Thursday, October 02, 2014

Talking London: Finishing Act I

After "Who'd Ever Think It?", the London Chess sails back into troubled waters.

It doesn't seem rough immediately. The "Chess" instrumental goes neatly over Freddie's collapse in the match, and "Florence Quits" is a very strong dramatic moment. Freddie lashes out and says some pretty awful things about women, and we get back into the "Who'd Ever Think It?" theme that will repeat again in "The Deal." But then ...

The short piece, sometimes referred to as "A Taste of Pity," that sits after "Florence Quits" in the concept album can be a great bit of theatre, if Florence is still on stage. The blocking isn't hard to do: Florence and Freddie argue, Florence is about to storm out, Freddie stops her and sings this piece that's almost conciliatory. She softens for a moment and then Freddie suddenly sings "But the fools never learn!" It's a great bait-and-switch moment, slamming the door just when the audience wonders if they might be able to reconcile.*

In the London script, this got screwed up by placing "Pity the Child" in this spot. It requires that Florence leave at the end of "Florence Quits," and honestly it's not the right moment for it. The audience who's never seen the show wants to see where it's going between Florence and Anatoly, not spend over five minutes wallowing in Freddie's self-pity.

Fortunately, everybody in the world including Tim Rice saw this, and the 2008 revision puts the "Taste of Pity" back in its place, and "Pity the Child" in Act II where it belongs.

After that we get the defection scene. It's a very weird scene, for a number of reasons.

First: it wouldn't have happened that way. And here is one of the reasons a dramaturg is useful in a musical like this – they will do the research so you get basic factual questions right. Merano is a town that had about 33,000 people in the '80s. It's very picturesque, but there's never been a British consulate there. And if that seems like a nitpick, the reason I bring this up is that the scene as written has no drama at all; Anatoly goes into the consulate and has to sit through bureaucrats complaining. In reality, the characters would've needed to sneak Anatoly onto a train over the Alps and into Milan, where he could actually walk into a British consulate and defect. There's actual intrigue and drama in that scene, which is totally missing in the flat defection sequence from London.

Second: several eastern bloc defectors did pass through the US Embassy in Rome and one Bulgarian actually went through the British consulate in Bologna. But in the real world, no defector ever showed up at the British consulate in Milan; it would've been a fairly big deal. To only represent it by some bureaucrats grousing is almost perverse. Trevor Nunn tried to stage a big dramatic scene by using stage lights to represent car headlights in a parking garage on Broadway; it didn't work but at least he tried something. In London, there's no drama to speak of.

Third: "Embassy Lament" is easily the weakest song on the original concept album, both in music and lyrics. Musically it's too simplistic and a bit annoying, a failed attempt at a patter song. Lyrically it just doesn't manage to be as amusing or barbed as it's supposed to be. Bureaucrats just aren't funny, even ones who are comically jaded at defections from the Soviet Union.

After the "Lament," Florence comes on stage to sing "Heaven Help My Heart." This is a mistake. The audience just heard Freddie's solo (fixed in the 2008 revision). We've just hit about 70 minutes, so the people who don't have the concept album and didn't read their program are expecting this to be the end of the act (and in Sydney they would've been right). Instead it's just another solo in a crowded part of the story. It becomes forgettable.

Now, no one's ever found a place to put this song. It doesn't have any context on the concept album. It's put in the same place as the concept album on Broadway, and setting it in a church is far too on the nose. Sydney awkwardly ends the first act with it. Stockholm has Florence sing it ... well, it just has Florence sing it, no explanation. The song is lovely, but there's no material in the whole history of Chess that actually makes a logical place to put it.

That doesn't excuse London. Florence comes out to sing after "Embassy Lament" strictly because it's her turn to sing, and she sings this song now because the creators didn't have a better place for it. It's a lovely song, but here it is making Florence a bit desperate to sing about her angst in a relationship when she has spent virtually no time whatsoever with the man. "I love him too much" is not something you can sing about somebody you've just kissed the once. It makes more sense a few months or a year into a relationship.

"Anatoly and the Press" is short. Too short; the longer version on Broadway has a bit more punch. But there's a moment of dialogue where Anatoly says "Walter, you bastard! You never told me that you fixed this!" that implies a missing scene where we actually see Walter telling Anatoly something. Instead we get the same very confused version of events that Florence sees, which implies that he's really working for the CIA when he shows a card in "Embassy Lament." A better set-up for his role, such as Sydney where he talks about a TV interview with Anatoly, makes more sense and gives a bit more meat for the audience to catch on to the idea that Walter is plotting something.

The act ends with "Anthem." It's been a long time getting there, but it's a perfect act closer. Anatoly wins the audience over with sheer charisma and a song that builds slowly to a majestic finish. Its last lines summarize a rather lovely sentiment: "Let man's petty nations tear themselves apart / My land's only borders lie around my heart." Then curtain on a long act that has taken quite a bit of explanation.

We'll get into why that's a problem in the second act.

* This wasn't done in the Broadway version, where Freddie is played as menacing and Florence seems to be defending herself.

1 comment:

T. Hartwell said...

Yeah, this whole section is probably my least favorite part of London, simply because it's easily the laziest part of the show dramatically- just number stacked after number with no real progression or build to think of.

One thing not mentioned here that particularly galls me is the actual defection scene that precedes "Embassy Lament"- it's literally just a couple lines from the Arbiter set underneath the "Interview" music, and then a little monologue from a TV presenter explaining what's going on. Just straight-up telling instead of showing all the way, with no actual drama to speak of. When the TV presenters were last used during the chess match, it was stylistically interesting, here it's just plain lazy.

Agreed on "Heaven"- it's placed here so Florence can sing something, and no other reason whatsoever. I'm always shocked they never thought to place it in lieu of the first "You and I" scene in Act II, since it works far better there and lets "You and I" stay unsung until the end. I have to say I do adore the Broadway placement of the song, though- the preceding scene with Molokov is absolutely lovely, and I think it's really the right time for that sort of introspection from Florence. The church setting is on-the-nose, yes, but even still it's become my default placement of the song.

Speaking of Broadway- I'm also a fan of the parking garage scene, though in the tightened form as it appeared in the Bell revisions. There's a lot of moments where it can become pretty danged silly, but when scaled back and used for some quick sketching and minimalistic staging, it can be quite effective.

Re: "Anthem", though, here's where I get into a controversial opinion- I don't think the song works at all well here. It's a brilliant song, of course, and a terrific act-closer, but the issue here is that London never once sets up Anatoly's love or disdain for his country, and it basically never again surfaces in the show. It's a completely incidental moment for his character, and "Anthem" is simply too good a song for that to happen.

The larger problem, of course, is the way in which "Anthem" has become a much more important number in the show, what with its hastily-added reprise in Act II, which of course became the infamous ending on Broadway. But it's also that "Anthem" became one of the three numbers most-associated with the show, *especially* as a theatre number (where it's dwelled for years on audition no-no lists because of its familiarity). The song has become extremely important culturally to the show because of the presence it's enjoyed outside of it, and as such when it turns out to be as fleeting a moment as it is in the show, it's a pretty clear disappointment (a similar problem happens with the placement of "One Night in Bangkok" on Broadway).

A lot of it, I think, is that it really feels like it's supposed to be a moment of great musical catharsis- the endpoint of a thread that's been building up and building up throughout the act and finally released in a triumphant number (a point I find supported in it being preceded by "Anatoly and the Press", a number very clearly building to a big moment of release). It feels like it should be a "Sunday" or "One Day More", but because of the utter lack of context it just flops there. Sydney did well to deflect it to the second act (though it caused some unneeded business there), and both Svenska and Broadway built up the homeland thread much more to make the number have some clear relevance. But on London, it's perfunctory- a perfunctory act closer to end a series of perfunctory numbers in an *extraordinarily* lazy piece of theatre.