Friday, December 15, 2006

American Tour: Ambitious but Flawed

First, an apology; life has kept me away from thinking about and watching my archival videos of Chess for a couple of weeks.

Even though the Broadway production of Chess was a failure financially and artistically, it was very plainly a show with a great deal of potential. There were two major American efforts to address the numerous issues in the script: a tour directed by Des McAnuff and a production near Chicago directed by David H. Bell. I want to begin by discussing McAnuff's version, the American Tour. I have touched on its issues before, in "Glasnost & Perestroika," but it deserves a full consideration.

The tour began in January 1990, against Tim Rice's wishes. Rice wanted to use his Sydney rewrite, which was set to debut the following month, but the tour producers decided to create their own variation, based on the Richard Nelson script but with a rewrite by playwright Robert Coe. This was undertaken with only weeks before rehearsals were set to begin, and Coe's book was unfinished to the point of notoriety; he would follow the tour around and try to rework it as best he could, keeping up to date with current events.

Coe's revisions had some achievements, but the price was significant. The show scrapped most of the Nelson dialogue, as well as the Budapest setting for Act II and a number of songs, and added significant new scenes, some of which are entirely spoken, in an attempt to make a dramatically coherent musical. "Pity the Child" and "Heaven Help My Heart" found their way back to their London placements in Act I, while "Someone Else's Story" became the closing number. Most "Opening Ceremony" material was gone, and the first act gets to the match quickly, but lingers on its aftermath too long. The second act is extremely thin musically, and while it is nowhere near as repellent as the Nelson material, it still failed to create a satisfying act two.

Many of the scenes in the American Tour are new; the setting is entirely in Bangkok, and we see Freddie playing in outlandish exhibition games, accepting Anatoly's demand for an extra week, and telling Anatoly to play his best. Coe attempted to expand on the Anatoly / Florence romance, and cut the subplot with Florence's father. While some of this is clearly well intentioned, and Coe excised the main problems in Broadway, his book does not quite work dramatically.

One of the problems is the dialogue itself. Coe eliminated the self-serious character of Nelson's writing, but his own seems awkward and entirely out of step with the lyrics; it is hard to believe that the Florence he creates is the same woman who sings "Terrace Duet" or "Nobody's Side." There is also a tendency on his part to over-explain things; the love affair between Florence and Anatoly is particularly overanalyzed in the first act. There are charming moments, but a good number are simply cringe-inducing, such as Molokov's act two "Read my lips" joke.

The plot, without the Florence's father element, is narrowed down to the point where the second act is almost perfunctory. The only thing that happens throughout the second act is that Anatoly is under pressure from the Americans and the Russians to get him to come home. (They are collaborating because if Anatoly returns, there will be some lucrative merchandising benefits for Walter -- which is explained in a very awkward part of the ending.) While the London/Sydney tactic of using the songs to gloss over a questionable plot is not in effect here, Coe does not offer any alternative to it, and there is no sense of character growth -- especially seeing as how there is not a single solo number in the act until the finale.

What's worse is that the characters are simply confused. Florence does not sing a line until "Quartet," which is a weak number for her; her characterization is too harsh in the spoken scenes and all the music can do is to mitigate, and often contradict, this. (For instance, the Arbiter calls Florence "Miss Vassy," but is sharply corrected to "Ms.", in front of Anatoly no less, but Florence still sings "How could I not, Miss Vassy regrets / Anything goes with your opponent.") Interesting elements such as Anatoly being the main mover in the romance with Florence and Freddie's redemption in the second act are handled uneasily and not backed up by any sung material. (A particular awkward moment is when "Freddie Goes Metal" is sung in the second act, but the lyrics at the end of the song are changed to the lyrics at the end of "What a Scene.")

At odds with its music and uncomfortable with both its characters and plot, the book falls flat on its face at the end. "You and I - Reprise," which the creators of the show clearly intended to be the final number, is cut cruelly in half. (Aside from the concept album, when Tim Rice revisited the show for Sydney, and again when the Swedish version was created, it is the finale.) And the final number, "Someone Else's Story," is simply botched. The song is difficult to place, but here it is almost insulting: it is about choosing, painfully, to end a difficult relationship and move on, not about the loss of one. Throughout the rest of Chess's history, "You and I" sets the dramatic tone of the finale; Coe's attempt to change this simply rings false.

To be fair, the American Tour has its fans, and for the most part they tend to be more enthusiastic over Coe's book and characterization choices. My personal feeling is that the tour's goals are sketched out, but they simply have moved too far from the musical material for it to come together. Coe's jokes are occasionally bad, but his Anatoly seems to be an interesting person, and unfortunately is only tangentially related to the man who Tim Rice wrote lyrics for.

There is a certain tension within the material for Chess: on the one hand, Anatoly is plainly the protagonist and the main mover in the show. On the other hand, Florence is very much the starring role. There is a distinct sense that Coe intended for Anatoly to be the main character, but he lost Florence in the mix and had nowhere to go for the entire second act. His portraiture of the other characters is interesting, but Florence is unsympathetic even with an actress of Carolee Carmello's caliber playing her. This, in my opinion, is the one unforgivable element of the American Tour.

The American Tour has some interesting material for the director of Chess, and on the whole, I would rather sit through a production of the unedited tour than the unedited Broadway libretto. However, as we will see in the next post (about the Chicago production), the Broadway material is actually a more solid base to change and rework than the tour. Fixing the problems of the American Tour would involve a heavy hand to the libretto and frankly more than a little borrowing from the Sydney production. At the end of the day, the American Tour is best left as an interesting side note to Chess history.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Broadway: What Went Wrong

Probably the single most salient and contentious question in Chess history is precisely what went wrong with the 1988 Broadway production. The preproduction drama between Tim Rice and the production staff, especially Trevor Nunn, is a legend in its own right, and the entire subsequent history of Chess is centered around fixing what went wrong on Broadway.

It is hard to pin down precisely what is wrong with the Broadway script, if only because there are so many angles from which to attack it. My personal opinion is that there are several significant accomplishments within Richard Nelson's script, but they are not able to mitigate its numerous severe problems. From the point of view of the London script, it did several things right: it worked out the split match problem discussed before, and it managed to have a very coherent plot throughline in the second act. Compared to the European and Australian versions, which tend to simply throw a bunch of songs at the dramatic problems in Act II, this is in itself significant. It also gets to the first chess match in considerably less time than London, shortening the overloaded introductory segment, particularly with the cuts made after opening night. (Sydney would get this down to a science, with Freddie and Anatoly playing chess in about 20 minutes; the American Tour came close, while Stockholm threw away the whole notion and takes forever again.)

Unforunately, as most of the Chess world agrees, the Broadway show also had certain crucial flaws. The great, obvious one is that much of the second act material, and particularly the ending, are downright repellent. Of the last four scenes, only the one that consists almost entirely of "Endgame" is watchable. "Pity the Child" is reset as a television interview interrupted by Florence; Freddie insults and belittles her, and when Florence wins the shouting match, Freddie sings "Pity" as an on-the-air meltdown. (Curiously, this comes the day before he becomes world chess champion.) In its context, "Pity" is physically uncomfortable to sit through.

Florence is then presented by Molokov with a bearded old man in a wheelchair who she is told is her father. The old man proceeds to sing her a lullaby in Hungarian. Given that this old man is very clearly the actor who played her father in the prologue, the "twist" -- the revelation that he is not, in fact, her father -- is notoriously difficult for audiences to forgive. The harsh ending, where Florence and Walter yell at each other and each give a short, yet trite, speech before the unfortunate "Anthem - Reprise" finale, does not sell this well, and sends an audience home drained after a musical that is too long, too heavy, and too generally misanthropic.

The first three-quarters of the show have problems, but nothing is quite so severe as the way that the last quarter simply drives off a cliff (and runs over Florence's cute puppy while doing so). There is a self-serious ponderousness to much of Nelson's dialogue, and the attempts at variation, such as the "fart joke" Freddie gives in the top of the first act, are rarely funny and tend to cheapen the characters. There is a genuine nasty streak to the principals in Nelson's version of Chess, and even Florence and Anatoly come off as insufferable. Freddie is a caricature of himself, and an actor of Philip Casnoff's high caliber was barely able to struggle to make him a realistic human being. Similarly Walter, who is unthinkably despicable and almost manages to rehabilitate Molokov by comparison. (Molokov has some humanizing speeches throughout the show, but apparently these are also just lies.) Svetlana, in a microscopic part, is the only one who comes out well; the Arbiter is ridiculous yet somehow also inconsequential.

Nelson's show is unrelenting in its negativity. Romance, ambition, childhood dreams, political idealism, and just plain human decency have to be systematically crushed by the overwhelming, invincible and uncaring machines of state. I am not one to be in the least bit idealistic about the state, but still, the Broadway Chess is a difficult, bitter pill to swallow. It compounds these sins by being drab, dull, and ponderous, or otherwise tasteless, in the dialogue. And while a good cast can in fact overcome a number of these weaknesses, the fact is that the Broadway cast was downright excellent and still failed.

There are moments and elements that I like in the Broadway version of Chess -- particularly the act two scene with Anatoly, Molokov, and Svetlana. Nelson's characters are thoroughly drawn, but unfortunately are written in such a way that the audience doesn't end up liking any of them. And the whole piece is unrelentingly negative and can only be enjoyed despite itself. Yet, thanks to contractual obligations, Richard Nelson's script is what American directors have to work with. So I'm going to be writing a number of posts for this blog dealing with how the Broadway problems have been tackled, and how they could be handled in future productions.

Friday, November 24, 2006

The Split-Match Problem

The original plotline for Chess involved not one, but two, matches -- one between Freddie and Anatoly, and the second between Anatoly and a Russian who was later named Leonid Viigand. Viigand is a nonentity who is most noteworthy for the fact that he spends the entire vodka-soaked dance sequence of "The Soviet Machine" practicing his chess moves. The rationale for Viigand was to have a parallel match to the 1978 Karpov-Korchnoi match, as the first was a parallel to Spassky-Fischer 1972. It was followed through for London, but not resurrected for Broadway, Sydney, the American Tour, or Stockholm.

As a fundamental matter of dramatic principle, the split-match format is the key weakness of the London show. For their flaws (all of them have second-act problems), the later variations have a much greater coherency, which stems from the fact that the single chess match acts as a framing event for the dramatic action. Here is the essence of the split-match problem.

If a split-match format (Anatoly/Freddie, Anatoly/Viigand) is used, on the one hand, the stakes in "Endgame" are high, because Molokov's goal is to make Anatoly lose the match. On the other hand, in the time between the second act's opening and "Endgame," it is very difficult to make this match matter to Anatoly enough for his winning despite the cost in "Endgame" to make sense.

If a single-match format (Anatoly/Freddie) is used, the stakes in "Endgame" are lowered, since Molokov's main goal is to get Anatoly back to the Soviet Union. This makes it possible for Anatoly to lose the match, and in Stockholm "Ni dömer mig" ("Endgame") is not even used for the final game. It is also harder to place "One Night in Bangkok," which was a problem in Broadway and the American Tour, and which Stockholm punted on completely. The benefit of a single-match format is that the action is much more cohesive, with the match providing the outline for the drama.

Historically, it is probably more popular for Anatoly to win the final game than Freddie. Critics of the Broadway version point out that in New York, the American won, but really, this has less to do with nationality and more with characterization. The thrust of the concept album was that winning mattered to Anatoly more than the secret about Florence's father; this comes out in "Argument" and is reinforced throughout "Endgame." However, the London Anatoly has less of this aspect to his personality, and his "Endgame" material comes out of the blue. By the time we reach Broadway, a more fatalistic Anatoly losing the match makes sense.

More than anything, the split-match format exposes the main contradiction in Chess: although Anatoly is the person who makes the main decision in the show, Florence is its heart and soul. There are traces in the concept album that Anatoly was originally the center of the musical, but it is not so in the actual productions. So, the decision to weight the outcome of the second match goes against the grain, and London's ending does not have the intended impact.

Since Stockholm did not return to the split-match format, it is more or less likely that any English-language revival will follow suit. As a whole, the dramatic advantages of the single-match tend to win out, and barring significant recreation of Anatoly's character, it is best to go with the flow of the post-1986 productions here.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Perestroika and Glasnost

One of the crucial things to understand when dealing with Chess is that it was conceived of as a very timely musical, dealing with east/west tensions and the odd phenomenon of chess celebrity in the West. However, as the 1980s went on, the relations between the United States and the Soviet Union changed dramatically as the Soviet system went through its final crisis. The US switched from "evil empire" rhetoric to a much more open stance, as the USSR under Gorbachev embraced "Perestroika" (reform) and "Glasnost" (openness).

At first, Chess did not pretend to notice this; the London production was set in 1986 and assumed that things would be in uneasy detente for the forseeable future. But signs of cold war thaw hit the 1988 Broadway production, and the first place that it showed was in the lyrics for "US versus USSR" (credited in the score as "Diplomats"). The ominous couplet "No one can deny that these are dangerous times / These are very difficult and dangerous times" gave way to an upbeat "No one can deny these are encouraging times / These are optimistic and encouraging times," which was to see its way through to 1990. Half of the Broadway show was set in Hungary, and the script refers to it being a diplomatic conference that gets the then-defector Anatoly into the country.

By the wave of regional and touring productions that began in 1990, the cold war was effectively over. So-called "communist" regimes in Eastern Europe were falling, and Gorbachev's changes had made a significant impact. The Berlin Wall was gone, which caused a small lyrical rewrite in "Embassy Lament" for the 1990 Sydney, Australia production. The American Tour in the same year had references to Gorbachev and the first President Bush, and talked about "cold war revived as chess tournament." These are the two productions that are affected the most by political reform. (The American Tour infamously was followed by its script doctor, Robert Coe, who was reworking material as he went to fit with current events.)

The most immediate problem of glasnost and perestroika is that they made Anatoly's defection from the Soviet Union almost paradoxical. As the show moved away from the early to mid 1980s and the cold war, the reporters' questions for Anatoly before "Anthem" (a mainstay of all the major 1990 productions) become half-confused; the American Tour outright says that Anatoly has the freedom of travel he would have lacked in 1986 or even 1988. Without the onerous travel restrictions of a Soviet citizen, the defection is more of a personal than a political statement, and almost certainly loses the intended punch (which was to parallel Anatoly to Viktor Korchnoi, a Soviet grandmaster who left Russia because he was blocked from rising to the top of the Russian chess circuit).

Even handling the defection in stride, glasnost blurs the role of the KGB significantly. It becomes more difficult for Molokov to be the villain of the piece, and by 1990 his part (especially in the second act) is more one of saving face, as was dealt with quite explicitly in the extensive Sydney rewrite of "The Soviet Machine." This tended to fit well with the fundamentally sound dramaturgical decision to focus the show around a single chess match that was used in Broadway, Sydney and the American Tour; Molokov, rather than trying to stage a match a la Karpov/Korchnoi 1978, is primarily concerned with getting Anatoly home. Changing this, in turn, becomes something of a problem for "Endgame," where the original point of the match was that Anatoly had to lose to Viigand. Stripped of this, Anatoly can lose the match in Broadway and the American Tour, but the scene loses some of its pure climactic impact. (I will discuss the issue of "Endgame" further in a later post.)

The material in the Sydney and American Tour productions inevitably runs into the glasnost and perestroika issues, and from the vantage point of 2006, it is almost impossible to justify a time setting other than 1986 or a few years before it. For both, this would require some cutting; the operation in Sydney is more delicate, because pushing it back to 1986 makes Florence too young to have been a child of the Prague Spring, and these references would have to be replaced with the traditional Hungarian story line. In the American Tour, it can be well argued even by those friendly to the Coe script that the "topical" jokes have aged poorly, and the text (which was thrown together in a few weeks) is already in need of a significant revision. Personally, I am convinced that it would be a worthwhile venture to turn back the clock should one decide to move forward with either script.


Briefly, by way of introduction, this is a sort of "concept blog" that I've recently been thinking about. I'll work on finding some sort of commenting mechanism that isn't the atrocious default Blogspot comments, because I hope to see some of the Chess community come here. For those not familiar with the musical Chess, it's something of a rock opera that spawned several hit singles in the mid-1980s, and went on to have a tumultuous and troubled theatrical life. You may have heard "One Night in Bangkok" or "I Know Him So Well," or perhaps "Someone Else's Story." The London version was a hit, but flawed; the Broadway version, which was also flawed, was panned by the critics and flopped. In the early 1990s, there was a crush of variants of the show, but none of them seemed to stick. There has only been one major attempt to fix the show since, a 2002 production done in Swedish. Chess is mostly performed in amateur productions, although it is constantly rumored to be coming back to London or Broadway in the near future.

By way of plot, Chess is the story of a chess match between a loud, obnoxious American and a Russian who is discontent with his "kept" lifestyle as a grandmaster. As the match falls apart, the Russian falls for the American's second, Florence, a refugee of the 1956 Hungarian uprising. (Or, on occasion, the 1968 "Prague Spring.") He defects to be with her, but through some machinations involving the Russian's wife and family, and often (though not always) Florence's missing father, he is brought back to Moscow by the end. The details vary wildly from show to show, but the music at least is amazing.

The production history of Chess has more or less three eras. The first, spanning from May 1986 to April 1989, was characterized by the three-year run of the London production, as well as the eight weeks the show spent on Broadway in 1988. The second, running from January of 1990 and lasting less than three years, had major companies around the globe trying to pull off the show one way or another, with major tours and variations in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. The third, which goes from 1993 and continues today, is marked by periodic concerts, local and mostly amateur productions, and the 2002 Stockholm revision.

My goal with this blog is to really delve into the production history and talk about what has gone on with this show and what makes it tick. I have worked dramaturgically on Chess with a number of productions, and I am willing to do so again; I want to create a resource for amateur directors as well as fans to understand a difficult but amazing musical. There are a lot of interesting topics that I will be looking at from a production history standpoint. As far as the show goes, I find that with the exception of a 1992 Off-Broadway production which was just awful, every major and minor variation has at least a good first act and significant problems in the second act. So, the second-act problems will be my main focus, but there will also be more topical approaches to things like the question of Florence's father, the effect of glasnost and perestroika on the show, the way Freddie (the American player) changed across the history of the show, and others.

~This blog is dedicated to the love of Chess.