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The Age of Disco Gets a Curtain Call

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When the musical "Chicago" opened in 1975, critics dubbed it dark and cynical: The antiheroine, a married Roxie Hart, kills her boyfriend, then manipulates the press and legal system to gain her freedom.

Two decades later, Roxie and crew are back. A trimmed-down revival of the show won six 1997 Tony Awards, and at least two productions are touring southern California this summer alone.

But in this post-O.J. Simpson, Susan Smith, and Menendez brothers era, Roxie's murderous and manipulative antics have lost much of their original shock value.

This time around, the show almost plays as quaint.

In fact, the show itself is best understood when seen in the context of what could be described as an avalanche of 1970s nostalgia.

Onstage, revivals of "Annie" and "Pippin" have been playing to sellout crowds. On the radio, a rash of all-'70s music formats has swept major-market FM stations. Television has responded with the advent of cable channels like the Game Show network, Nickelodeon, and TV Land that broadcast '70s reruns as part of their regular lineups (see related story, next page). And the film industry has been cashing in on the craze, rereleasing '70s classics like "Grease," "Star Wars," "The Brady Bunch," and "The Godfather." There's all this plus the crowds of discoing teenagers trotting around in bell-bottoms and polyester.

What's the attraction of an era that witnessed such turbulence as Watergate, Vietnam, and the hostages in Iran? Simplicity, says Arthur Danto, a philosophy professor at Columbia University in New York - or rather, the perception of it. "After all, there was no cable TV, no MTV, no laser printers, modems, frequent-flier miles, no punk rock, no hip-hop, no cloning, and no AIDS," he explains. Despite the tumultuous historical events taking place, compared with today, the time seems much simpler, he says.

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