher, Peggy Eisenhauer, and Dion Beebe Capture the Broadway Rhythm of Chicago

A film version of Chicago is the idea that wouldn't go away. From the time that the John Kander — Fred Ebb — Bob Fosse musical opened on Broadway in 1975, under Fosse's direction, talks of a movie were bandied about, with Liza Minnelli and Goldie Hawn said to be starring. The show's triumphant 1996 Broadway revival also revived rumors of an upcoming film; Minnelli and Hawn's names were again invoked only to be replaced by the likes of Madonna and Jennifer Lopez. But did anyone believe it? After all, nobody makes movie musicals anymore, do they?

Except that Baz Luhrmann did, earning eight Oscar nominations last year and turning a profit for 20th Century Fox with Moulin Rouge. And Broadway director-choreographer Rob Marshall, fresh from reviving Cabaret, staged a 1999 TV film of Annie that demonstrated there was still life in the musical form. With Miramax money backing it up, Marshall making his feature directorial debut, and Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones in the lead roles of jazz-age murderesses Roxie Hart and Velma Kelley, the film of Chicago was finally released December 27.

One obstacle has been how to translate one of the most theatrical of musicals into cinema. The show's story, which paints the confluence of 1920s crime, celebrity, sex, jazz, and tabloid journalism in broad satiric strokes, is a framework for a series of vaudeville-style musical numbers. The book, by Ebb and Fosse, and the songs, by Kander and Ebb, spurn any naturalistic impulse, and the Walter Bobbie revival, which is still playing on Broadway, strips the show down to basics in terms of design.

Marshall and screenwriter Bill Condon decided to embrace the theatricality in a cinematic fashion. The numbers are still blatantly stylized, but take place largely in the imagination of Roxie, here portrayed in the grip of stagestruck delusions. “It's a film that works essentially through the transitions between reality and the musical numbers,” says DP Dion Beebe. “The emphasis was on making those transitions interesting and original, yet also from Roxie's point of view.” Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, brought in as theatrical lighting designers for the numbers, were told to think in like manner. “Rob said he wanted to find a language to morph out of the book scenes into a fantasy for each musical number,” says Fisher.

The first number, “All That Jazz,” starts on the reality plane. Velma, fresh from killing her philandering husband, performs the song in the Onyx, a smoky “second-rate period nightclub,” says Eisenhauer, filled with rowdy patrons. Roxie watches from the back of the house entranced, and finally “there's a switch: Velma turns away, and when she turns back, it's Roxie,” says Eisenhauer.

After Roxie commits her own murder, “she's being interviewed by the DA; he shoves a flashlight in her face, the flashlight turns into a spotlight from behind,” says Beebe. “As we move around, we realize she's escaped from this burning light in her face; and she's in this beautiful pink color; the lighting increases, and the theatre starts to reveal itself.” Cue Roxie's mock torch song, “Funny Honey.” Later, a prison searchlight provides the segue into a followspot for Velma's number “I Can't Do It Alone.” And so on: “Each one had a little vehicle to get us in and out,” says Eisenhauer. “Razzle Dazzle,” sung by Roxie's huckstering attorney Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), starts in a normal courtroom set, then, at some point, the walls are replaced by a brightly colored circus tent, with circles of light spinning around, and acrobats, trapeze artists, and showgirls dancing around the judge and jury.

For the LDs, who have worked on other film projects together, like the upcoming Marci X, their experience on Chicago was a revelation. “I've never done any film that took advantage of what we know in lighting and used it in such depth,” says Fisher, who lit the Broadway original of Chicago, but was not involved in the revival. “I worked on the Streisand A Star Is Born, and that was three or four numbers; Marci X was three numbers. We were on this for three months.”

Adds Eisenhauer, “This was much more conceptual. The thing that was exciting for us was this collaboration with the cinematographer. It combined different styles, crafts, and practices: We had the chance to collaborate with another lighting designer. We talked about color, we shared images, we talked about motion. We began to blend our inventories and, to see how our lights worked together, we did camera tests. We wanted him to know when we said dark blue, these were the dark blues we could deliver.”

Beebe, an Australian DP whose most well known credits are Holy Smoke and Charlotte Gray, says he chose to rely on lighting changes to signal Roxie's transition into musical fantasy. Most of Chicago was shot with Kodak's 500ASA 5279 stock, processed normally. “We talked about differentiating between reality and the musical numbers through stock changes or some sort of bleach bypass or other lab trick,” he says. “But I thought we needed to have a continuity, to make the transitions seamless. We use theatrical techniques, like fading through scrim walls. Visually, they are different — the real world is faded and slightly gray, and the color scheme on the stage is more vibrant, with deep violets, reds, and purples. And each time, the theatre is stylized.”

Theatrical Fantasies on Film

Twelve of the movie's 15 numbers — excluding “Razzle Dazzle,” which was too big to fit in the space — take place in the Onyx, a theatre set built from the ground up at an old factory outside Toronto. (That's right: a film named for the United States' second city was shot north of the border.) This setting was designed by John Myrhe to capture the dilapidated baroque style of an old vaudeville house. But the Onyx is not a static space — it is transformed for the purposes of each new song by the addition of set pieces and the reconfiguration of Fisher and Eisenhauer's lighting rig.

It wasn't a big rig — 20 Vari*Lite® VL2202 spot luminaires and 12 VL2402 wash luminaires; two Robert Juliat Ivanhoe 2.5kW HMI followspots and two Lycian 1290 XLT 2kW xenon followspots; 48 1kW PAR-64s; 48 750W ETC Source Fours; eight Juliat 933 SNX 2,500W HMI 30/53° zoom profiles with Juliat dousers; L&E Mini-Strips; an array of 1kW cyc lights; and Wybron Coloram scrollers for the Juliat 933 SNX and PAR-64 fixtures. All of the equipment, including the Vari*Lite Virtuoso DX console used for the theatrical lighting, was supplied by Toronto-based William F. White International, a member of the Vari-Lite dealer network. Compared to the size of much of what they've done in theatre, jokes Fisher, the film of Chicago “is an Off Broadway show.”

Eisenhauer says, “One idea was to outfit the theatre for the whole length of the movie, but we didn't have enough equipment. So we changed the lighting rig every time there was a new set in there. We organized it into a light plot for the first number, and, when that was nearly over, we had two more plots ready to go. While the main unit was off at another location, we'd change over the lighting, change the gel, fly in scrims, and, when everybody came back in, there was a new light plot that matched the new set. It was like having a little repertory.

“The use of automated lighting worked well for a lot of different reasons,” she continues. “There was the ability to reprogram it quickly and be able to repeat it 28 or 38 times. Because we had done this kind of work with this director [Eisenhauer, for example, collaborated with Marshall on Cabaret], he knew that there was a language of lighting that we could draw on. Also, because we used the VL2000 Series, and the lights were so bright, we could use fewer sources moment to moment. [That addressed a big concern of Beebe's: “Were we going to be able to get the levels we needed to shoot onstage?”] We also had the depth of control that comes with the Virtuoso.”

Nevertheless, says Fisher, “When they line-budgeted the movie, I don't think they anticipated that stage lighting would be a separate item. As we got closer to doing it, we said, ‘By the way, we're going to need some special lighting.’ So we were not in the budget, and our equipment was not in the budget. The cinematographer lights the movie, what do you need Jules and Peggy for? I think it's a tribute to Rob that he knew he needed this theatrical look, and he insisted on it.”

On the film side, the largely tungsten Onyx package ran the gamut from 2kW zips and fresnels through 5kWs, 10kWs, 18kWs, and a 20kW to augment the theatrical backlights. “There are a lot of PAR cans, a lot of Chimeras, and tons of little peppers,” says gaffer Frank Tata. In addition, the theatre had scores of practicals, including shaded 100W bulbs on the tables, 11W marquee lights, MR-16 lamps behind shells on the balcony and box fronts, and period-style footlights. Backstage, says Eisenhauer, “Based on our initial design sessions with Dion, the film crew fabricated a vintage-style light batten in front of the modern lighting, so they could shoot towards the flies and wings.” “Even though the lighting and cueing were contemporary, the camera didn't want to see a Vari*Lite,” explains Fisher.

Blending Film and Stage Lighting into One Effect

One could generalize that the theatrical lighting in Chicago is for the musical numbers, and that the film lighting is for the “book scenes.” “But it's very tied together,” says Tata. “Essentially, we built all these trusses for use by anyone.” A visit to the Onyx set, and a catwalk tour conducted by key grip Mark Manchester and rigging grip Terry Shaw, revealed a 50,000lb load-bearing truss attached at 24 points to the factory ceiling, which was erected from scratch in a matter of weeks. “We isolated certain rigs for my crew, and certain ones for Peggy and Jules, but in the end, whatever works for everybody we used,” Tata continues.

The film lighting was controlled through an MA Lighting grandMA console, operated by Geoff Frood, and positioned in the Onyx balcony next to the Virtuoso, which was operated by Matt Hudson of Vari-Lite Production Services New York. “They did not want two control consoles,” says Eisenhauer. “But I felt that controlling the whole movie through one console would take too long. We wanted three: conventional theatrical on one, film stuff on one, and moving lights on another. We made up ways to put all theatrical lights on the Virtuoso, and film stuff on the grandMA, but there's integration and crossover.

“One unique thing is that there's live timing in the lighting,” she continues. “I called all the cues take to take, as if we were doing the number live. Because I was calling it like a show, when anything on the film console needed to be synched into ours, I would discuss with the programmer of the other console what cue range we were in, give him the cueing information about what numbers he had to store or reference, and help him time it. So very often both consoles were working in tandem.” Beebe marveled at this facility. “Peggy on that desk, communicating with our board operator, could reach into the program, punch something in, and, the next thing, I'd get six Vari*Lites pointed at the stage instead of two,” the DP says. “That instant access was fantastic.”

Eisenhauer turned to the grandMA for one big piece of the “Hot Honey Rag” finale, which was shot at downtown Toronto's Elgin Theatre. The duet between Roxie and Velma is backed by a gigantic sign illuminated by 9,600 bulbs, on half a dozen dimmer racks. At the climax, the sign is machine-gunned to reveal the women's names. “They just handed me this blank map of light bulbs,” says Eisenhauer of the film's art department. “They wanted the letters of their names masked when they weren't lit, and they wanted it to chase as a flat wall, and you would never know that ‘Roxie and Velma’ was there. Also, it needed to be taken out in five seconds, in a random machine-gun pattern.” The grandMA was used because “it has a more elaborate effects engine than the Virtuoso.”

While Beebe and Tata provided a basic illumination for the performance scenes, and sometimes additional backlight, Fisher and Eisenhauer often gave a theatrical context to other moments. “There was a shot early in the movie where Velma comes up in an old stage elevator,” Eisenhauer recalls. “And Rob and Dion said, shouldn't we have stage light pouring down through the hole? So we had Vari*Lites up there on stands, and I recreated the light, timed it out, and called the cues, even though it was not really the number, it was a secondary setup. If we could provide one light, or one cue, we would do it.”

A Unique Look for Every Song

Since each number is in a distinct style, it's also difficult to generalize about the lighting in Chicago's performances scenes, apart from the overall impression of harder light and a darkened house. “‘All That Jazz’ is high-energy, it revs you up to get you into the show,” says Fisher, who adds that “Mr. Cellophane,” a number performed by Roxie's cuckolded husband (John C. Reilly) is “very quiet, slow, soft, and sad.” Eisenhauer says, “The angles that were produced in the lighting replicated the angles in the theatre. Light coming from the side and straight down was real to the theatre, and a spotlight was real to a theatrical environment. We used that to its greatest dramatic effect — some things were stark, and some things were very soft and beautiful.”

Simulated footlights were an important part of the mix. “We used 2kW softlights for uplight on the thrust whenever the actors came forward,” says Beebe. That, adds Fisher, “gave everyone beautiful, warm, soft skin.”

Overall, says Fisher, “There were two types of numbers. There were those for a movie that wouldn't be seen on a Broadway stage — coming in close, following a person stepping around a piano, stopping and standing and singing.” Examples are Roxie's rendition of “Nowadays” under a flattering spotlight and “Mr. Cellophane,” which finds Reilly at a makeup mirror, basically floating in black, lit by a followspot that eventually casts the character as pure shadow. “Those were lit with Rob and Dion looking through the lens every second — a little more light here, a little less on the back,” says Fisher.

Then there are the numbers the designer says, “we lit as you would a Broadway musical. It would have 12 light cues or 27 light cues.” “Razzle Dazzle” is one such song; so is “Cell Block Tango,” in which Roxie and Velma's prison pals recount their crimes. This is the film's modern soundstage-style number, for which the Onyx was converted into a black box setting populated by dozens of extras behind “Jailhouse Rock”-style prison bars.

“Movies do not often have light cues, period,” Fisher continues. “They shoot a moment lit in a certain way, stop the camera, move the lights, move the camera, do another moment, or they light the scene and move the camera around but the lights rarely change.” But in Chicago, you see the lights change. Though the numbers were shot with at least two and sometimes three cameras, to provide Marshall with a range of editing possibilities, Eisenhauer says, “Rob wanted to do some things in real time, to enhance the believability of the performance, to show they really were singing and dancing and not cut it up and push it together” (as in, say, Moulin Rouge). “Sometimes he wanted to shoot through 20 cues, sometimes every two or six. The impulses of the light changes are part of the rhythm of the piece.”

“They Both Reached for the Gun,” another large-scale performance number with multiple cues, was being shot during a set visit in February 2002. Conceived as a vaudevillian ventriloquist act, with Billy Flynn pulling the strings of a dummy-like Roxie and life-size puppets of the press, this number features a blinking proscenium arch and shafts of downlight that echo the motif of the marionette strings. With gaudy chasing and swirling lights, with performers in brilliantined hair and waxen makeup, the sequence is nothing if not theatrical. Up in the balcony, Eisenhauer and Hudson were at the Virtuoso, Frood next to them at the grandMA, on a headset with Tata. And Marshall and Beebe peered intently at the video assist. The whole scene spoke to a harmonious coming together of disciplines into what one hopes will be a coherent whole.

Beebe, who never dreamed of shooting a musical, says the form was not in his vocabulary. “But it is now — it's a fantastic medium. Working to the beat of a song is such a pleasure. This has been a wonderful marriage between theatrical lighting and film lighting.” Fisher marvels as if for the first time of the possibilities of film. “Every moment was about details. There was not one lighting idea; there were hundreds of lighting ideas. Even the moments that were captured from a distance, Rob carved it up and said ‘Now I want to get just her finger.’ It had to be lit so that the finger would look beautiful. I think what will make some of the movie exciting is that it has the power of theatrical lighting.”

Contact the author at john.calhoun@rcn.com.