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.

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