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.

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