Sunday, February 25, 2018

The curious timing of Chess

The musical Chess is about one or two world chess championships. These are unique events, which from 1948 to 1990 were exclusively under the auspices of the Fédération Internationale des Échecs (FIDE) or World Chess Federation. In the period 1963-1990 the championship was held regularly every 3 years, with only two exceptions.

The first exception was in 1975. Bobby Fischer had defeated Boris Spassky in 1972, in one of the most famous world championship matches ever (and one of the matches that helped inspire Chess). In the intervening years, Fischer did not play competitive chess, and when FIDE attempted to arrange a match against the winner of the 1974 candidates tournament, Soviet wunderkind Anatoly Karpov, Fischer released a lengthy list of demands. FIDE did not meet these, particularly a specific requirement of a draw with Fischer retaining the title if the match (in a first player to 10 wins format) led to a 9-9 score. Fischer resigned his championship and refused to budge on his demands. No 1975 championship was held, and Karpov was declared World Champion.

Karpov went on to prove he really was World Champion, beating Soviet exile Viktor Korchnoi in 1978 and 1981, in the other matches that inspired Chess. This is where mirror glasses, parapsychologists, games stopped on account of chairs, and so on actually come from.

In 1984 the tournament came around again. This time Karpov was challenged by a new up-and-comer from the Soviet Union, Garry Kasparov. The match was first to six wins, and Karpov won four of the first nine games - seemingly coasting to victory. But a tremendous series of draws would ensue, and Karpov only one a single game, number 27. Kasparov won game 32, and then the pair proceeded to draw 14 more games. Kasparov finally won two games in a row in February 1985, but FIDE president Florencio Campomanes terminated the match with a 5-3 score.

And if you ever doubted that Chess is somewhat more realistic than you thought - well, a 2010 book called The KGB Plays Chess confirmed what Freddie Trumper could only suspect: Campomanes was a KGB asset and was determined that Karpov not lose. Over the objections of both players he wiped the slate clean and began a new match. The 1985 championship was the first to limit the match to 24 games, with ties counting as half of a point and wins as a whole point. Kasparov won, 13-11.

The 1985 match setup had included a rematch clause, so there was a third Karpov-Kasparov championship in 1986. This one was a draw, 12-12, with Kasparov retaining the title. They met again in the regular 1987 championship, with a third drawn result, and finally in 1990, when Kasparov won 12½-11½. The world championship got really complicated after that, but it's out of the time frame for our musical.

The cancellation affair was referenced in the extended version of "The Arbiter's Song" that was used on Broadway: "I control the match, I start it, I can call it off, Kasparov found that out." It's also referenced obliquely in the threat at the start of London "Endgame": "Two weeks ago I gave you a limit of six more games to end this sequence of draws. Five of these have now passed. If today's game does not produce a decision, the match is cancelled."

From a dramaturgical perspective, when did the matches in Chess take place? There is no cancelled 1984 match to drive everything from Karpov-Kasparov, so it makes the most sense for the matches to fall on the regular 3-year schedule. One-year gaps or four-year gaps wouldn't work; FIDE held a whole series of tournaments on a regular schedule to determine the challenger for the title.

In the London production, Freddie is the world champion at the beginning. He wouldn't have taken the championship from Fischer, who was paranoid about the Soviets beating him. What would make the most sense is the following sequence.

1978 - Freddie Trumper beats champion Anatoly Karpov.
1981 - Anatoly Sergievsky beats champion Freddie Trumper.
1984 - Anatoly Sergievsky defends his title from challenger Leonid Viigand.

Conveniently this places the 1981 match (and act one) in Meran, Italy where the real match happened and the lengthy series of draws in the 1984 championship (act two). It's unfortunate for Karpov and Korchnoi whose epic matches never happen.

If you wanted to do the Broadway show, Anatoly is the champion; he would have beaten Karpov in 1981 or 1984, setting the show in 1984 or 1987. For single-match versions where Freddie is the champion, he would have beaten Karpov (who really is the loser in this whole equation; Karpov was a genuinely great chess player)

The time of the Kennedy Center production (1979 and 1983) doesn't work; Freddie won the title in 1978 but the followup matches would have been in 1981 and 1984, inconvenient for the KC book but realistic for our purposes.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

What happens when Soviet chess players lose

Workers building the Kolyma Highway in the GULAG system
In the recent Kennedy Center production of Chess, using a modified version of the London book written by Danny Strong, it is outright stated that Anatoly Sergievsky will be killed if he doesn't win the chess championship, and that the previous loser, "Boris Ivanovich", was killed for losing to Freddie Trumper. Set in 1979, this is a stretch of the imagination that appears to have confused the Brezhnev-era USSR for its earlier Stalin-era counterpart, or perhaps to rumors about modern-day North Korea.

Soviet grandmasters in the 1970s were, as a rule, not killed or sent to Gulags for failure. The latter is impossible; the Gulag system was closed down by the 1960s, although there were still prison camps in Siberia, and political dissidents were still mistreated. Brezhnev was notorious for putting public opposition figures in mental hospitals. None of this should be downplayed or under-estimated as violations of human rights; it's simply a question of getting the history right. A Soviet threat in 1983 to send someone to a Gulag is like a threat from an American to send someone to Alcatraz in the same period - great for symbolism but it just wouldn't have happened. And Svetlana in this version is threatened with the Gulags.

The one Soviet grandmaster who did lose the championship to an American was Boris Spassky, who lost the high-profile 1972 championship to Bobby Fischer. In fact, Spassky had the opportunity to claim a forfeit in the 1972 tournament, and was ordered by Soviet officials to claim that Fischer had forfeited the match and the championship remained his. (See 2016 interview with Boris Spassky.) Of course Fischer, who was the prototype of the raving anti-communist American champion, took the title for the United States. Spassky was back playing competitive international chess the next year.

But there really was a Soviet player severely penalized for losing to Bobby Fischer. Only the year prior, Fischer beat Mark Taimanov in the Candidates tournament, winning six games and losing none. The humiliation was so complete that the Soviet authorities thought that Taimanov had lost on purpose as a political act. When Taimanov returned to the Soviet Union, he was found to have illegal literature by dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He was stripped of his salary as a grandmaster and his right to travel internationally. It was only because he had the right to play in an Interzonal tournament in Leningrad in 1973 that Taimanov would be "rehabilitated" by the Soviet authorities.

(There's a line in the Sydney rewrite of "US vs. USSR" that probably references Taimanov, when Molokov says, "Though it could mean foreign travel has to stop.")

The other player who came under the ire of Soviet authorities was Viktor Korchnoi. He was a slightly different case; Korchnoi was a player who the Soviet chess world conspired against in the 1974 Candidates' Final to determine who would face Bobby Fischer in the 1975 World Championship match that never happened. The Soviet Chess Federation, led in this matter by Tigran Petrosian, wanted to promote the younger generation - in the person of Anatoly Karpov - over Korchnoi's older generation that had been beaten by Fischer.

In 1976 Korchnoi defected in the Netherlands, ultimately ending up in Switzerland. This wasn't impulsive; he had taken care to get his chess library out of the USSR. His family was not allowed to join him, though. Korchnoi bedeviled the Soviet chess system by qualifying twice in a row for the World Championship. He lost both times, in 1978 (Baguio, Philippines) and 1981 (Merano, Italy), to Karpov, who proved himself to be the rightful champion. Korchnoi was hated by the Soviets and they did in fact resort to tricks, such as having a parapsychologist seated in the front row, to undermine him psychologically.

Korchnoi's son, Igor, was actually sent to prison in Siberia when he refused to serve in the army. (He feared that military service would complicate his ability to leave the Soviet Union.) But he served a 30 month sentence and was allowed, along with Korchnoi's wife Bella, to join Korchnoi in exile a year after the Merano match. This proved somewhat awkward as Korchnoi already had a lover and divorced Bella shortly after their reunion. But this is as close as we come to someone actually being thrown in a Gulag over chess.

The level of threat and pressure at work in the original libretto of Chess are roughly historically accurate. Strong is trying to increase the stakes but it comes at the expense of making the Soviets seem strangely maniacal in a period when they were infamous as the sclerotic gerontocracy who presided over a corrupt, suffocating, bureaucratic system in a slow decline. Or to put it another way - no one's life is threatened by a flop.

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.

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.

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.


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

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?

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.