If it weren’t for TV, James McCullough would never be acting in the Guild’s upcoming production of Chicago the Musical.
The curtain rises on Whitehorse’s staging of Broadway’s longest-running revival next week, directed by Vancouver’s Shane Snow, a first-time director to the Guild. But McCullough has had his eye on the role of Billy Flynn, the lawyer charged with representing showgirls and accused murderers, Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, for decades.
“I’ve always wanted to do that, to be Billy Flynn,” said McCullough, a long-time performer in Guild plays.
McCullough has loved musical theatre his whole life. “A well-crafted lyric is better than any speech,” he said. And memorable numbers fill this musical, written by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse. Ebb also wrote the lyrics for John Kander’s music.
In the late 1970s, McCullough watched Jerry Orbach, the original Broadway actor who played Flynn, perform a song from Chicago on The Mike Douglas Show. “I didn’t know Chicago from a hole in the ground,” he said. But after watching that number, he couldn’t forget it.
When he heard the Guild acquired the rights to the musical, he knew he had to audition. He wanted Flynn’s role, but he’d have been happy with any part in the production, he said.
But if it weren’t for TV, he doubts many people would be interested in a 1970s Broadway production based on a play written by Maurine Dallas Watkins 1926, he said.
“Reality television,” he said when asked why audiences continue to flock to the show.
“I think it plays better now to the public than it did in the ‘70s because they didn’t have the television, celebrity magazines,” said McCullough.
When Chicago ran on Broadway in the 1970s, People magazine was only a few years old. But its revival came in the late ‘90s, just as reality television and the Internet were becoming fixtures in popular entertainment, “and it just caught fire,” said McCullough. In 2002, Richard Gere, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellweger and Queen Latifa starred in a film version that earned an Academy Award for Best Picture.
That version introduced the story to Rebecca Whitcher, who plays Roxie Hart in Whitehorse’s production. She remembers how she “burst out laughing” watching Gere’s performance from her seat in Yukon Theatre.
“By the end of the movie, I was totally sold on it,” she said. Whitcher, who was born and raised in Whitehorse, has been acting and dancing since childhood and studied musical theatre in British Columbia.
Just like her character, Whitcher loves to perform, and she’s been in two previous Guild productions. In that way, she can relate to Hart’s desire for fame, she said. But she can’t identify with everything about her. “I’ve definitely never done that,” she said, referring to how Hart murders her lover, and then outright lies to her husband who takes the blame for the act before his wife is eventually arrested.
“She is more manipulative (than me), certainly,” Whitcher said. But everyone can be an opportunist, she said.
And that’s what makes the story work, said McCullough.
Whitehorse may have little in common with Prohibition-era Chicago. There’s not much of a celebrity culture here, he said. But the story has a lot of truth to it – and not just because actual murder trials inspired Watkins’s play.
“This is a show about celebrity, unearned celebrity, more than anything,” he said.
“It’s a very, very cynical show. People will do anything for success – well most people will,” said McCullough. “It really shows the underbelly of the American character, which we see all the time: Teen Mom and the Kardashians and all that.”
Today’s entertainment relies on generating drama. And Chicago provides a good commentary on this, he said.
But while the show may be about unearned celebrity, this production only comes after a lot of hard work.
Only about one in 20 companies that apply for the rights to stage Chicago gets it, said Katherine McCallum, the Guild’s artistic director. Almost 60 people auditioned for the 20 roles in December, she said. And those who earned the spots have been working tirelessly on their performances.
Whitcher has done little more than work and rehearse for the last month, she said. Rehearsals have been running Tuesday and Friday evenings for four hours, and then for seven hours on Saturdays and another seven on Sundays.
It can be hard to take a break from the show.
“You wake up in the middle of the night, and you’ve got a song stuck in your head,” said Whitcher.
But that’s not a bad thing.
“It’s just a tremendously strong show from beginning to end,” said McCullough. It may not be fit for children – his young daughters won’t be coming to the performances – but it’s still a lot of fun.
“It’s a very flashy, flashy show. You can’t help but like it,” he said.
The show runs from April 10 to May 4. Tickets are $25 for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday performances. Friday and Saturday shows cost $27. Tickets can be purchased at Whitehorse Motors.
The April 9 preview and the April 17 performance are pay-what-you-can. Tickets for these shows are only available at the door. All shows begin at 8 p.m. sharp at the Guild Hall at 27 Fourteenth Ave. in Porter Creek.
Contact Meagan Gillmore at