“Not just some dumb mechanics wife, I’m gonna be Roxie! Who says that murder’s not an art?”
You’ve heard of the musical Chicago, right? It’s the musical that’s made Broadway history with over 7000 performances to date. It’s the musical that brings dazzle and entertainment to murder trials. And most importantly (to me), the musical that gave us the iconic female protagonist with no male love interest: Roxie Hart. The 1975 vaudeville musical, Chicago features a protagonist who is forging a path into stardom against the backdrop of her high profile murder case.
I think it is safe to say that when female characters are constructed without a love interest they are usually more complex. When there is no man that their story revolves around, this void has to be filled with an exploration of their actual personality, which often proves to be multidimensional. Therein lies remarkable characters that are neither easy to love nor hate. The kind that we find ourselves rooting for one day, and condemning the next.Roxie Hart is particularly refreshing because although there are a number of men in her life, including a husband and a brief lover, she purposely chooses not to actively pursue a love interest. The men in her life almost act as props. She understands that although safe husband Amos loves her, he will never provide the lifestyle she’s always dreamed of. And once her abusive lover Fred Casley also proves to be incapable, she doesn’t hesitate to get rid of him. The absence of a love interest means that she can relentlessly chase her dreams, and more importantly the storyline can pay undivided attention to vividly showing this.
What I love most about Roxie is ironically what I find most problematic about her. While I find her ambitions inspiring, it’s clearly cynical how she uses the people in her life, especially her naïve husband Amos, as a means to an end. I’m especially conflicted when she fakes her pregnancy in order to revive her status as a “celebrity criminal.” With that said, I will admit that the cynicism is probably more apparent because she is a female character and this is not a trait usually assigned to women in theatre. We seem to have a stronger reaction to Roxie’s actions as opposed to Billy Flynn’s (her lawyer) scamming ways, because more than enough male characters have normalized it.
As the musical progresses, what first seemed like a badass woman using her high profile case to gain fame turns into a desperate and childish cry for attention. She starts to seem incredibly shallow and it becomes harder to defend her melodrama.
Nonetheless, Roxie’s character finds ways to remind us that she has not had a particularly easy life and as the musical unfolds we see how it is almost inevitable for women to face injustices at the hands of men. Not only is the justice system male dominated but the showbiz business is too. And although I wish she didn’t have to, I cannot help but be impressed by how she masterfully manipulates her vulnerability and sexuality to maintain the attention of men (while not holding any of them to a pedestal).
"And who in case she doesn't hang, can say she started with a bang!"
In a city that finds murder trials entertaining and seems to have a trend of acquitting attractive murderesses, Roxie has clearly figured out that this is the only way towards her claim to fame.
Roxie Hart takes us through an emotional roller coaster, and at the end of the musical we seem to have as many reasons to relate to her, as we do to distance ourselves from her. It is probably dramatic to say that Chicago revolutionized the way female characters were constructed in musicals but at the very least it has been an inspiration for similarly empowering works of theatre. And we owe this largely to the fact that Roxie Hart did not fall prey to the cliché, and quite frankly boring “prince charming” syndrome.