Tuesday, July 24, 2007

That post about Chicago

I realize I haven't updated this blog in months, but sometimes you just have to get back into a good project.

After the Broadway version of Chess failed, and the London version closed, the floodgates were open for any and all comers to rework the show. American productions faced the special challenge of having to use the Richard Nelson libretto for the show; this distinguishes them from Tim Rice's own Sydney rewrite, which took a brilliant, if still imperfect, approach. There are two major variations that came out of the American scene: the American Tour, and the production at the Lincolnshire Marriott near Chicago. Both productions were mounted in 1990, with considerable acclaim and excellent casts. The Chicago script, which we'll be discussing here, was also produced in Sacramento and Atlanta.

Director David H. Bell and his production staff approached the Nelson script moderately, but effectively. Some purists might consider it too close to the Broadway version for comfort, but it makes a far better piece of musical theatre. What the Chicago production set out above all else to do was to make the characters more sympathetic. Strident speeches and lame jokes were quietly dropped by the wayside, and while the bulk of the spoken material was from the Nelson script, subtle cuts and rewrites were successful in also changing the overall tone of the show.

The first act, which was not particularly broken, was structurally more or less the same. The overblown "Prologue" with "Story of Chess" was still present; yet at the same time, it was deeply humanized by a much more appropriate use of "Lullaby" than in the Broadway show, sung before Florence has to leave. The scenes before "Where I Want to Be" and "How Many Women" went through minor cuts, but were brilliantly interwoven so that both scenes played out at the same time, tying the whole scene together and relieving the tedium that creeps into the show at this point. "Merchandisers" loses out, replaced by "The Arbiter's Song," which in turn is intercut with a very short segment of "US vs. USSR." While this is undoubtedly a loss for the chorus, it is a great help for the actor playing the Arbiter, who now has the song as a sensible introduction for his character.

There is one scene that is actually lengthened, with a very sharp Anatoly/Molokov dialogue before the meeting with Florence and "Terrace Duet," which actually serves to bolster the roles of both Anatoly and Molokov and provide a significant political moment. In the Atlanta production, Bell also transposed "One Night in Bangkok" to after this scene, which is also effective; in my experience, it takes the song — which manages to be forgettable in its original place — and gives it a dramatic context: Freddie is going out on a bender after seeing Anatoly and Florence together.

Not surprisingly, the heavy lifting happens in the second act. The subtle characterization cuts and rewrites are more prevalent in the first half, although the scenes are kept more or less as is up through "Let's Work Together" (where the song itself is trimmed). After "I Know Him So Well," the scene for "Pity the Child" is simply and effectively recreated. Florence succeeds in dismissing the camera crews filming Freddie, and they have a meaningful confrontation. She asks him for an extension for Anatoly, but he mistakes her visit for something more. He kisses her, and she is forced to reject him. The scene re-frames both Freddie and Florence in a far more human, sympathetic light. Florence is stronger and maybe a little torn, while we really get a moment where we think Freddie wants to be a decent guy. And "Pity the Child" is unequivocally saved by trimming a few lines, changing one, and removing the camera crew. Where Broadway's arrogant, self-pitying appeal — on live TV! — is uncomfortable, Chicago's is wholly personal and manages to make the characters believable.

It would take more than this to salvage the Broadway ending, though. First, Bell removed the "Lullaby" sequence with the false "father," placing it at the top of the show. Then, the sequence with Walter was edited down considerably, with only a hinted-at father (as in other versions). And finally, as had been foreshadowed by Anatoly in a few snippets of dialogue, a nameless Russian reunites Florence with her real father. With a stroke, the whole messy issue is resolved. Strains of "Lullaby" play in the background before the company sings the "Anthem" reprise.

In and of itself, this is a "compromise ending" — it's got a layer of sentiment to it that is foreign to Chess. The girl doesn't get the boy, but she does get her father back. It's a bit schmaltzy, but there are two mitigating factors to that. First, it fit with the general time of the production: 1990, Glasnost and the end of the Cold War. The lyrics of "US vs. USSR" had been changed to "These are optimistic and encouraging times" as early as Broadway, and scripts were peppered with references to political developments. Second, it is the final move for redemption of the Nelson script. The ending, which had consolidated and deepened all the negativity of the show, is turned around into a more encouraging, even uplifting finale.

At the end of the day, the ending is the dilemma of the Chicago show. It is the centerpiece of the redemption of the rest of the Nelson book. Dramatically speaking, it works. The audience goes home happier for it, instead of stumbling out with a bit of a grudge against the script. Even without the rest of the work done for Chicago, productions have given Florence her father back in the end and reaped a reward for it.

But it's not a light decision. The ending sets the thematic tone for the entire show, and it is markedly different than any production that the principal creators of Chess have worked on. The authorial intent, as it can be gleaned from actual productions, is certainly for an ending somewhere in between — not the harsh and strident Broadway ending, but not the bittersweet compromise ending either. Produced without the "father" scene at the end, the Chicago version of the show would still be a considerable improvement on Broadway taken straight.

The Chicago production proved proved that there's actually quite a lot of redeemable material in Nelson's book. The ending is a significant compromise that is dramatically sound but veers away from the clear authorial intent. But despite that, it's a workable show and taken with or without the ending provides a sound basis for working with the Broadway script.