Sunday, May 04, 2014

Talking London: The Well-Oiled Machine

"Enough of this pious waffle!"*

Continuing to talk about the London script, I've gone up to the point where the characters start to play chess. Once they do, we get to the one part of the script that London did probably its best work, laying out a sequence of events that every subsequent production (except Stockholm) followed more or less closely. Despite a single clunk in the execution, everything put in place during this process was fully functional, and while there was a little padding, the important stuff happens here. I'm referring, of course, to the day when Anatoly and Florence fall in love.

It's a great story, possibly the reason that everyone has always been convinced that the larger story can be fixed. There is a chess match, which Freddie stops dead. (The later "yogurt scene" is missing from London, of course, and there's simply no explanation for his outburst.) Then Florence is trying to patch things up ("Quartet") and winds up flirting with Anatoly. She sets up a meeting for that night ("Florence and Molokov") and proceeds to have a blow-up fight with Freddie ("You Wanna Lose Your Only Friend? / Nobody's Side.") "Der Kleine Franz" sets the mood and "Mountain Duet" gives us the fateful kiss between Florence and Anatoly, in a delightfully playful scene. Then Freddie finds them and has a perfectly done outburst ("Who'd Ever Think It?"). That sequence is the only time that Chess will be moving along a well-oiled plot train, so you'd best enjoy it.

London was the only version of the show to do "Quartet" justice. This is because the song has one premise: Molokov does not shut up. Seriously, in the London version, Florence is trying to respond to Molokov's accusation but he's filibustering her and will not be silent except when the Arbiter is responding to him. So she goes off and starts sparring/flirting with Anatoly while Molokov just keeps talking. He's a force of nature in this scene. The concept album has the same arrangement, but the Arbiter is spouting points from the match rules like he's some kind of broken chess machine and the current situation does not compute. The idea of a robot Arbiter is interesting but not well supported in the text**. Other versions have a four-part round, but all four characters just spout nonsense; more importantly, it involves Molokov shutting up, which goes against its original premise.

After this it hits a roadblock. The Florence / Molokov scene is just a dud. It goes quickly from trading jibes to a bit of a political rant, which doesn't sit well with the scene that is about to follow it; in "Florence and Molokov," Florence's anger about the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956 nearly derails her attempts to pick up the pieces of the chess match. In "The American and Florence," she says "There's a time and there's a place" about the same issue - this doesn't quite work. But mostly it throws a perfunctory song at something that a few lines of dialog would've solved.

This is followed by a second bit of sung dialog that does one of the things the Broadway script would do: the characters have an argument in new dialog, and then they have a second argument from the concept album. I'm going to submit that "You wanna lose your only friend / Well, keep it up you're doing fine" is a perfectly valid way to begin an argument in and of itself. The concept album conflict pieces were all exceedingly well-crafted scenes and don't need long preludes, or even any prelude.They work on their own. "Nobody's Side" is simply a great song, and it does important work setting up Florence as someone who is ready to do something totally reckless and self-destructive. Which, of course, she is.

"Der Kleine Franz" exists, like "One Night in Bangkok" did in Broadway, so that Florence can make a costume change and possibly take a breath after "Nobody's Side" and before "Mountain Duet." (In Broadway it was between "Someone Else's Story" and "Terrace Duet," of course) It's really the only forgivable bit of filler in the show, but it is very much filler.

The "Duet" itself is dramatically lovely. People sometimes scoff at the fact that the love story happens in a single four-and-a-half minute song, but that's not the worldview of Chess at all. The entire point is functionally that Anatoly and Florence have absolutely incredible chemistry together and, despite being mature thirtysomething or fortysomething people who most certainly know that it is an absolutely terrible idea to do so, follow those feelings. Nothing about the affair is a good idea, except that it's totally irresistible to both characters. That's captured perfectly by having them fall for each other in under five minutes. Besides, if you don't catch a bit of flirtation in the full version of "Quartet," you're not paying enough attention.

And just as our lovers kiss, at the pinnacle of the romantic worldview that they accept despite everything they know, Freddie walks in and sings two verses that jerk us right back down to earth. Now it's complicated and the last person they wanted to see at that moment comes in. Two low-key verses, on a theme that will repeat in "Florence Quits" and "The Deal," are all that's needed. Every other English-language production used this moment, and with good cause. It's just pitch-perfect storytelling.

This is the core of our show, and leads directly and logically to "Florence Quits" and the defection, where London has some more problematic moments. It's the only point except for "The Deal" and "Endgame" where the music is allowed to drive the show's plot directly, rather than being shuffled around to places where it more or less fits in a plot driven by dialog or recitative.

Almost nothing here needs to be cut, changed or re-ordered. You could cut out some of the Florence / Molokov material and the stuff with Walter, Freddie and Florence before "You Wanna Lose...", but that's it. "Der Kleine Franz" can be cut to the first verse, as it was in the London production, but it shouldn't be removed entirely; Florence needs to catch her breath and get in a new outfit for the "Duet." Everything else works beautifully. It's a shame that stops after "Florence Quits."

* The actual London quote is "Enough of this piety" - but I've always loved "pious waffle" from the Danish concert CD.
** Actually, a robot Arbiter isn't quite as outlandish as it sounds; his word is law, he knows the score, he's watching all 64, he doesn't like women and he doesn't take dope, none of which contradicts such a theory. But that's just nutty fan guessing and not actual dramaturgy.


T. Hartwell said...

I've been working on creating my own revision of the London show for some time, and yeah, it was startling for me how little of this part of the show needed any work at all. There are lots of cosmetic changes to be made (like defaulting to concept album lyrics for "American and Florence" and "Mountain Duet"), but the base structure and flow is very sound indeed.

It's interesting, though, when I first read this I very much disagreed about "Florence & Molokov", as that was a scene I quite liked. And even now, on its own it's quite lovely- it's paced extremely well and has some absolutely fantastic moments of build and shifting power between the two players. Trouble is it's made completely redundant by the surrounding scenes- we don't need any of the Hungarian stuff because it's well covered in "American and Florence", and the first half is all just extended bickering left over from the "Quartet".

That was an interesting revelation to have as I was making my revisions- I think it goes with that tendency you discuss where we ignore the dramatic faults because the music's so good. Here we have a completely needless and redundant scene, and it took me so long to realize it because the song itself is very well-crafted.

GiDelGi said...

Could one replace "Der Kleine Franz" (which seems extraneous in the extreme) with filler that at least has a purpose, like, say, the "Cocktail Chorus" from Sydney?

Leo said...

Hi Wayne. Glad to see you are still writing. Keep it up. I was worried you had given up on Chess. FYI your site is hard to find. I had to go through old forum posts to find it.

Leolo said...

Hi Wayne glad to see you are still writing. I was wondering if you had given up on Chess. FYI this site is very difficult to find. I found it through some old posts. Keep it up.

Leolo said...

I find it interesting that in my own process of trying to find the optimal Chess configuration, we have reached many of the same conclusions independently.

I agree with truncating Merano and the Diplomats songs. I agree that Florence and Molokov does not really do anything to move the plot forward (and Florence ends up being horrendously melodramatic; this is one instance where Nelson does a better job of giving out the same information. Having said that, I think Coe's version using Anatoly to calm things down over Molokov's objections is the most dramatically interesting). The London Arbiter's song is WAAYYY too long. Merchandisers is cute but simply too extraneous.

My question to you is, would you take Sydney's approach and move Russian and Molokov/Where I want to Be to after Quartet so that the parallel with Florence and the American/Nobody's Side is more apparent? This would also have the advantage of pushing the start of the match forward by 7-8 minutes. Then the first "I Wanna" song would be Arbiter. The downside is that you do not get to establish Anatoly and his dynamic with Molokov early. I am hemming and hawing on this one.

My other comment, is about your idea of having no dialogue before "You want to lose your only friend?". At some point, I think it should be established that Florence tells Trumper that she has arranged a meeting and at some point he should agree to it.
(My own solution is to include some quick spoken dialogue before the song starts, and then move from American and Florence into Someone Else's Story ala Broadway. At the end, when Florence has talked herself out of leaving, she finds that Freddie has left a note apologizing and saying that the meeting is a good idea and that he will attend. Thus we can see a little bit why she stays with him; he alternates between being a jerk and acceptably nice)

T. Hartwell said...

Leolo- at least for me, I think the placement of "Where I Want to Be" depends greatly on who exactly your main character in the show is. If you're going with the London/Svenska route, it has to be pretty near the top of the show, since Anatoly is fairly clearly the main character of the show. But if you're going other routes, ala Broadway or Sydney, it can get away with flitting around in placement (though it's pretty solid on Broadway- Florence is the main character there, but the song comes at just the right moment where we want to spend some time with Anatoly).

Sydney's fascinating for me because it effectively acts almost as an ensemble piece- Florence is the centerpoint, and the Arbiter has increased importance as the narrator, but the show very much operates as a series of power struggles between and among the seven leads. It's why "Heaven" closes the first act, and why we don't dwell on any one character for too long (excluding Arbiter) until "Nobody's Side".

In a situation like that, then, I think putting "Where I Want to Be" in the middle of the act as a parallel to "Nobody's Side" works wonders, and flowed really well in context of Sydney. In the end I'd probably default to the Broadway order of things, but I do think Sydney's first act structuring is a very strong alternate approach.