The Inspiration for CHICAGO: Two Merry Murderesses

The origin of the Academy Award and Tony Award-winning musical CHICAGO lies here in its namesake city, from a ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ tale of two female killers on ‘Murderesses Row’ in the roaring 20’s.

CHICAGO the Musical is based off the 1926 play written by Maurine Dallas Watkins, the reporter assigned to cover the 1924 trials of murderesses Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner. Watkins loosely based Roxie Hart, Velma Kelly, Billy Flynn and other characters in the play off the individuals involved in these famed Chicago courtroom proceedings.

Left: Belva Gaertner, Right: Beulah Annan

Left: Belva Gaertner, the inspiration for Velma Kelly Right: Beulah Annan, the inspiration for Roxie Hart. Source: retrokimmer.com

Although there is a lot of truth in the story told by the play and musical, not everything completely matches up with the real life events during the trials.

Belva Gaertner was, in fact, a jazz singer in Chicago back in her time – whether or not she was well-known is inconclusive. Some famous jazz joints during the era were Friar’s Inn, located in the basement of a building formerly at the corner of east Van Buren and south Wabash, and Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, located at 4802 North Broadway and still standing today. However, the actual reason Gaertner was sent to jail was not for killing her sister and husband because they were having an affair (as with Velma Kelly), but because she killed her lover with a gun in his car.

Roxie Hart’s matches Beulah Annan’s much more closely. Annan was accused of killing her lover in the bedroom of her home.  Annan didn’t go into full detail as to why she shot him, but it was most likely not because he lied to her about helping her become a famous jazz singer. Beulah Annan did change her story multiple times throughout the trial – first beginning with how “they both reached for the gun” and ending with the reason they both reached for the gun was because he just found out she was pregnant and he didn’t want to keep the baby.

Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner didn’t meet until they both were put on ‘Murderesses Row’ in the Cook County Jail. This was an actual cell block in the women’s section of the jail that housed Chicago’s most notorious killers. Annan and Gaertner were rumored to have set up their own beauty shop out of their jail cell. At this beauty shop the two would help other murderesses awaiting trial pick out outfits to wear and teach them how to do their hair and make-up for the day of their trials.

All trials took place at the Chicago City Courthouse, which still stands at the north-east corner of Clark and Randolph. Although Annan and Gaertner had different lawyers, both were high-profile names that were well-known in Chicago for getting their clients cleared of all charges. The two, William Scott Stewart and WW O’Brien,  take form as the savvy lawyer Billy Flynn in Watkins’ play.

The play was transformed into the musical that everyone loves today by the creative team of John Kander, Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse after Bob Fosse’s wife, Gwen Verdon, read the play and insisted it be made into a musical. Kander, Ebb and Fosse wanted the whole musical to really focus on the show-biz aspect of society. In order to achieve this overall focus, they created the entire score to reflect traditional vaudeville numbers such as in the song “We Both Reached For the Gun”.

Take a trip around Chicago to spot some of these well-known landmarks that played a part in the story behind the musical bearing its name. And be sure to catch the show when it’s back in town next week at the Bank of America Theatre for one week only, February 25 – March 2, 2014!

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Filed under Bank of America Theatre, Broadway In Chicago, Chicago, Chicago The Musical

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