Chicago Director Wanted The Movie's 'Cell Block Tango' To Be 'Sexier' Than The Musical

Even if musical theater or movie musicals aren't your thing, there's a high probability that you're familiar with the "Cell Block Tango" from "Chicago." The memorable piece was composed by John Kander with lyrics written by Fred Ebb, and tells the story of six different women at the Cook County Jail women's annex who explain what landed them in jail, and why their now deceased significant others "had it coming." Each woman feels justified (or not guilty) in committing their crimes, with each suspect identified with a trademark word uttered throughout the song: "Pop! Six! Squish! Uh-uh! Cicero! Lipschitz!"

When "Chicago" first arrived on Broadway, it was directed and co-written by the legendary Bob Fosse, and the Academy Award-winning film from Rob Marshall brilliantly captured the essence of Fosse's legacy and made a killing at the box office in the process. Marshall was careful not to make a carbon copy of the stage production, saying in an interview with Entertainment Weekly that choices like introducing male dance partners during "Cell Block Tango" were intentional choices to help differentiate the film from the staged source material.

Marshall said that Fosse's elements are intrinsic to the film, but that he wanted to make the bold choice of making "Cell Block Tango" an actual dance. "I chose to do it with an actual tango, so that they could tango with their victims," Marshall said. "When you change a concept, it pulls you immediately out of the vocabulary of someone else's work." The addition of the male victims also added another layer to the piece — increased sexuality.

'Number 17: the spread eagle'

Rob Marshall's take on "Chicago" is considered the gold standard of stage-to-screen adaptations, and his changes to "Cell Block Tango" are a perfect example of enhancing the source material. "The original began behind bars and then, the bars broke apart, and then the whole number was done like that," he explained. "I thought, 'Well, we can start there and then depart.'" With dramatic lighting, tight camera shots, and Marshall's fantastic choreography, the piece takes on a life of its own. And thanks to the costume design of Colleen Atwood, granted a level of sex appeal that has since become the standard in future stage productions.

"The number had a little S&M vibe to it because of the violence," Marshall noted. "We were able to work with great boots and straps and things like that in the girls' costumes. So, it's a female empowerment number." I couldn't agree more. The visuals of women clad in fishnets, strappy accessories, and armed with red fabric to symbolize the blood of their victims juxtaposed against drab prison garb as they narrate their stories is absolutely stunning, and in this writer's opinion, a perfect example of how the cinematic medium can elevate live theater, rather than replace it.

Rob Marshall's next foray into movie musicals is the upcoming live-action adaptation of Disney's "The Little Mermaid," due in theaters on May 26, 2023.