Rob Marshall Almost Directed the ‘Rent’ Film Before Booking ‘Chicago’

Marshall also shared that he sang "Mister Cellophane" during a meeting while pitching the film.
CHICAGO, Renee Zellweger, 2002, (c) Miramax/courtesy Everett Collection
©Miramax/Courtesy Everett Collection

December 27 marked the 20th anniversary of “Chicago,” one of the most successful musical film adaptations of all time. The movie — director Rob Marshall’s film debut — won Best Picture at the Oscars, becoming the first musical to do so since 1968’s “Oliver,” and grossed over $306 million at the global box office. But the film almost didn’t happen, because distributor Miramax Films wanted Marshall to helm the “Rent” movie adaptation instead.

Marshall revealed the origins of the project in a 20th-anniversary interview with the Hollywood Reporter, explaining that Miramax and Harvey Weinstein (years before his sexual abuse was exposed publicly) scouted him to direct an adaptation of “Rent” after his work on the ’90s revival of “Cabaret” and the 1999 TV film version of “Annie.” Marshall, however, wanted to direct “Chicago,” calling it his favorite musical of all time. The “Rent” film would eventually be directed by Chris Columbus and released in 2005, receiving mixed reviews and underperforming at the box office.

“They called me in for a meeting to discuss ‘Rent,’ but I knew that the ‘Chicago’ property was out there and that they were having a real difficult time figuring out how to bring it to film,” Marshall said. “‘Chicago’ was my favorite musical — I had directed it in Los Angeles, but I also just loved it growing up. I sat down to tell Meryl Poster, Harvey Weinstein’s right hand: ‘Before we start talking about “Rent,” can I tell you what I think a way to approach “Chicago” would be? Because it hasn’t happened yet.’ I started explaining my thoughts, conceptually, about the film and how I saw it.”

Marshall further explained that while pitching the film to Weinstein, he had to explain the vaudeville conceit of the movie by comparing it to MTV music videos and sang “Mister Cellophane” in the meeting.

“It was this idea that there’d be two different worlds: the world of the vaudeville stage, where the musical numbers took place, and then the realistic world of Chicago in the ’20s. At that point, it was rare to mix two different worlds at the same time within a film,” Marshall said. “But I pointed to MTV videos at that time, that you could have many different layers happening simultaneously. I actually performed ‘Mister Cellophane’ for Harvey in his office, explaining that the character of Amos would be in Billy Flynn’s office, in a real scene with him, pick up his hat, and when he puts on his hat, he’d be onstage.”

Marshall’s next directorial effort, the live-action remake of “The Little Mermaid” starring Halle Bailey, is set to premiere May 26. In the interview, Marshall said that directing “Chicago” prepared him for tackling the beloved Disney film by helping him to understand the importance of honoring the source material.

“For me, it’s really important to understand why the source material works, why it’s loved, why people embrace it — and make sure that you honor that,” Marshall said. “At the same time, you have to reimagine it for a live-action film. You have to hold on to those special things, but at the same time, know that it’s a different form. You’re now in a live-action form, so you have to do things differently than you would in an animated film. The animated film will always live there, but that was 1989. This needs to seen through the lens of 2023. It’s a real balancing act, but it’s very important to me to respect the original material.”

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