Study Guide

Chicago Themes

  • Admiration

    Celebrities are often described as being in the spotlight (which can be literal) or put on a pedestal (which is usually figurative—unless you're Sofia Vergara being objectified at the Emmy awards in 2014).

    The reason for these phrases is the admiration that celebrities receive from society. They seem more important than others. All eyes are on them. But Chicago explores what celebrities have to do as they scale that pedestal, and how many dead bodies they leave in the shadows near the spotlight.

    Questions About Admiration

    1. Why is Roxie a fan of Velma Kelly? Do you think she admired her before the murder? What changes Roxie's mind about Velma? When does Velma become a fan of Roxie, or does she?
    2. What does the public adore about Roxie Hart, Velma Kelly, and the other merry murderesses? Does the public actually admire them, or do they also admonish them? Is it possible to do both?
    3. Why is the public's admiration for murderesses so fickle?

    Chew on This

    Committing a crime to gain fame is like opening a can of Pringles: once Roxie pops (a cap in Fred Casely) she can't stop.

    Roxie Hart may be guilty of killing a man, but she isn't guilty of riding that wave to fame. The public is guilty for making the wave.

  • Manipulation

    The pen is mightier than the sword. While the sword can change the way a person looks—a scar here, a stump there—the pen changes the way a person thinks. The media can change public perception on any issue. But who is in charge of the media? Is it the company that owns it, the celebrity feeding them stories, or the lawyer wrapping an entire courtroom around his little finger? Chicago takes a look at all parties' powers of persuasion.

    Questions About Manipulation

    1. What tactics does Billy Flynn use to successfully manipulate the courtroom? Why do they work?
    2. Are Roxie and Velma able to manipulate Billy in any way?
    3. How do Roxie and Billy manipulate Amos? How does he serve as a pawn in their schemes? When does he realize he's being manipulated, and how does this affect him? Do you feel sorry for him?
    4. Does the public know they're being manipulated by the media circus surrounding the trial? Do they care?

    Chew on This

    Being a lawyer and being a celebrity have something in common: both have to be able to manipulate their audience.

    The manipulation game is a long con—the celebrity has to manipulate the press who, in turn, manipulates the public. It is almost impossible to find the truth in this chain.

  • Violence

    What's black and white and red all over? A newspaper with a sensational murder as part of its front-page story.

    The media love sensational crimes, and the bloodier the better. The more violent a crime, the more people find out about it, making it a fine line between infamy and fame. And you better believe that the majority of the characters in Chicago want to use their infamy to gain (more) fame.

    Questions About Violence

    1. What is the justification each woman has for murdering her man? Do you agree with them? As the song says, "I betcha you would have done the same."
    2. Do any of the women commit a crime with the explicit purpose of being more famous? Or do they use the violent act to then achieve fame?
    3. Are these women dangerous? Will they commit another violent act if they are released from prison?
    4. Are women the only violent characters in the movie? How do the acts of violence committed by men compare to the acts of violence committed by women?

    Chew on This

    The women in Cook County Jail tend to get off of death row because women were viewed as inherently innocent in the 1920s.

    Society glamorizes violence in the same way it glamorizes women—so a murderous hottie is doubly sexy.

  • Sexuality and Sexual Identity

    If Roxie Hart earned $1,000 a week in 1920, she would earn a little more than $12,000 a week today, accounting for inflation. We're not sure how much her monetary value as a vaudeville singer and dancer would change in almost a century, but one thing would most likely remain constant: her sex appeal.

    Sex appeal is a currency in any industry, whether we want to admit it or not, and in no industry more than the entertainment industry. It's a business where you have to look good to succeed, and you have to succeed in order to afford to look that good. Chicago is a world of bribery and manipulation, and it shows us how important Roxie's sex appeal is to all these transactions.

    Questions About Sexuality and Sexual Identity

    1. How do the women use their sexuality to their advantage before committing a crime? How does it compare to the ways they utilize their sexuality after landing in prison?
    2. All of the women—including Mama and the Hunyak—wear revealing outfits in Roxie's fantasy versions of them. Why are they sexualized too?
    3. In the fantasy sequence involving Billy Flynn, he removes his clothes. Is this sexual in nature? What is the intention of this pseudo-strip tease?

    Chew on This

    Like violence, sex is both condemned by and alluring to the public. The public and the press are drawn to its appeal.

    While it may seem like Roxie is using sex appeal to her benefit (and in a way she is), she is still just a sex object.

  • Society and Class

    In any generation, there will be someone who thinks that the modern trends of the day are the downfall of society… whether it's Twitter and rap, video games and disco, or speakeasies and jazz. All of these things will destroy our children and bring ruin upon us!

    Except… they haven't. But Chicago illustrates the fears of 1920, and it shows us how they're used to both appeal to and to control society.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. How has society changed since 1920? How is it different?
    2. Chicago, the musical, was written in the mid-1970s. How did 1920s society compare with 1970s disco culture?
    3. How does the press influence the public's opinion? Do you think all papers cover the Hart trial equally?

    Chew on This

    Chicago is still popular—and relevant—because its critique of popular culture and society is timeless.

    As much as people condemn the lifestyle of their generation, they are drawn to it and want to be a part of it. That is why people buy Roxie's things and get her haircut. She is the epitome of society, as well as its nadir.