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Popular Musical Chicago Gets the Silent Treatment at Flying Monkey

By Sarah Liebowitz
On October 20, 2014


Audience members walked into the theater during the 21st century. As the staff set up, the movie screen flashed “Blu-ray Disc.” Jeff Rapsis, a musician, carried in an electric keyboard. There was a reminder before the start of the film to please silence all cell phones.

That was where the modern era ended. The 1927 film adaption "Chicago" started to play, and the world around the screen disappeared. The audience forgot about the man sitting at the keyboard, and instead of being a separate entity, the music became a part of the action on the screen. It set the mood and enhanced emotion, becoming an extension of the on-screen world.

"Chicago" was a lost film for almost 80 years. Most silent films were created for the money; once they stopped showing, no one thought to save them. After the silent film "Chicago" was adapted into the popular Broadway musical and a 2002 Academy Award winning movie, people realized that no one had a copy of the original film. It was recently discovered in pristine condition in the collection of film director Cecil B. De Mille, and was then remastered and converted to digital form.

The dialogue is sparse, but the film does not need many words. The actors do an incredible job of using their face and body to tell the story. They exhibit the exaggerated expressions and movement that silent films are famous for, however it is not frustratingly unrealistic like some might fear. Instead the actors’ movements work with the rest of the film to tell the story. It is amazing how much emotion the actors can portray with a single glance of the eyes or turn of the mouth.

The plot is somewhat different from the "Chicago" most people know, but many parts are startlingly similar. Some direct lines survived through all three adaptations. Even more remarkable are the characters, who have depth and personality from the start. Amos is even more complex in this original version, exhibiting a gorgeous character arc as he deals with moral challenges not present in modern versions.

The main difference is the absence of singing and dancing. Rapsis joked about the show stopping tunes that characterize modern adaptations. “You’re going to hear none of those tonight,” he said. Both "Chicago" and "Phantom of the Opera" (coming later this month) are famous for their music, but the stories are rich enough to stand on their own.

The audience is not left longing for modern technology or special effects. When these movies first came out, “they didn’t call them silent movies. They were the movies!” said Rapsis. Audiences did not care that there was no sound, because they did not know what they were missing. Part way through the film, modern viewers begin to get that same feeling. They forget that modern film techniques exist. Immersed in the characters’ emotional lives, the audience is too busy holding its breath to realize the actors are not speaking.

Jeff Rapsis has been playing at The Flying Monkey for most of its reopening in 2010. The keyboard he uses can mimic a number of different instruments including percussion. He improvises the music as the movie is playing, which was the way most silent films were done back in the day. Sometimes pianists had 50 or 60 “cues” that they could pull out at the right moment, and “presto, instant movie score,” said Rapisis. Only the big budget films had actual scores, which were played by an orchestra in the large halls. However, when that film came to a little town like Plymouth, the pianist would improvise his own score.

"Phantom of the Opera" (1925) is playing Oct. 30, the day before Halloween. “It’s a tremendous film and still holds up today,” said Rapsis. “[Phantom] had a mask he wore in the film [which] really set the mood for horror films.” The film’s makeup is noteworthy, and so is a particularly intense moment when the mask comes off. “People gasp,” said Rapsis.


The Flying Monkey Movie House and Performance Center is located on Main St. Find out more about shows and tickets by visiting or calling 603-536-2551.


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