NEW YORK — The first time Rita Wilson saw the musical “Chicago,” she was enthralled, delighted and excited. The second time, she almost threw up.
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What happened in between was this: Wilson, already a fan of the show, had been offered the role of Roxie Hart on Broadway this summer and decided to refresh her memory by catching a touring version of “Chicago” with her stepdaughter and husband in tow.
She sat in the darkened audience and watched as dancer Michelle DeJean made a knock-out Roxie. “I looked at her and said, ‘Oh. My. God. There’s no way,”’ Wilson recalls. “There’s just no way.”’
That’s when a fellow actor came to the rescue: Tom Hanks, her Academy Award-winning husband.
“At the intermission, I turned to him and said, ’Oh, man. I don’t know.’ I was kind of sick to my stomach. He said, ‘Oh no, you gotta do it. This is great! You can totally do this. Yes! Do it! Do it!”
Her stepdaughter, Elizabeth, also chimed in: “‘Mom, you can do this, definitely!”’ Wilson recalls. “If they hadn’t said that, if they had looked at me askance, I would have been so out of there.”
Instead, Wilson, primarily known as a comedic film actress, is reveling in her Broadway debut as the Cook County Jail inmate who kills her husband, frames her boyfriend and sings “I’m gonna be a celebrity.”
“You know how you sometimes feel like, ‘I’ve been waiting for this my whole life?’ she says. “I love all of this stuff. I love it! I love doing it, I love every single second of the process.”
Stepping into big footsteps
Wilson steps into the 10-year-old revival of the Tony Award-winning Kander and Ebb musical aware of its rich history. The role of Roxie has been tackled by such actresses as Gwen Verdon, Ann Reinking, Marilu Henner, Charlotte d’Amboise, Paige Davis and Sandy Duncan. Renee Zellweger played Roxie in the 2002 movie version.
“I can’t believe I’m in that company of performers — not just the ones who are familiar names, but all those amazing dancers and singers and Broadway performers and everybody backstage,” she says.
“I’m in awe of them. That’s the bottom line. I look at them and say, ‘You’ve been doing this for 10 years. I get to do this for two months and then I go away.’”
When Wilson first saw the show in 1997, the stars were Reinking as Roxy and Bebe Neuwirth as Velma Kelly. “I remember being blown away when I saw them. I kind of thought they were aliens. How did they do that?” she says. “Now I’m an alien. I love it.”
As the show’s dance captain, Gregory Butler, has seen many actresses join the company, but was impressed by Wilson’s fearlessness. She wanted to follow in Reinking and Neuwirth’s footsteps — literally.
“Rita goes full out all the time. I respect her so much because even with the dancing, she wanted to do the original choreography. She didn’t want Plan B. She wanted to do Plan A,” Butler says. “We worked on it and she got it. I could not be prouder.
“A lot of times when people come in, they’re a little afraid to go the distance and just be big so that we can pull them down. Rita’s not afraid of that. She’s not afraid to make a mistake.”
Of course, Wilson also did her homework. Besides consulting with Hanks, she took advantage of her extensive Rolodex, calling up friends Melanie Griffith and Brooke Shields, who both appeared in the Broadway version as Roxie.
“Brooke was funny. She said, ‘You’re going to have days where you’re going to be standing on a corner and you’re going to be thinking, “Maybe that taxi will accidentally hit me and break my knee and I won’t have to do the show.” You’ll be wishing for those days and then you find that you get up there and you’re doing it and you’re getting through it,”’ she recalls.
“And Melanie said it’s the best thing that she’d ever done and I should absolutely do it,” Wilson says. “She was incredible about it. We both come from film and I’ve known Melanie since we were both 17 years old, so she was very honest. ... They both said to do it because it’s an amazing experience.”
Those unfamiliar with Wilson’s background may be a little surprised that she can sing and dance. The 47-year-old is more famous for her acting, with such credits as “Sleepless in Seattle,” “That Thing You Do,” “Jingle All the Way” and “Runaway Bride.” She also produced “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”
But Wilson also trained at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art before marrying Hanks in 1988.
“It’s not so out of the realm of things that I’ve done in terms of my life and in terms of comedy or personality. I mean, I’m not singing ‘Carmen’ or anything like that,” she says.
“The truth is if I didn’t have some background in singing or some movement background, I don’t think I would have thought about doing it. I’m not stupid. I can tell when something is really, really hard and you’re not going to put yourself in a position where you’re going to look like an idiot.”
During an interview at a chic Manhattan cafe, Wilson downs multiple espressos, yet the excitement she radiates is palpable, in contrast to her oldest son with Hanks, 15-year-old Chester, who is curled on a bench, exhausted by keeping up with his mother’s new late-night schedule.
Figuring out Fosse
Though the role of Roxie is physically demanding, Wilson laughs when she recalls finding out that virtually every Bob Fosse dance step has been carefully archived and given a specific name.
“Nothing is accidental. Not one head nod. Not one head tilt. Not one hand angle. That was so amazing to me. I was in shock,” she says. “Now they talk to me in code. They’ll say, ‘All right, after you do the Judy Garland but before you get into the Eddie Cantors, don’t forget that you have to do the Chaplin.”’
No wonder Wilson is enjoying her time on Broadway — she gets to play a sexy role as well as rub shoulders with veteran actresses like Christine Ebersole, Andrea Martin, Kate Burton, Cherry Jones and Beth Leavel.
“I do think that the New York community is just much more accepting,” she says. “They write more interesting things for women. Age doesn’t seem to be the same thing as it is in film.”
And if “Chicago” happens to destroy some preconceptions about Wilson along the way, so be it. “I don’t care what anybody thinks or what anybody says — this is it. I’m not trying to prove anything.”
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