Sunday, May 04, 2014

Talking London: The Set-Up

"I've taken shit for seven years and I won't take it any more!"

Ha! How's that for a dramatic re-entrance.

It's been literally seven years since I was originally writing this blog, and the one thing I've always regretted was that I left my thoughts on the London version of Chess badly incomplete. It's especially unfortunate seeing as how London Chess has become more standard than ever before, between the 2008 concert and a change in the licensing in the United States.

We have to be extremely clear on something before going down the rabbit hole: the London show was not, at the time that it was mounted, considered satisfactory by any of the parties involved. If Tim Rice has changed his tune twenty-odd years down the line, that's his right, but in 1987 there was no question but that the show was going to be rewritten. The question was who would do the rewriting, and Richard Nelson won that, to the eternal chagrin of the show's fans.

This is going to take a few posts, and I want to critically examine the London show. There are several problems with presentation that I need to talk about, because London's far from perfect. A couple aspects of the show, such as the structure of the recitative in pieces like "Commie Newspapers" and "Talking Chess," I'm going to keep in their own post.

I've said before that every version of Chess has Act Two problems. The thing about Act Two problems is that they tend to be rooted in Act One problems. London may have the worst of these.

As a story, Chess doesn't really start until the chess match happens. There is some buildup to the match, in London including an assault upon a reporter in "Press Conference," but it's action incidental to the plotline. Characters are introduced, hype is built up about the chess match, themes are expounded, but no moment prior to "Quartet" is really telling us the main plot. This is a structural weakness of the show, but fans tend to be drawn along simply because the music's so good while we're getting there. (This generally explains the patience many fans have with Chess: the score is good enough to excuse many of the show's faults.)

The London show is extremely ponderous and bombastic in getting the plot moving. There are two opening numbers, "The Story of Chess" and "Merano," one five minutes long and the other seven. "The Story of Chess" is a remnant of Michael Bennett's work on the show; it was to have seamless choreography throughout, and the story would be aided both by ballets and by a bank of monitors. These both became perfunctory elements in the hands of Trevor Nunn, who has no eye for human beings in motion. "Merano" isn't bad, but seven minutes is an awfully long time to stick with a song that's intentionally corny so that it can get interrupted by a rock number. The Swedish production cut a minute and a half and lost nothing.

Freddie is introduced in "What a Scene! What a Joy!" - a quick rock number that makes him out as a bombastic American player, supremely confident in himself and his game. Then he's introduced a second time in "Commie Newspapers," this time as a genius whose talents aren't appreciated for political reasons. Florence is also introduced in this, as a wry and sarcastic but caring figure. "Press Conference" tells us about Freddie for a third time, as a paranoid and egomaniacal prima donna, and gives Florence a wonderful establishing moment ("Smile, you got your first exclusive story ...."). While "Commie Newspapers" fleshes out the relationship between Freddie and Florence, it leads to some introduction fatigure, where Freddie has been established too well and not too consistently as a character.

This is one of the things that Broadway did well: it cuts the "Commie Newspapers" bit, although themes from that scene are present in "How Many Women?", and combines "What a Scene, What a Joy" with "Press Conference," both in severely cut-down versions. There are issues with this scene in the Nelson script, but they are issues that can be worked around. In the London script the only thing we can really do is cut "Commie Newspapers," which does nothing for the plot. "Merano" deserves to be shortened as it was in Sweden, including cutting the break for whistling.

After "Press Conference" we switch to "Anatoly and Molokov / Where I Want to Be." This is one of the places where London stuck to the concept album, and rightly so. It's a great scene – Molokov is established as villain and Anatoly as hero in two minutes flat. The issue of course is that we've taken so damned long to get to it. "Where I Want to Be" is perfect as an "I Want" song, but it should be about 5-10 minutes earlier in the script than it actually is.

Then we hit the "Opening Ceremony" material. "Diplomats" ("US vs USSR") is needed more in the 21st century than it was in 1986, but the extra verse that was added since the concept album has no dramatic function other than to make the song longer. That's awkward because if you try and stage this as a proper dance number, it quickly devolves into bad comedy. Hunt down the video of the 1992 Auckland, NZ concert with Tommy K├Ârberg, Murray Head, and Deliah Hannah as Florence if you don't believe me.

Next, "The Arbiter's Song" has a dance break added, which kindly gives the choreographer something to do since they're so underutilized throughout this show. The Arbiter is a featured part, which is remarkable given how relatively unimportant he is in the action of the show. Tim Rice gave the Arbiter a few lines after "The Story of Chess" and a narration bit in "The Deal" as part of a half-hearted attempt to make him into a narrator figure, which he followed through in earnest in the Sydney script. In London it's only halfway done. This song, the scene that immediately follows it, a short reprise of "The Arbiter's Song" a few minutes later, and "Quartet" are the only places where he contributes as a character. It's a wonderful little number, and it works better as a counterpoint to "Diplomats" than vice versa, but dramatically it's a lot of time to spend on a character who will pop his head in twice more during the show.

The scene following this is not on the Danish recording, but it is in the 2008 concert. There is bickering, but it has not yet risen to the level of being plot. A bit of sparring between Florence and Molokov is interesting but entirely gratuitous, because we'll see real sparring between them (with music) in a few minutes in "Quartet."

"Hymn to Chess" is a lovely choral, but in context "Let us dedicate ourselves to the spirit of chess" is an exceedingly silly thing to say. It serves no purpose but to be interrupted by "Merchandisers," which is the very definition of a fun little number. Done well, it's a light moment in a very ponderous, political show, and it makes some wickedly barbed points while it's at it. What's unfortunate is that we've now spent between 35 and 40 minutes to get to the point where our plot starts.

It seems very weird to say that nothing has happened in 40 minutes, but up to this point we've had characters on stage, singing and dancing and arguing and fighting, without actually doing anything that moves us along in terms of the plotline. Reporter #2 (the reporter who gets punched in "Press Conference") never presses charges as far as we know, and never actually appears on stage again. Molokov is the only character who sings during "Diplomats" who actually does anything again. Once the Arbiter leaves the stage, we won't hear him sing again until "The Deal."

In fact, for many of these songs, literally nothing is happening. "The Story of Chess" takes place in a non-diegetic never-never land. "Merano" is literally an introduction song, and "Diplomats" is cover for absolutely nothing happening. "The Arbiter's Song" at least can be argued to happen in the sense that the Arbiter comes on stage and yells at people not to be political for a few minutes. We've established an awful lot, but it's a ton of build-up to what winds up being less than 4 minutes of chess-playing.

You can put this material in almost any order and it will work, so long as Freddie does something interesting before "Anatoly & Molokov." You can cut as many songs as you want; the only constant is that Anatoly must sing "Where I Want to Be" relatively early in the show. And I'm not talking in hypotheticals here. Every other song has been cut by some production or another. Except for "Commie Newspapers," it's all good songwriting, but most of it is inert in terms of story. The pieces can be set up much more quickly.

It is possible to tame this bloat and wind up with a quicker, lighter piece. "The Story of Chess" can end at "They thus invented chess..." like it does in most other variations. "Merano" can lose the entire first verse and begin with "Oh I get high when I saunter by...", and it can lose the whistle break. Skipping "Commie Newspapers" and going right from "Merano" to "Press Conference" will save two minutes and an unnecessary scene change; in fact, "Press Conference" could happen at the train station. "Diplomats" can lose its extra verse, and "The Arbiter's Song" its dance break. "Hymn to Chess" can be cut, or not, at the director's preference. All the same themes and characters are set up, and we've removed between eight and ten minutes of an overlong first act, without significantly damaging the score.

Of course as a fan of the show, eight to ten minutes less of Chess seems like a bad thing; but the truth is, in a dark theatre the people watching aren't going to miss what is gone. What they will find is that the show doesn't drag along quite so much before getting to the actual plot. Bits that were labored in London now become pretty snappy, and to the point.

But as we'll see, this is the eminently fixable half of the first act. The second half has problems that run much deeper. I'm also going to have to go into some depth as to why I think some of the numbers, including "Commie Newspapers," are such a problem.

1 comment:

T. Hartwell said...

It's kinda startling to me how poorly London starts off- it's bloated, unfocused, and downright amateurish at times (the interstitial dialogue is a huge bugbear for me- it's not so bad here, but it gets way worse later on in the show, especially with needless bits like "Now for the Merano Mountain Inn!" in Scene 6).

But as you say it's also eminently fixable- just a matter of trimming the fat and getting things back to reasonable length. I've always preferred the concept album arrangement of the opening ceremony numbers, so I'd probably default to that, then cut down "Story of Chess", "Merano", "Press Conference" the way you suggest.

"Commie Newspapers" poses a problem- I like it more than you do, but fact is it does a terrible job at what it feels like it's supposed to do- set up Freddie/Florence's relationship and give some background for Florence. Instead it spends much of the song focused around Freddie, and gives an entirely too genial atmosphere for their relationship. Broadway would really improve both areas with "How Many Women", albeit not without making a couple mistakes of its own. Still, I like the music of the piece enough, and it functions okay as a prelude to "Press Conference" (I'm like 90% certain they're meant to function as a single number (ish)- they share the same scene and some recordings track them together).

The real issue here for me, though, is the placement of "Where I Want to Be" and how they structure Anatoly's entrance. I've said many times one of the key failings of London is that it doesn't properly set up who our main character is, and it's a flaw that's kinda intrinsic to the structure as a whole- you have to have a Press Conference to set up Russian & Molokov, and you have to have a Freddie's Entrance to set up that, meaning that we intrinsically are gonna focus our attention to Freddie to begin with, when in actuality he's a relatively small part of the game as the show progresses.

It's a huge set-up flaw in the show that I think is one of the key reasons the split-match format doesn't work- without the show being grounded in Anatoly we can't justify that drastic a change between acts. Svenska moving "Where I Want to Be" to the top of the show did such wonders to fixing this problem (though they didn't use the split-match format), but I'm doubtful of how well that change can be utilized in London.