Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Concept Album: A bit of story revealed

The recent reissue of the concept album contains a very weird demo of "Press Conference" that was intended to precede "The Russian and Molokov." It's not nearly as effective as the final stage version, and particularly wants for Florence's "Smile, you got your first exclusive story..." section.

More interesting is a brief section of dialogue that was recorded over a demo version of "Der Kleine Franz." It's actually not bad dialogue for Tim Rice's standards, although I do not think that an American would have actually used the term "cock-up." This is the full dialogue:
The American
Well where the hell is he? We're ten minutes late.

Florence
He'll be here.

The American
You're losing your touch, Florence. It's another cock-up. I don't know what I'm doing letting you handle my affairs.

Florence
He'll be here. Will you sit down? Have a drink.

The American
You have a drink. I'm off to look at the mountain. I might be back.

Florence
Wait!

The Russian
Hello. Just you here? Where's your boss, I thought?

Florence
Oh, he's here, he'll be back in a few minutes. Have a drink, while we're waiting.

The Russian
I hope I'm here for the reasons Molokov told me. Or are we being taped? Are we on the air right now?

Florence
Of course not. Look, we're here to get the match together again, to clear up all this misunderstanding.

The Russian
I suppose I should be used to his behavior by now.
After this, Anatoly and Florence segue into "Mountain Duet" as it appears on the album.

Now, in the concept album, this scene is set in "[a] private room in a restaurant half-way up a mountain in Merano," giving us a cozy setting rather than having Anatoly and Florence bundled up - "a drink" rather than "a walk" in Anatoly's first line. The context makes sense of Florence's line "All I can say is moments ago / He was right here, ready and waiting," and the change to the line about cable cars in the London production.

I like the characterizations, particularly Anatoly's bit of paranoia. For some reason, I also really like the idea that Freddie actually walked out on the meeting because of Anatoly being late.

This dialogue could be used in the London script as-is, although the lyrics to "Duet" would have to be changed back to their Concept Album equivalents. I doubt this would be much noted; the Chess lyrics change a lot anyway. And a private room at a restaurant is a different staging challenge, but in many ways a more interesting one.

It's interesting to note that, contra both London and Broadway, Florence and Anatoly don't kiss at the end of this song:
The American and the Russian argue, trade insults and jokes but thanks largely to Florence's delicate touch, they both agree on a press statement sharing blame for the breakdown and to resume playing.
Generally, I think the sketch story in the concept album is more interesting in almost every way than London's; the greatest shame is that the London version went so far afield from it, which particularly hurt Anatoly's characterization. And with this little bit that I'd never heard before, I like that story even a bit more.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Talking London: The Freddie Problem

This is the first of a series of two posts that focus on why "Talking Chess" is bad. I'm skipping "I Know Him So Well" for this post; the second will talk about that a bit, because it's related to Anatoly, rather than Freddie.

In "One Night in Bangkok." Freddie says "Thank God I'm only watching the game, controlling it." This ties in with his subsequent appearance as a media personality. He gives a little bit of narration for the cameras; we have the reversal where in Act I, Freddie antagonized the media, and in Act II he is one of them. This is definitely intentional, although it's not pulled off to its fullest effect.

After this, "The Interview" features Freddie basically attacking Anatoly on the air. He also takes multiple swipes at Florence. This is believable; Freddie is bitter about losing the title, and about what he sees as Florence's betrayal, and has just been unexpectedly given the green light by Walter to take all that out on them. So far, we have a consistent arc from Freddie.

That arc is abruptly cut off in "The Deal." Literally in the scene before this, Freddie was humiliating Anatoly on live television (to the point where Anatoly runs out of the studio before the interview ends), and now he's reaching out to him on Florence's behalf. At this point Freddie is literally the worst person on the face of the earth to send to convince Anatoly to throw the match. Anatoly is completely justified in blowing him off.

Then Freddie approaches Florence, in a "desperate final play." I've already talked about this at some length, and here I just want to point out that a few days earlier he was taking cheap shots at the woman he now claims to still love. This is a dramatic shift in character with no build-up, but it can work - Freddie has a sudden realization when he sees Florence that he still cares about her. It's the kind of thing that a musical can pull off, once.

But to try it twice in the same act is going too far. And in "Talking Chess," out of nowhere, Freddie wants to help Anatoly because he can't stand to see a "mediocrity" like Viigand win. So he tells Anatoly that Viigand's King's Indian Defence has a flaw in it.

This is one of the few times we actually hear the characters talk about chess. The King's Indian Defence was not the Sicilian in terms of popularity, but it was still a very well-explored defence in terms of top-level play in the late 20th century. So it was a well-chosen defence, at least.

But Freddie at first wants to humiliate Anatoly, then he's in love with Florence and wants her to come back to him and "bring back the golden era." Okay, we can live with that. But now he really loves the game of chess? And not only loves it, but he loves it enough to rescue Anatoly's match, giving him information that presumably will help Anatoly to win, which in turn will cost Florence a chance to see her father. You know, the woman he just declared that he still loves?

The idea of loving chess itself isn't a bad one; in a number of productions, actually being chess players seems like a formality that the characters are going through in order to focus on international intrigue, fame and affairs of the heart. We know from "Pity" that chess was Freddie's respite from a bad home life as a child. But really, this isn't about his feelings about chess. It's about how he feels about Anatoly.

You see, if the conclusion is that letting Viigand beat Anatoly is letting mediocrity win, then the necessary premise is that Anatoly is great. Freddie has come around to thinking that Anatoly - who pretty much beat him primarily because Freddie was playing awful chess under emotional duress - is so much greater of a player that he deserves to represent chess as its world champion.

To be honest, I don't buy it for a second. I understand the idea that Freddie really loves chess as a game, but not that he's suddenly gained a respect for Anatoly that he clearly never evinced anywhere else in the show. There's not even a hint of grudging respect; "He's the best Red on the circuit" is a textbook example of damning with faint praise.

After "Talking Chess," Freddie delivers a snippet of media introduction to the Anatoly/Viigand finale, and then disappears from the show. Since that is pretty much meaningless from a character standpoint, it means that this is the end of his very strange character arc. He doesn't even merit a further mention. It's a totally unsatisfying way to conclude for a character who dominates the opening of the show as totally as Freddie does.

"Talking Chess" is meant as something of a redemption moment for Freddie, but it doesn't work, because he's bounced around so much. Helping Anatoly beat Viigand is not the redemption the audience wants to see for Freddie. This is part of the split-match motivation problem; there's too much truth to the line "How many times do you want to be champion anyway?" from "The Deal." The audience wants Florence to get her father back, and in that context helping Anatoly win is not going to make Freddie seem like less of a jerk.

It's somewhat apropos that Freddie goes out on a bit of narration in Act II of London Chess. He bounces around so much in the act in terms of motivation that he's left effectively as a plot tool and little more. And until the 2008 concert, he doesn't even get "Pity" in this act.

Talking London: How to Cheat in Musical Theatre

Act II in London proceeds after "The Soviet Machine" with probably the best scene invented for it, "The Interview." At Walter's prodding, Freddie launches into a confrontation with Anatoly that is really searing musical theatre, the kind of confrontation-in-song that Chess does so very well. Musically it's a two-person version of "Press Conference." It's a nice piece of symmetry with the first act, and continues the media theme that London tried to do a bit more with. Walter's part is weak, but as soon as Anatoly and Freddie are on stage together it's dynamite. It's a shame that there isn't more material for Chess that explores the tension between the two main chess players.

Then it goes directly on to "The Deal." This is a breakneck pace that most modern productions lose by giving "Someone Else's Story" to Svetlana. The song would work far better at the top of the act, maybe even before "Bangkok," as Sydney did it. And Svetlana should sing the lyrics that were written for her. "Will he miss me if I go?" makes no sense whatsoever for Svetlana to sing, at all, in any version of Chess. Having "Story" early in the act can be followed by a moment when Molokov welcomes Svetlana to Bangkok, turning it into a wonderful bit of foreshadowing.

But this is a post about cheating, and I haven't talked about the topic at all. That's because I wanted to clear up those two numbers. What I really mean is when a musical uses a song to paper over the fact that a piece of the plot has taken a turn (or in this case, several turns) that are illogical.

Up until "The Deal," the London Chess is a plodding, realistic musical that sets up its plot points heavily and then covers them thoroughly. "The Deal" is about 8 minutes and 30 seconds of something completely different. Chess has flirted with absurdism in "The Arbiter's Song" and "The Soviet Machine," but that is simply an inherent danger of dance numbers.

Suddenly, with "The Deal," it is a highly stylized piece - almost expressionist - narrated by an omniscient Arbiter. Characters pair off in spaces defined only by lighting and blocking, and in the original production wore stark black and white. They sing a lot of material that could not possibly be diegetic; for a large chunk of "The Deal," it's not even clear what is happening in the implied world being created by the play.

Three scenes later, London Chess has its single most brilliant scene in "Endgame." It's stylistically similar to "The Deal," using lighting, blocking and costuming to create a strange effect, but it works because "Endgame" takes place entirely in Anatoly's head. Viigand is not even present at the chess board. The problem is, "The Deal" is supposed to actually be happening.

Molokov's bullying makes sense, but when Svetlana and Anatoly reprise "Where I Want to Be," what exactly does this represent? It's a solid moment emotionally, but as a piece of theatre representing something in the world, it does not work. Where is Svetlana meeting Anatoly, and under what circumstances? If we were making a realistic non-musical film of the show, what exactly would be happening? It's not at all clear from this part of "The Deal."

Walter's confrontation with Florence makes sense. And we can give Florence her soliloquy; it's an important function of songs in musical theatre is to let characters express emotions like this. Walter and Molokov in the lavatory (presumably, from the blocking) is a functional micro-scene.

Then the music gets into the concept album "Deal," reprising "Florence Quits." Freddie, out of nowhere, talks to Anatoly and then Florence, and pleads with each of them only to be rejected. The whole thing unravels quickly, and the finale of "The Deal" - where everybody sings some lines of "Nobody's Side" - happens in a space that exists only on stage.

It's an emotional tour de force, but what is going on in this mega-scene is totally unclear. It particularly comes off the rails between Freddie and Florence; the absurdity climaxes in Florence's line, "Chess has nothing to do with this" - a statement that is not true about "The Deal," which is entirely about characters trying to convince Anatoly to throw a chess match, but Freddie wasn't talking to her about chess. He's asking her to come back to him ("Stick with me, honey / Leave him be, honey") and she reacts to something completely different. This choice sticks out as the poorest rewrite in London, since the concept album lyrics ("Are you sick? Are you mad? ...") make much more sense given what Freddie says.

Then there is Freddie's breakdown as the song ends. Given that he has no problem attacking Florence in "The Interview," his sudden confession "It can all be different now Florence - I love you!" is jarringly out of character. (And it will get much worse two scenes later.)

The one character we actually need to hear from in "The Deal," Anatoly, says very little. His concept album riposte to Freddie, which is followed by Freddie's brutal counter about a "tinpot competition", was stripped from the London score but restored for some productions, including the 2008 concert. We have more or less set up "Endgame," but cutting him to "Who put you up to this? There's no deal!" and then his lines about "preaching to the perverted" take him from a dynamic character to a bystander in this sequence.

I have to step back and say that I love the concept album "The Deal (No Deal)." It's a hard driving rock moment in the score and one of the most powerful confrontation songs in a show full of them. When Freddie comes on with an electric guitar playing and starts singing "Communist / Democrat," it's a brilliant moment. Emotionally the "Who'd Ever Think/Guess It?" verses are some of the most powerful moments in the show. But it's a difficult enough theatrical scene to pull off by itself; it's rarefied, suspended in the air and missing the solid grounding of the rest of the show.

The London "Deal" takes this and turns it up to eleven, completely losing touch with reality. The finale blows the roof off the house, but at the cost of anything resembling dramatic coherence. (And it's about to be followed by a show-stopping eleven o'clock number in "I Know Him So Well," and then a climax in "Endgame.")

What is a shame is that "The Deal" represents an intriguing theatrical vision. It is a scene driven by narration and the strength of the music, rather than the plodding recitative of songs like "Florence and Molokov" or thudding dialogue about slime and slugs. It's probably one of the moments that hews most closely to Michael Bennett's original concept for the show, with seamless choreography, a stage that changed shape, banks of monitors and minimalist sets. And it is a wonderful hint of what could have been done with Chess, even if the vision was too ethereal and difficult for a director like Nunn to pull off.

But the dramatic underpinnings are not there. Instead of the story unfolding, the dramatic vision of "The Deal" is used to cover up the weaknesses of the storyline and characterizations. I'm going to spend the next two posts talking about what went wrong, first with Freddie, then with Anatoly.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Talking London: Getting to Bangkok

Chess is inevitably tied to Bangkok, Thailand. If you want to explain it, you can always reference "One Night in Bangkok" as far and away the most famous song from the show. It is therefore inevitable that Bangkok is one of the settings for the musical - except in Stockholm, where "Bangkok" is only a musical cue in a nightclub.

As an act opener, "One Night in Bangkok" is functional but little more. It establishes that Freddie is in Bangkok, and gives a bit of heavily stereotyped local flavor, but fails to establish his media role. A bit of "on the scene reporter" dialogue is required afterward just to make the point clear. Physically setting the song as a TV report could seem a bit odd, but it would be nowhere near as bad as making Freddie spout reporter-speak after he gets a hand for "Bangkok."

Florence and Anatoly then sing a bit of exposition. "One More Opponent" is everything a dramatic scene shouldn't be. It literally uses almost every line to convey a piece of information to the audience, and does it clumsily. There is much less information in the concept album "Argument," but that song at least is actually compelling, as well as being a clever reuse of the musical theme from "Anatoly and Molokov." "Opponent" has none of the bite of "Argument," which sets up a real rift between Anatoly and Florence. Here, they just trade bits of information, react, and then end up dramatically inert. Even if "Argument" leading into "I Know Him So Well" is too on the nose with the "You could even call my wife" line, it still has punch that "Opponent" completely lacks.

Then there is one of London's most unfortunate stumbles. Tim Rice tries to turn "You and I" into a love duet for Anatoly and Florence. Broadway would repeat this; it simply doesn't translate well, although Broadway redeems it with a section of "You and I" for Svetlana that is simply devastating. My feeling has long been that it is better to leave the hauntingly beautiful "You and I" melody for the end of the show, when it has already become clear that Florence and Anatoly's story will not have a happy ending.

Dramatically this is the moment for "Heaven Help My Heart." The concept album put it here, as did Broadway and Stockholm, because it's the right song for this point in the show. Florence has both the time with Anatoly and the seed of doubt to make it a perfect fit for this moment. Rice, unfortunately, put it back in Act I and makes the wrong choice with "You and I."

After "You and I," the show veers wildly off the rails into pure silliness. Tim Rice had gone over the top with big production numbers that were sharply critical in previous shows; he was really successful in Evita with "And the Money Kept Rolling In (and Out)," But "The Soviet Machine" fails to rise to the same level. It's not a showstopper like "And the Money..." and its critique of the Soviets is extremely weak. And to be blunt, any critique would seem flippant when paired with a song showing the Russians as drunken Cossack-dancers. It turns Molokov into a caricature of a stage Russian, a bad impression that the Broadway script would fix.

True, the absurdity of London's "Soviet Machine" is nothing compared to the even longer version in Sydney; but the song disappears otherwise, and for good cause. Now, if staged reasonably well, it can be a bit of fun, but it's nowhere near as piercing as "Merchandisers," which is both the strongest of the production numbers and the best critique in the show.

But the real problem of "The Soviet Machine" is that it stops the plot for five minutes to give fairly obvious motivations to the Soviets. Structurally it is a production number acting as a classic "I Want" song, but we already had one of these ("Where I Want to Be") in Act One. This is somewhat useful because, in plot terms, we've basically started a new play. But it doesn't work dramatically, in large part because we don't sympathize with the Russians.

Rice fixed the problem for Broadway. "Let's Work Together" does several important things. Particularly, it manages to advance the plot of the show while at the same time it draws an equal sign between the American and Soviet spies, a far more devastating political point than weak allusions to Siberia.

London's script then has to advance the plot in the short breaks between songs. After Molokov's call to Walter, we go into "Interview" - which I'll tackle in my next post.

Monday, October 27, 2014

An Aside on Russian Dialog

Sometimes, incidental dialog can reveal interesting things about culture. I want to look at two incidental moments, one from London and the other from Broadway, that both happen to occur between Anatoly and Molokov, and both happen to fall right before "Where I Want to Be."

The first is London:
Anatoly: I'm a chess player, Mr. Molokov - you go and play these other games!
The line is traditionally delivered with a dramatic disgust as Anatoly sends Molokov off.

The Broadway line is sort of its opposite, Molokov ordering Anatoly to play an ambassador:
Molokov: He went to University with the First Secretary. You have no choice.
I'm bringing up these lines because neither of them would have been said by a Russian, particularly not in the Soviet days.

The Russian language doesn't have a word meaning "mister." Today there is occasional use of the extremely formal господин (gahspuh-DEEN) - which was a way to address a nobleman in the old Imperial Russia, closer to "master/Lord" than "mister". It was totally out of use in the Soviet period. It was far more common to use товарищ (tah-VAR-ish), which in English is translated as "comrade." This was a common form of address in the period, and it's frequently enough used by film and stage Russians that it's something of a cliché, but it is much more accurate to have Anatoly say "comrade Molokov" than "Mr. Molokov." Now, and then as well, it would also be acceptable to have him simply call him "Aleksandr" or "Molokov," the latter being a bit overly formal.

Broadway's line is really odd. The leader of the USSR was the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union; for the period described by Chess there are only three candidates for the post. Yuri Andropov was General Secretary from November 1982 to February 1984; Konstantin Chernenko followed until March 1985; and Mikhail Gorbachev until August 1991. Given the timing of the London and Broadway scripts, Gorbachev was General Secretary.

"First Secretary" was a peculiar form of the title used by Nikita Khrushchev (in power 1953-1964), who was consciously distancing himself from Stalin. Brezhnev restored it to "General Secretary" in 1966, and this form was used until the CPSU was outlawed in 1991. But being General Secretary was not like being President in the US. Two Russians in discussion would have referred to "Gorbachev," and definitely not to "the First Secretary." This is actually really helpful for staging Chess over two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union. It immediately contextualizes the piece for Molokov to say "He went to university with Gorbachev."

Happily, Gorbachev did go to university. There's no record of whether he actually knew the only ambassador to Thailand that was appointed while he was General Secretary, Anatoly Valkov, but photographs of the candidates can be seen here. Valkov is the image of the bureaucrat that Anatoly didn't want to play chess against. Sadly there are no detailed biographies for these Russian ambassadors, but Valkov was born in 1927, and his predecessor Kasatkin in 1930, so it's quite possible for either of them to have been at university at the same time as Gorbachev (born in 1931).

So in our revised form, these lines go (London):
Anatoly: I'm a chess player, Comrade Molokov - you go and play these other games!
And then Broadway:
Molokov: He went to University with Gorbachev. You have no choice.
Both of these help set the tone for a modern audience, placing the characters more firmly in their Cold War settings.

There is also some value in talking about Russian names, at least briefly. Russians tend to have a middle name (patronymic) based on their father's first name, with ovich added for men and ovna for women, so Viktor's children Ivan and Marina would be Ivan Viktorovich and Marina Viktorovna. Giving the characters patronymics helps make them feel more authentically Russian at key moments. I would suggest Anatoly Viktorovich (a reference to Korchnoi), Aleksandr Grigorevich, and Svetlana Petrovna.

There are also stereotyped nicknames for most common Russian names. For Anatoly it's Tolya, for Aleksandr there is Sasha (it can be a man's name in Russian), and for Svetlana there is Sveta and the less common Lana, the latter of which would work more smoothly in English. These are much warmer in usage than first names or patronymics, and give another variant to make the dialogue feel more authentically Russian.

I'm going to go through some more dialogue for other ways to add context that may not have been obviously needed in 1986/1988. It's one of the little things about making Chess more of a period piece that I think is a dramaturgical necessity.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Talking London: Finishing Act I

After "Who'd Ever Think It?", the London Chess sails back into troubled waters.

It doesn't seem rough immediately. The "Chess" instrumental goes neatly over Freddie's collapse in the match, and "Florence Quits" is a very strong dramatic moment. Freddie lashes out and says some pretty awful things about women, and we get back into the "Who'd Ever Think It?" theme that will repeat again in "The Deal." But then ...

The short piece, sometimes referred to as "A Taste of Pity," that sits after "Florence Quits" in the concept album can be a great bit of theatre, if Florence is still on stage. The blocking isn't hard to do: Florence and Freddie argue, Florence is about to storm out, Freddie stops her and sings this piece that's almost conciliatory. She softens for a moment and then Freddie suddenly sings "But the fools never learn!" It's a great bait-and-switch moment, slamming the door just when the audience wonders if they might be able to reconcile.*

In the London script, this got screwed up by placing "Pity the Child" in this spot. It requires that Florence leave at the end of "Florence Quits," and honestly it's not the right moment for it. The audience who's never seen the show wants to see where it's going between Florence and Anatoly, not spend over five minutes wallowing in Freddie's self-pity.

Fortunately, everybody in the world including Tim Rice saw this, and the 2008 revision puts the "Taste of Pity" back in its place, and "Pity the Child" in Act II where it belongs.

After that we get the defection scene. It's a very weird scene, for a number of reasons.

First: it wouldn't have happened that way. And here is one of the reasons a dramaturg is useful in a musical like this – they will do the research so you get basic factual questions right. Merano is a town that had about 33,000 people in the '80s. It's very picturesque, but there's never been a British consulate there. And if that seems like a nitpick, the reason I bring this up is that the scene as written has no drama at all; Anatoly goes into the consulate and has to sit through bureaucrats complaining. In reality, the characters would've needed to sneak Anatoly onto a train over the Alps and into Milan, where he could actually walk into a British consulate and defect. There's actual intrigue and drama in that scene, which is totally missing in the flat defection sequence from London.

Second: several eastern bloc defectors did pass through the US Embassy in Rome and one Bulgarian actually went through the British consulate in Bologna. But in the real world, no defector ever showed up at the British consulate in Milan; it would've been a fairly big deal. To only represent it by some bureaucrats grousing is almost perverse. Trevor Nunn tried to stage a big dramatic scene by using stage lights to represent car headlights in a parking garage on Broadway; it didn't work but at least he tried something. In London, there's no drama to speak of.

Third: "Embassy Lament" is easily the weakest song on the original concept album, both in music and lyrics. Musically it's too simplistic and a bit annoying, a failed attempt at a patter song. Lyrically it just doesn't manage to be as amusing or barbed as it's supposed to be. Bureaucrats just aren't funny, even ones who are comically jaded at defections from the Soviet Union.

After the "Lament," Florence comes on stage to sing "Heaven Help My Heart." This is a mistake. The audience just heard Freddie's solo (fixed in the 2008 revision). We've just hit about 70 minutes, so the people who don't have the concept album and didn't read their program are expecting this to be the end of the act (and in Sydney they would've been right). Instead it's just another solo in a crowded part of the story. It becomes forgettable.

Now, no one's ever found a place to put this song. It doesn't have any context on the concept album. It's put in the same place as the concept album on Broadway, and setting it in a church is far too on the nose. Sydney awkwardly ends the first act with it. Stockholm has Florence sing it ... well, it just has Florence sing it, no explanation. The song is lovely, but there's no material in the whole history of Chess that actually makes a logical place to put it.

That doesn't excuse London. Florence comes out to sing after "Embassy Lament" strictly because it's her turn to sing, and she sings this song now because the creators didn't have a better place for it. It's a lovely song, but here it is making Florence a bit desperate to sing about her angst in a relationship when she has spent virtually no time whatsoever with the man. "I love him too much" is not something you can sing about somebody you've just kissed the once. It makes more sense a few months or a year into a relationship.

"Anatoly and the Press" is short. Too short; the longer version on Broadway has a bit more punch. But there's a moment of dialogue where Anatoly says "Walter, you bastard! You never told me that you fixed this!" that implies a missing scene where we actually see Walter telling Anatoly something. Instead we get the same very confused version of events that Florence sees, which implies that he's really working for the CIA when he shows a card in "Embassy Lament." A better set-up for his role, such as Sydney where he talks about a TV interview with Anatoly, makes more sense and gives a bit more meat for the audience to catch on to the idea that Walter is plotting something.

The act ends with "Anthem." It's been a long time getting there, but it's a perfect act closer. Anatoly wins the audience over with sheer charisma and a song that builds slowly to a majestic finish. Its last lines summarize a rather lovely sentiment: "Let man's petty nations tear themselves apart / My land's only borders lie around my heart." Then curtain on a long act that has taken quite a bit of explanation.

We'll get into why that's a problem in the second act.

* This wasn't done in the Broadway version, where Freddie is played as menacing and Florence seems to be defending herself.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Talking London: The Well-Oiled Machine

"Enough of this pious waffle!"*

Continuing to talk about the London script, I've gone up to the point where the characters start to play chess. Once they do, we get to the one part of the script that London did probably its best work, laying out a sequence of events that every subsequent production (except Stockholm) followed more or less closely. Despite a single clunk in the execution, everything put in place during this process was fully functional, and while there was a little padding, the important stuff happens here. I'm referring, of course, to the day when Anatoly and Florence fall in love.

It's a great story, possibly the reason that everyone has always been convinced that the larger story can be fixed. There is a chess match, which Freddie stops dead. (The later "yogurt scene" is missing from London, of course, and there's simply no explanation for his outburst.) Then Florence is trying to patch things up ("Quartet") and winds up flirting with Anatoly. She sets up a meeting for that night ("Florence and Molokov") and proceeds to have a blow-up fight with Freddie ("You Wanna Lose Your Only Friend? / Nobody's Side.") "Der Kleine Franz" sets the mood and "Mountain Duet" gives us the fateful kiss between Florence and Anatoly, in a delightfully playful scene. Then Freddie finds them and has a perfectly done outburst ("Who'd Ever Think It?"). That sequence is the only time that Chess will be moving along a well-oiled plot train, so you'd best enjoy it.

London was the only version of the show to do "Quartet" justice. This is because the song has one premise: Molokov does not shut up. Seriously, in the London version, Florence is trying to respond to Molokov's accusation but he's filibustering her and will not be silent except when the Arbiter is responding to him. So she goes off and starts sparring/flirting with Anatoly while Molokov just keeps talking. He's a force of nature in this scene. The concept album has the same arrangement, but the Arbiter is spouting points from the match rules like he's some kind of broken chess machine and the current situation does not compute. The idea of a robot Arbiter is interesting but not well supported in the text**. Other versions have a four-part round, but all four characters just spout nonsense; more importantly, it involves Molokov shutting up, which goes against its original premise.

After this it hits a roadblock. The Florence / Molokov scene is just a dud. It goes quickly from trading jibes to a bit of a political rant, which doesn't sit well with the scene that is about to follow it; in "Florence and Molokov," Florence's anger about the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956 nearly derails her attempts to pick up the pieces of the chess match. In "The American and Florence," she says "There's a time and there's a place" about the same issue - this doesn't quite work. But mostly it throws a perfunctory song at something that a few lines of dialog would've solved.

This is followed by a second bit of sung dialog that does one of the things the Broadway script would do: the characters have an argument in new dialog, and then they have a second argument from the concept album. I'm going to submit that "You wanna lose your only friend / Well, keep it up you're doing fine" is a perfectly valid way to begin an argument in and of itself. The concept album conflict pieces were all exceedingly well-crafted scenes and don't need long preludes, or even any prelude.They work on their own. "Nobody's Side" is simply a great song, and it does important work setting up Florence as someone who is ready to do something totally reckless and self-destructive. Which, of course, she is.

"Der Kleine Franz" exists, like "One Night in Bangkok" did in Broadway, so that Florence can make a costume change and possibly take a breath after "Nobody's Side" and before "Mountain Duet." (In Broadway it was between "Someone Else's Story" and "Terrace Duet," of course) It's really the only forgivable bit of filler in the show, but it is very much filler.

The "Duet" itself is dramatically lovely. People sometimes scoff at the fact that the love story happens in a single four-and-a-half minute song, but that's not the worldview of Chess at all. The entire point is functionally that Anatoly and Florence have absolutely incredible chemistry together and, despite being mature thirtysomething or fortysomething people who most certainly know that it is an absolutely terrible idea to do so, follow those feelings. Nothing about the affair is a good idea, except that it's totally irresistible to both characters. That's captured perfectly by having them fall for each other in under five minutes. Besides, if you don't catch a bit of flirtation in the full version of "Quartet," you're not paying enough attention.

And just as our lovers kiss, at the pinnacle of the romantic worldview that they accept despite everything they know, Freddie walks in and sings two verses that jerk us right back down to earth. Now it's complicated and the last person they wanted to see at that moment comes in. Two low-key verses, on a theme that will repeat in "Florence Quits" and "The Deal," are all that's needed. Every other English-language production used this moment, and with good cause. It's just pitch-perfect storytelling.

This is the core of our show, and leads directly and logically to "Florence Quits" and the defection, where London has some more problematic moments. It's the only point except for "The Deal" and "Endgame" where the music is allowed to drive the show's plot directly, rather than being shuffled around to places where it more or less fits in a plot driven by dialog or recitative.

Almost nothing here needs to be cut, changed or re-ordered. You could cut out some of the Florence / Molokov material and the stuff with Walter, Freddie and Florence before "You Wanna Lose...", but that's it. "Der Kleine Franz" can be cut to the first verse, as it was in the London production, but it shouldn't be removed entirely; Florence needs to catch her breath and get in a new outfit for the "Duet." Everything else works beautifully. It's a shame that stops after "Florence Quits."

* The actual London quote is "Enough of this piety" - but I've always loved "pious waffle" from the Danish concert CD.
** Actually, a robot Arbiter isn't quite as outlandish as it sounds; his word is law, he knows the score, he's watching all 64, he doesn't like women and he doesn't take dope, none of which contradicts such a theory. But that's just nutty fan guessing and not actual dramaturgy.

Talking London: The Set-Up

"I've taken shit for seven years and I won't take it any more!"

Ha! How's that for a dramatic re-entrance.

It's been literally seven years since I was originally writing this blog, and the one thing I've always regretted was that I left my thoughts on the London version of Chess badly incomplete. It's especially unfortunate seeing as how London Chess has become more standard than ever before, between the 2008 concert and a change in the licensing in the United States.

We have to be extremely clear on something before going down the rabbit hole: the London show was not, at the time that it was mounted, considered satisfactory by any of the parties involved. If Tim Rice has changed his tune twenty-odd years down the line, that's his right, but in 1987 there was no question but that the show was going to be rewritten. The question was who would do the rewriting, and Richard Nelson won that, to the eternal chagrin of the show's fans.

This is going to take a few posts, and I want to critically examine the London show. There are several problems with presentation that I need to talk about, because London's far from perfect. A couple aspects of the show, such as the structure of the recitative in pieces like "Commie Newspapers" and "Talking Chess," I'm going to keep in their own post.

I've said before that every version of Chess has Act Two problems. The thing about Act Two problems is that they tend to be rooted in Act One problems. London may have the worst of these.

As a story, Chess doesn't really start until the chess match happens. There is some buildup to the match, in London including an assault upon a reporter in "Press Conference," but it's action incidental to the plotline. Characters are introduced, hype is built up about the chess match, themes are expounded, but no moment prior to "Quartet" is really telling us the main plot. This is a structural weakness of the show, but fans tend to be drawn along simply because the music's so good while we're getting there. (This generally explains the patience many fans have with Chess: the score is good enough to excuse many of the show's faults.)

The London show is extremely ponderous and bombastic in getting the plot moving. There are two opening numbers, "The Story of Chess" and "Merano," one five minutes long and the other seven. "The Story of Chess" is a remnant of Michael Bennett's work on the show; it was to have seamless choreography throughout, and the story would be aided both by ballets and by a bank of monitors. These both became perfunctory elements in the hands of Trevor Nunn, who has no eye for human beings in motion. "Merano" isn't bad, but seven minutes is an awfully long time to stick with a song that's intentionally corny so that it can get interrupted by a rock number. The Swedish production cut a minute and a half and lost nothing.

Freddie is introduced in "What a Scene! What a Joy!" - a quick rock number that makes him out as a bombastic American player, supremely confident in himself and his game. Then he's introduced a second time in "Commie Newspapers," this time as a genius whose talents aren't appreciated for political reasons. Florence is also introduced in this, as a wry and sarcastic but caring figure. "Press Conference" tells us about Freddie for a third time, as a paranoid and egomaniacal prima donna, and gives Florence a wonderful establishing moment ("Smile, you got your first exclusive story ...."). While "Commie Newspapers" fleshes out the relationship between Freddie and Florence, it leads to some introduction fatigure, where Freddie has been established too well and not too consistently as a character.

This is one of the things that Broadway did well: it cuts the "Commie Newspapers" bit, although themes from that scene are present in "How Many Women?", and combines "What a Scene, What a Joy" with "Press Conference," both in severely cut-down versions. There are issues with this scene in the Nelson script, but they are issues that can be worked around. In the London script the only thing we can really do is cut "Commie Newspapers," which does nothing for the plot. "Merano" deserves to be shortened as it was in Sweden, including cutting the break for whistling.

After "Press Conference" we switch to "Anatoly and Molokov / Where I Want to Be." This is one of the places where London stuck to the concept album, and rightly so. It's a great scene – Molokov is established as villain and Anatoly as hero in two minutes flat. The issue of course is that we've taken so damned long to get to it. "Where I Want to Be" is perfect as an "I Want" song, but it should be about 5-10 minutes earlier in the script than it actually is.

Then we hit the "Opening Ceremony" material. "Diplomats" ("US vs USSR") is needed more in the 21st century than it was in 1986, but the extra verse that was added since the concept album has no dramatic function other than to make the song longer. That's awkward because if you try and stage this as a proper dance number, it quickly devolves into bad comedy. Hunt down the video of the 1992 Auckland, NZ concert with Tommy Körberg, Murray Head, and Deliah Hannah as Florence if you don't believe me.

Next, "The Arbiter's Song" has a dance break added, which kindly gives the choreographer something to do since they're so underutilized throughout this show. The Arbiter is a featured part, which is remarkable given how relatively unimportant he is in the action of the show. Tim Rice gave the Arbiter a few lines after "The Story of Chess" and a narration bit in "The Deal" as part of a half-hearted attempt to make him into a narrator figure, which he followed through in earnest in the Sydney script. In London it's only halfway done. This song, the scene that immediately follows it, a short reprise of "The Arbiter's Song" a few minutes later, and "Quartet" are the only places where he contributes as a character. It's a wonderful little number, and it works better as a counterpoint to "Diplomats" than vice versa, but dramatically it's a lot of time to spend on a character who will pop his head in twice more during the show.

The scene following this is not on the Danish recording, but it is in the 2008 concert. There is bickering, but it has not yet risen to the level of being plot. A bit of sparring between Florence and Molokov is interesting but entirely gratuitous, because we'll see real sparring between them (with music) in a few minutes in "Quartet."

"Hymn to Chess" is a lovely choral, but in context "Let us dedicate ourselves to the spirit of chess" is an exceedingly silly thing to say. It serves no purpose but to be interrupted by "Merchandisers," which is the very definition of a fun little number. Done well, it's a light moment in a very ponderous, political show, and it makes some wickedly barbed points while it's at it. What's unfortunate is that we've now spent between 35 and 40 minutes to get to the point where our plot starts.

It seems very weird to say that nothing has happened in 40 minutes, but up to this point we've had characters on stage, singing and dancing and arguing and fighting, without actually doing anything that moves us along in terms of the plotline. Reporter #2 (the reporter who gets punched in "Press Conference") never presses charges as far as we know, and never actually appears on stage again. Molokov is the only character who sings during "Diplomats" who actually does anything again. Once the Arbiter leaves the stage, we won't hear him sing again until "The Deal."

In fact, for many of these songs, literally nothing is happening. "The Story of Chess" takes place in a non-diegetic never-never land. "Merano" is literally an introduction song, and "Diplomats" is cover for absolutely nothing happening. "The Arbiter's Song" at least can be argued to happen in the sense that the Arbiter comes on stage and yells at people not to be political for a few minutes. We've established an awful lot, but it's a ton of build-up to what winds up being less than 4 minutes of chess-playing.

You can put this material in almost any order and it will work, so long as Freddie does something interesting before "Anatoly & Molokov." You can cut as many songs as you want; the only constant is that Anatoly must sing "Where I Want to Be" relatively early in the show. And I'm not talking in hypotheticals here. Every other song has been cut by some production or another. Except for "Commie Newspapers," it's all good songwriting, but most of it is inert in terms of story. The pieces can be set up much more quickly.

It is possible to tame this bloat and wind up with a quicker, lighter piece. "The Story of Chess" can end at "They thus invented chess..." like it does in most other variations. "Merano" can lose the entire first verse and begin with "Oh I get high when I saunter by...", and it can lose the whistle break. Skipping "Commie Newspapers" and going right from "Merano" to "Press Conference" will save two minutes and an unnecessary scene change; in fact, "Press Conference" could happen at the train station. "Diplomats" can lose its extra verse, and "The Arbiter's Song" its dance break. "Hymn to Chess" can be cut, or not, at the director's preference. All the same themes and characters are set up, and we've removed between eight and ten minutes of an overlong first act, without significantly damaging the score.

Of course as a fan of the show, eight to ten minutes less of Chess seems like a bad thing; but the truth is, in a dark theatre the people watching aren't going to miss what is gone. What they will find is that the show doesn't drag along quite so much before getting to the actual plot. Bits that were labored in London now become pretty snappy, and to the point.

But as we'll see, this is the eminently fixable half of the first act. The second half has problems that run much deeper. I'm also going to have to go into some depth as to why I think some of the numbers, including "Commie Newspapers," are such a problem.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

That post about Chicago

I realize I haven't updated this blog in months, but sometimes you just have to get back into a good project.

After the Broadway version of Chess failed, and the London version closed, the floodgates were open for any and all comers to rework the show. American productions faced the special challenge of having to use the Richard Nelson libretto for the show; this distinguishes them from Tim Rice's own Sydney rewrite, which took a brilliant, if still imperfect, approach. There are two major variations that came out of the American scene: the American Tour, and the production at the Lincolnshire Marriott near Chicago. Both productions were mounted in 1990, with considerable acclaim and excellent casts. The Chicago script, which we'll be discussing here, was also produced in Sacramento and Atlanta.

Director David H. Bell and his production staff approached the Nelson script moderately, but effectively. Some purists might consider it too close to the Broadway version for comfort, but it makes a far better piece of musical theatre. What the Chicago production set out above all else to do was to make the characters more sympathetic. Strident speeches and lame jokes were quietly dropped by the wayside, and while the bulk of the spoken material was from the Nelson script, subtle cuts and rewrites were successful in also changing the overall tone of the show.

The first act, which was not particularly broken, was structurally more or less the same. The overblown "Prologue" with "Story of Chess" was still present; yet at the same time, it was deeply humanized by a much more appropriate use of "Lullaby" than in the Broadway show, sung before Florence has to leave. The scenes before "Where I Want to Be" and "How Many Women" went through minor cuts, but were brilliantly interwoven so that both scenes played out at the same time, tying the whole scene together and relieving the tedium that creeps into the show at this point. "Merchandisers" loses out, replaced by "The Arbiter's Song," which in turn is intercut with a very short segment of "US vs. USSR." While this is undoubtedly a loss for the chorus, it is a great help for the actor playing the Arbiter, who now has the song as a sensible introduction for his character.

There is one scene that is actually lengthened, with a very sharp Anatoly/Molokov dialogue before the meeting with Florence and "Terrace Duet," which actually serves to bolster the roles of both Anatoly and Molokov and provide a significant political moment. In the Atlanta production, Bell also transposed "One Night in Bangkok" to after this scene, which is also effective; in my experience, it takes the song — which manages to be forgettable in its original place — and gives it a dramatic context: Freddie is going out on a bender after seeing Anatoly and Florence together.

Not surprisingly, the heavy lifting happens in the second act. The subtle characterization cuts and rewrites are more prevalent in the first half, although the scenes are kept more or less as is up through "Let's Work Together" (where the song itself is trimmed). After "I Know Him So Well," the scene for "Pity the Child" is simply and effectively recreated. Florence succeeds in dismissing the camera crews filming Freddie, and they have a meaningful confrontation. She asks him for an extension for Anatoly, but he mistakes her visit for something more. He kisses her, and she is forced to reject him. The scene re-frames both Freddie and Florence in a far more human, sympathetic light. Florence is stronger and maybe a little torn, while we really get a moment where we think Freddie wants to be a decent guy. And "Pity the Child" is unequivocally saved by trimming a few lines, changing one, and removing the camera crew. Where Broadway's arrogant, self-pitying appeal — on live TV! — is uncomfortable, Chicago's is wholly personal and manages to make the characters believable.

It would take more than this to salvage the Broadway ending, though. First, Bell removed the "Lullaby" sequence with the false "father," placing it at the top of the show. Then, the sequence with Walter was edited down considerably, with only a hinted-at father (as in other versions). And finally, as had been foreshadowed by Anatoly in a few snippets of dialogue, a nameless Russian reunites Florence with her real father. With a stroke, the whole messy issue is resolved. Strains of "Lullaby" play in the background before the company sings the "Anthem" reprise.

In and of itself, this is a "compromise ending" — it's got a layer of sentiment to it that is foreign to Chess. The girl doesn't get the boy, but she does get her father back. It's a bit schmaltzy, but there are two mitigating factors to that. First, it fit with the general time of the production: 1990, Glasnost and the end of the Cold War. The lyrics of "US vs. USSR" had been changed to "These are optimistic and encouraging times" as early as Broadway, and scripts were peppered with references to political developments. Second, it is the final move for redemption of the Nelson script. The ending, which had consolidated and deepened all the negativity of the show, is turned around into a more encouraging, even uplifting finale.

At the end of the day, the ending is the dilemma of the Chicago show. It is the centerpiece of the redemption of the rest of the Nelson book. Dramatically speaking, it works. The audience goes home happier for it, instead of stumbling out with a bit of a grudge against the script. Even without the rest of the work done for Chicago, productions have given Florence her father back in the end and reaped a reward for it.

But it's not a light decision. The ending sets the thematic tone for the entire show, and it is markedly different than any production that the principal creators of Chess have worked on. The authorial intent, as it can be gleaned from actual productions, is certainly for an ending somewhere in between — not the harsh and strident Broadway ending, but not the bittersweet compromise ending either. Produced without the "father" scene at the end, the Chicago version of the show would still be a considerable improvement on Broadway taken straight.

The Chicago production proved proved that there's actually quite a lot of redeemable material in Nelson's book. The ending is a significant compromise that is dramatically sound but veers away from the clear authorial intent. But despite that, it's a workable show and taken with or without the ending provides a sound basis for working with the Broadway script.