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INTERVIEW: CHMS 'Chicago' Director Joe Spence

'Chicago' debuts in York in two weeks

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Image Credit: Joe Spence

Just after the two-week deadline for his show opening, Nouse got a chance to sit down with the Director of CHMS’ flagship spring show, Chicago. Despite it being his birthday, Joe Spence was kind enough to spill the beans on how rehearsals are going, and why students should come and see the production.

Tickets are available here for all four performances, starting on Thursday 13 February. Nouse will be in attendance on opening night for a review.

Obviously I want to start by asking how the process is going? It’s obviously a huge task to get Chicago together….

Everything’s going really well. We had our first full run yesterday, and it’s been really fun trying to piece together the bits. It’s a macro of dance, music, and acting. Working that into all the technical aspects of the show has been really nice to see that coming together.

What’s your relationship with the rest of your prod team? I’m assuming you have the final say on a lot of the creative direction…

I go “right, this is what’s going on in the scene generally”. Of course, there are compromises you have to make on certain decisions. I tend to decide how the stage is used, and what’s meant to be happening at any given time. Ultimately, when it comes to something like choreography, I’m obviously not an expert.The choreographer and the musical director know their fields far better than I do.

I wanted to ask specifically with this show, is this version going to be a little different from something people might have seen before?

There’s a certain aesthetic to Chicago of course, and the West End versions have always gone for a minimalistic, stipped back version. Ours is a little like that, but there should be a few surprises that make some elements of the musical a little more real. There will be some scenes where if you took a single picture of that scene, it would look like a very different play. We’ve tried to keep the aesthetic that we all know and love about the show and the film, but also keep some of the more important aspects.

Chicago has this huge history behind it. I hadn’t realised that it was 45 years since the original Broadway production.

It felt very apt to do it now. 45 years on, 100 years since the era itself. There’s actually a lot of moments that take on new meanings now. There’s a moment at the end between Roxie and Velma where they talk about what the future might hold. They say that people often question America, and what it stands for, but eventually admit that they are a living example of what a good country this is. Especially now when we have our 45th President, that feels very funny and poignant.

Also, it feels historic in a lot of other ways. The rights have only just come out for amateur companies to do it, and even then, they’re very restricted. When I was approached to do the show, I was like “yeah!... But can we get the rights?!” When we found out we could, I was like “this is a goer, we NEED to do this.”

It perhaps says something about the respect CHMS has gained…

From what I’ve seen, it’s definitely one of the best societies of its kind I think. The quality of the content, and the quality of triple threats is amazing. I’d say we probably have quadruple threats with regards to some of our society members doing stage management, or design or whatever.

On that note: is there a reason that people should be seeing the CHMS show if they’ve seen either the stage production or the film?

Whenever there’s a big show you have to pitch for it. One of the things I was keen to highlight was that even though it is a show about wives murdering husbands, it’s actually more than that. It’s about women standing up for themselves. In the era of #MeToo, it’s becoming more acceptable to talk about this stuff. Numbers like the Cell Block Tango take on a hugely different meaning. As much as it is wives murdering their husbands, it’s also about saying “I’m in control of my own destiny.”

Women’s Day is coming up in March so you’re not a million miles off…

Interestingly it’s Valentine’s Day weekend as well when the show is on, and I just think that’s brilliant. As a reference, the night that Roxie is meant to have shot Fred (not really a spoiler at this point...) is the 14 February, and that seemed really apt.

It’s 45 years now, if you haven’t seen it, you need to get yourself together.


Moving on, I think there’s a lot of potential in a show like Chicago, with so many character being quite morally quite open to interpretation, to have a bit of creative opportunities?

For people who have seen it before, you don’t want them to be disappointed that something hasn’t happened. At the same time, there’s so many moments where characters take on new life thanks to our talented actors. We have a very strong cast in general, but the leads in particular are so good at giving new interpretations on the words. In the Cell Block Tango, musical theatre fans have heard these words about arsenic, and being stabbed thousands of times before, but to hear them in the light of where we are now, is very refreshing.

You’ve had experience playing Billy Flynn from an earlier production of Chicago: did you bring that experience to direction?

It was a long time ago. Sam definitely has a different energy to me, and he’s a far better singer and actor than me. It’s really hard, because you have such a clear idea of the role. Whenever he forgets his lines, I can remind him without looking down.

Is Chicago your favourite musical? Do you have others?

At the moment it is. That question is always in flux though. I actually like a lot of different styles, like some of the classic ‘showy’ ones like Chicago, or Cabaret. Chicago’s always up there.

It seems like ages ago that showcase happened, but you started with Sweeny Todd originally. What was it like moving from that to this?

At some point, I will direct the whole of that show. It’s brilliant in so many ways. Sondheim is a genius, it’s relentless. Obviously Sweeny is quite different: it relies less on singing, because it doesn’t have to be perfect, it’s all about grit, emotion, anger at the world.

With Chicago, the question is “why does the world not work in the way I want it to work?” Fake news too I suppose if you’re looking for another modern reference.

Has it been demanding to coordinate a cast, and 18 prod team members?

“Yes” would be the simple answer. We have regular meetings, we’re constantly in contact with each other. There’s so many brilliant people with a lot of ideas, and my job is to take those ideas and make sure it fits with the overall aesthetic.

I’ve had very long meetings with lighting. I think that’s one of the most important things in the show, because there’s generally limited set pieces. It’s important to use the light to create the feel of the show.

I could probably name everyone in the team. Everyone is so talented.

I think everyone’s really looking forward to seeing it.

I’m really excited. We have the sitzprobe today, and I’m going to be hearing the band for the first time. I can’t wait!

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