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.