My Kind of Town Chicago is
Yes, it’s my kind of town.
Nigel Planer appeared in the original London production of Chicago… now he declares it’s America’s greatest city.
Sherry, a charming woman in her 70s, tells me: ‘There are 3,200 pieces of glass in that dome. It’s the largest glass dome in the world — of its type.’
‘What type would that be?’ I ask, which seems to throw her for a moment. She replies falteringly — something about metal struts and cubic volume. I don’t mean to be giving her a hard time; she’s a lovely, enthusiastic volunteer who refuses tips, and she has a bad knee today, which should perhaps be keeping her from this job as a walking-tour guide.
We are in the old Chicago library, admiring some of the mosaic work of Louis Comfort Tiffany, which can be found in many of the downtown landmark buildings.
Chicago’s harbour skyline
Earlier, we had visited the Frank Gehry-designed open-air concert space, which is home to ‘the longest-running free classical concert season in America’, and is situated in Millennium Park — ‘the largest green-roof garden on top of an underground car park in the world,’ as Sherry calls it.
She is by no means the only person infected with this need to use unnecessary superlatives.
The whole city seems to have a massive chip on its shoulder — perhaps the largest chip in all the northern states of the U.S., I would say. Which is strange because there is so much of interest and beauty in Chicago, Illinois, it doesn’t need to big itself up.
‘It’s because we got tired of being known as the “Flyover” city,’ Sherry explains. ‘As in: “Ya fly over Chicago to get from New York to Los Angeles”.’
My reason for being here is that this is officially the Year of Chicago Theatre, but basically, it’s just great to be back.
The last time I came here was 1997, when I was about to appear in the original London cast of the musical ‘Chicago’. It might be that visiting Cook County Jail, Chicago Illinois, where the show is set, was taking the actor research thing a bit too far; it is a comedy musical after all, but the opportunity arose and I took it. One call to the sheriff’s office was all that was required to provide me with a cop guide for the day, lunch in an Italian restaurant frequented only by cops, and a tour around all eleven blocks, the court house, the local boot camp, and the murderer’s wing.
“Everybody here gets what’s coming to him. it might be a bar of soap, or a tube of toothpaste, or it might be a beating.” Said the head of Special Operations Response Team, or SORT, grinning cheerfully as we were frisked at the entrance to the women’s wing.
My visit felt like something from an episode of “Homicide” or “NYPD”. The only thing missing was the unsteady camera work. Large shirt-sleeved guys called Valasco or Lipitschy actually did have their feet up on desks while they munched donuts, people did call my deputy guide ‘chief’, and he did playfully punch them on the shoulder. Uniformed women cops did bring in sad looking hookers, while other female plain clothes ‘tecs drifted past in T-shirts, jeans and massive gun belts. Everyone was packing heat, from the telephone receptionist to the doorman. By the end of my visit, I felt more ready to tackle a day’s shooting opposite Harvey Keitel and Tim Roth than dance and sing in a west end show.
A Chicago common sign
Chicago suits me fine. In fact, I’d go further and say that it’s my favourite place in the whole of the U.S. And I think a lot of British people would agree with me.
First, there’s the Chicagoans themselves. They have quieter voices than most Americans and they understand what you’re saying if you make a deadpan remark.
Then there’s their overriding subject of conversation: the weather. Yes, the weather in Chicago is even more changeable than in the UK. In one week I experience baking sun, blizzards, torrential rain, beautiful cold pellucid skies, and a lot of wind.
Wind so strong you have to push your whole weight against doors to open them. Chicago earns its moniker, the Windy City (although some say that refers to the hot air spouted by the residents).
Then there’s the Chicagoan sense of humour — dark and sarcastic and more, well, English. Their top comedy club is called The Second City, and it has been named with a certain bitterness. I’m not able to establish whether Chicago is known as the Second City because of the 1871 fire, after which it all had to be rebuilt, or because it’s not the First City (New York).
Nevertheless, The Second City comedy club has impressive alumni. If I list a small portion of them, you’ll get the idea of what the Chicago sense of humour is all about: Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Steve Carrell, Mike Myers, John Candy. There are a lot of comedy venues in Chicago, but there are a lot more theatres. There are more than 250 of them — everything from ‘storefront’ theatres in disused High Street shops and railway arches, to multi-stage venues and old-fashioned, proscenium-arch giants.
The Year of Chicago Theatre
When I came here twenty years ago, I was about to play Amos Hart – Mr Cellophane – in the show ‘Chicago’ in the West End in London. Since I was in town, I dutifully went to see the show on its US tour, at the aptly named ‘Chicago’ theatre. You could say I went to see Chicago, at the Chicago, in Chicago. This time I got to look behind the scenes and meet some of the people who make it happen.
“Chicago is like the Silicon Valley of American theatre,” says Lou Raizin, the founder and director of ‘Broadway in Chicago’, from his swanky, windowless boardroom in North State Street, where he presides over the five or so really big theatres, which house the large-scale productions, musicals, spectaculars. (www.broadwayinchicago.com ) I went to see the brilliant ‘Hamilton’ again, courtesy of Lou.
“I’m a theatre whore,” says Lou, “on my card it says ‘whore’ on one side, and ‘asshole’ on the other”, relishing his role as the hard-nosed business guy of commercial theatre. But I suspect that under the brazen front, Lou’s covering up a deep love of live performance and a lifelong dedication to the theatre.
At the other end of the theatre scale, Jeremy Wechsler, the artistic director of the WIT fringe theatre in the middle of what’s known as the Belmont Theatre District, put it like this; “we’re like Napa Valley if they didn’t export any of their wine. It’s like we’re drinking our own wine here”. (www.theaterwit.org ) And it’s true, Chicago has a reputation of being not just a stop on ‘the road’, i.e. a town on a touring schedule, but of generating its own original work, its own style. The North end of town is where most of these, smaller theatres are, and it’s a genuine furnace of creativity and new writing. When I was there, ‘Admissions’ was on – a brilliant new play by Josh Harman – which ended up in London shortly after, starring Alex Kingston.
Having worked in commercial and fringe theatres myself since the age of seventeen, it was a serious treat to meet all these other dedicated people who share the same passion as me.
The most famous Chicago company is Steppenwolf, an ensemble that creates work within its own ranks. Many of its members, who went on to become stars, returned to live and work here: Gary Sinise, John Malkovich, Tracy Letts, John Mahoney from Frasier.
But the jewel of the city’s theatres, is the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier.Barbara Gaines started this company in the mid-Eighties with a production of Henry V on the roof of a pub, and it has grown into an international theatre hub.
I sit in on the exciting rehearsals for their latest show, Six, a musical about the six wives of Henry VIII, which has come via London’s West End and Edinburgh.
Edinburgh, that’s it. I’ve been trying to think why it is that I feel so at home in Chicago. You get that same awake feeling; the buzzy people, the challenging weather and the historic architecture. Chicago reminds me of Edinburgh — and there’s just so much going on.
Nigel at Millennium Park