CHICAGO: A retrospective
Written and compiled by Julie Schuetz, 2020 and 2021 Cast Member
At the QCT fall membership meeting each year, QCT announces the slate of shows for the following year. QCT volunteers always love this announcement, but in September 2019, the announcement of shows was met with an excitement that buzzed through the park shelter house like no other year and resulted in a record number of season ticket sales confirming what a great season it was going to be. The 2020 season was incredible for many reasons, but it was the opening adult musical, Chicago, that generated a particular excitement among many. Despite Chicago being around since it opened on Broadway in 1975, it receiving 6 Tony Awards through the years, of it having the honor of being the longest-running American musical in Broadway history, it being adapted into an Academy Award winning movie in 2002, and it being a musical full of show-stopping numbers and the unique dance style of legendary choreographer Bob Fosse – QCT had never brought it to the stage. This would be a QCT first!
After a nerve-wracking week of auditions/call-backs, 19 community members were selected. Rehearsals began in QCT’s Laboratory Theatre with a meet and greet and read through. Cast member and QCT newcomer Sean Major remembers the beginning of rehearsals:
Our director, Brandon Thomsen, pointed out a sign posted on the wall. It reads, “In this room, it is impossible to fail. Go ahead, try it.” This saying has stuck with me and helped motivate me through the entire process…. There were many times throughout the rehearsals where I was expecting to be told “Sean, thanks for your time but this just isn’t going to work out.” However, with encouragement from Choreographer Cheryl Kaiser, Brandon, that Lab sign, and (more substantially) fellow cast mates, I was able to keep pushing myself and was able to focus on each little victory.
Rehearsals were intense. There were only about 8 weeks for this group of people to create QCT’s production and for the cast/crew to learn all of the vocal music, choreography, blocking, sound/lighting cues, what costumes/hair/makeup would work, rehearse the orchestra and then add them to the cast… yet through the hours upon hours of hard work, sweat, laughter, and occasional tears, the cast and crew formed an incredible bond. Cell Block Tango member Lindsey Stroot remembers one particular moment during rehearsals:
Jazz dancing has always been a natural style of movement for me, so I was beyond exciting to brush up on my Fosse skills in preparation for the production; however, when I was approached to dance the tap routine I wasn’t as confident…. It had been over a decade since I had tapped, and I literally had to dust off my tap shoes.
In February 2020 we had our first Act one stumble through. During that run I noticed my nervous feet wanting to rehearse, review and repeat the tap dance countless times before I had to take it to the stage. Only problem, tapping back stage can get a bit noisy and cause a distraction for other members of the cast. It was then I was reminded of a comment made by our stage manager during our first few meetings that if we needed anything, just ask. That evening I asked Dan, one of our stage managers, if it was possible to get a small carpet square to rehearse the routine quietly backstage. The very next day, one appeared stage left. I was so touched by this small act of kindness.
As a first time QCT member and performing in my first musical/theatre production I was a bit intimidated. I was impressed by how everyone in the organization was friendly, welcoming and willing to help. Standing on this little carpet square backstage before taking the stage, helped with my confidence, nerves and reminded me what an incredible community I was involved in.
The production really was coming together incredibly well. It was so clear that the cast assembled by the production crew was not only incredibly talented, but also incredibly hard working. The rehearsal process was so consuming that the news of a virus circulating around the world was seeping into rehearsals but getting pushed to the back of our minds as we worked and worked to ensure the production was incredible.
The day of tech rehearsal was Sunday March 15. It was clear that the pandemic was really worldwide, and everyone in the cast could feel it closing in. As we did hair and makeup, put on our costumes, and secured our mics, we did not yet know that after almost 8 weeks of work this day would be the last day we were going to all be together for the next 15 months – and for some it would be the last day they would be onstage with the QCT Chicago production.
Sean remembers the 15-month hiatus:
When the stay-at-home order occurred, it put us (as well as any live performance entity) in an uncertain and seemingly never-ending lurch. At first there were talks, hopes and plans of simply delaying the production by a month or two. As time marched on, the reality of the production of Chicago seamed more questionable by the day. We kept in touch as a cast via virtual means, Facebook posts, chats, an occasional in-person sighting in public. Even though things were looking more questionable the further we went through the pandemic, we all still held on to the hope that SOMEDAY we would be able to put on this amazing production.
Megan remembers the return:
Occasionally, Brandon would send a text to check in; always caring about how the group was holding up, etc. I honestly didn’t believe the show would happen until the end of 2021. But then, the most incredible news arrived that we had very little time to prepare and there would most likely be new additions to the production, but that it really was moving forward. It was incredible moment, I cried when I read the email. Such a relief and I was incredibly happy for my fellow castmates, too. I knew they wanted this just as a bad as I did.
With the production back on track, auditions were held to replace six of the actors who were no longer able to continue with the production. New to the 2021 production was dancer April Albert:
The first night of rehearsal, we sat in a circle and did introductions followed by a read-through of the script. I knew hardly any of the people in the room, yet it really didn’t feel that way. Several of the returners said how excited they were to have us in the cast, and everyone just instantly seemed to gel.
The rehearsal process was so much fun, but also very challenging at times. We practiced a few hours a night every night of the week – with day jobs/families/etc. We were going from sun-up past sun-down every single day. While some of the choreography and staging changed for the returners, everything was brand new for the newcomers. We were learning SO much SO fast. It was exhausting at times, but keeping my eye on the prize helped.
After only five weeks of rehearsal, Chicago had its first audience on July 21. Sean remembers:
The emotional rush was undeniable. When the music broke between the overture and “All that Jazz” and the canvas covering Velma Kelly rose, so did the audience applause and a lump in my throat. We had finally crossed the line from building an amazing production to sharing it with the world. The response from the audience was overwhelming. There were hugs & high fives all over backstage throughout the entire night. The entire run was beyond amazing. The performances seemed to get better & tighter & more energetic as the weekend passed.
April shared what the performance run was like for her:
Throughout the two weeks of shows, letters, cards, and gifts were exchanged among many. Each one was incredibly personal and thoughtful. Before the final show, we gathered together about 15 minutes before we opened per usual. For our pre-show ritual, we always formed a circle and chose one word to focus on that night. Although we still did that on closing day, there was more this time. Brandon had a “note” for each of us. (After run through/dress rehearsals and some performances Brandon would have notes for some of the cast and crew with things we could do differently to improve the show or praise for how well a particular scene worked). In this case, the “notes” were his thoughts for each member of the cast that summarized how each member added something special to the production. Needless to say, everyone was in tears by the end of it. Each one was so personal and meaningful. Then we did one more exercise, where we turned to the person next to us one at a time and said “(Name), anytime you need me, I’ll be there” all the way around the circle. Again, tears! I will never forget that pre-show huddle. It was so deliberately memorable and just solidified how close we had all really become.
After the final show, I went to thank our director, Brandon, for the opportunity to perform in this show. I said I knew he was taking a chance on me, but that I would forever value his belief in me. His response: “That’s what we do here, we give people chances.” And if that doesn’t sum up this experience, I don’t know what does.
And sound designer and sound board operator Jay Trimble ended with the following:
Chicago 2.0 was every bit as good and even better, as we all had time to reflect on how we could improve. And improve we did. I get to sit in the best seat in the house for the entire run of the show, and as such, I get to listen to the audience as they chat while exiting. There was never a disparaging word. To the contrary–nothing but praise and high fives. Even though this show was a nearly a year and a half in the making, I feel lucky because I got to be a part of it–TWICE.
During the 18 months it took from the first audition to the final bow, the members of the QCT Chicago production formed a unique bond. We were there for one another when members suffered personal tragedies as well as celebrated together for those who experienced personal triumphs. The cast often noted how remarkable it was that this production brought out the very best in a group of people during what was a collectively difficult and dark time when we were telling a story that was a satire and cautionary tale in which the audience finds themselves entertained (perhaps uncomfortably so) when the narcissists get their own act while the innocent hang or walk off with silence. Ultimately, it wasn’t the greedy, fortune and fame-seeking individuals who triumphed in QCT’s telling of Chicago; it was a group of hard-working, dedicated, supportive, caring people who came together for an incredibly loyal and supportive audience who stood and cheered what this group created. As Velma and Roxie say at the end of Chicago – “You know, a lot of people have lost faith in America. And what America stands for. But we are the living examples of what a wonderful country this is.” From everyone involved in QCT’s Chicago – we hope that our cast’s experience – one in which people from all walks of life and backgrounds came together, persevered, and supported one another unquestionably to create a beautiful work of art that an audience could lose itself in – is the same bright spot for the community as it was for all of us.