"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.