Friday, November 07, 2014

Talking London: The Freddie Problem

This is the first of a series of two posts that focus on why "Talking Chess" is bad. I'm skipping "I Know Him So Well" for this post; the second will talk about that a bit, because it's related to Anatoly, rather than Freddie.

In "One Night in Bangkok." Freddie says "Thank God I'm only watching the game, controlling it." This ties in with his subsequent appearance as a media personality. He gives a little bit of narration for the cameras; we have the reversal where in Act I, Freddie antagonized the media, and in Act II he is one of them. This is definitely intentional, although it's not pulled off to its fullest effect.

After this, "The Interview" features Freddie basically attacking Anatoly on the air. He also takes multiple swipes at Florence. This is believable; Freddie is bitter about losing the title, and about what he sees as Florence's betrayal, and has just been unexpectedly given the green light by Walter to take all that out on them. So far, we have a consistent arc from Freddie.

That arc is abruptly cut off in "The Deal." Literally in the scene before this, Freddie was humiliating Anatoly on live television (to the point where Anatoly runs out of the studio before the interview ends), and now he's reaching out to him on Florence's behalf. At this point Freddie is literally the worst person on the face of the earth to send to convince Anatoly to throw the match. Anatoly is completely justified in blowing him off.

Then Freddie approaches Florence, in a "desperate final play." I've already talked about this at some length, and here I just want to point out that a few days earlier he was taking cheap shots at the woman he now claims to still love. This is a dramatic shift in character with no build-up, but it can work - Freddie has a sudden realization when he sees Florence that he still cares about her. It's the kind of thing that a musical can pull off, once.

But to try it twice in the same act is going too far. And in "Talking Chess," out of nowhere, Freddie wants to help Anatoly because he can't stand to see a "mediocrity" like Viigand win. So he tells Anatoly that Viigand's King's Indian Defence has a flaw in it.

This is one of the few times we actually hear the characters talk about chess. The King's Indian Defence was not the Sicilian in terms of popularity, but it was still a very well-explored defence in terms of top-level play in the late 20th century. So it was a well-chosen defence, at least.

But Freddie at first wants to humiliate Anatoly, then he's in love with Florence and wants her to come back to him and "bring back the golden era." Okay, we can live with that. But now he really loves the game of chess? And not only loves it, but he loves it enough to rescue Anatoly's match, giving him information that presumably will help Anatoly to win, which in turn will cost Florence a chance to see her father. You know, the woman he just declared that he still loves?

The idea of loving chess itself isn't a bad one; in a number of productions, actually being chess players seems like a formality that the characters are going through in order to focus on international intrigue, fame and affairs of the heart. We know from "Pity" that chess was Freddie's respite from a bad home life as a child. But really, this isn't about his feelings about chess. It's about how he feels about Anatoly.

You see, if the conclusion is that letting Viigand beat Anatoly is letting mediocrity win, then the necessary premise is that Anatoly is great. Freddie has come around to thinking that Anatoly - who pretty much beat him primarily because Freddie was playing awful chess under emotional duress - is so much greater of a player that he deserves to represent chess as its world champion.

To be honest, I don't buy it for a second. I understand the idea that Freddie really loves chess as a game, but not that he's suddenly gained a respect for Anatoly that he clearly never evinced anywhere else in the show. There's not even a hint of grudging respect; "He's the best Red on the circuit" is a textbook example of damning with faint praise.

After "Talking Chess," Freddie delivers a snippet of media introduction to the Anatoly/Viigand finale, and then disappears from the show. Since that is pretty much meaningless from a character standpoint, it means that this is the end of his very strange character arc. He doesn't even merit a further mention. It's a totally unsatisfying way to conclude for a character who dominates the opening of the show as totally as Freddie does.

"Talking Chess" is meant as something of a redemption moment for Freddie, but it doesn't work, because he's bounced around so much. Helping Anatoly beat Viigand is not the redemption the audience wants to see for Freddie. This is part of the split-match motivation problem; there's too much truth to the line "How many times do you want to be champion anyway?" from "The Deal." The audience wants Florence to get her father back, and in that context helping Anatoly win is not going to make Freddie seem like less of a jerk.

It's somewhat apropos that Freddie goes out on a bit of narration in Act II of London Chess. He bounces around so much in the act in terms of motivation that he's left effectively as a plot tool and little more. And until the 2008 concert, he doesn't even get "Pity" in this act.

Talking London: How to Cheat in Musical Theatre

Act II in London proceeds after "The Soviet Machine" with probably the best scene invented for it, "The Interview." At Walter's prodding, Freddie launches into a confrontation with Anatoly that is really searing musical theatre, the kind of confrontation-in-song that Chess does so very well. Musically it's a two-person version of "Press Conference." It's a nice piece of symmetry with the first act, and continues the media theme that London tried to do a bit more with. Walter's part is weak, but as soon as Anatoly and Freddie are on stage together it's dynamite. It's a shame that there isn't more material for Chess that explores the tension between the two main chess players.

Then it goes directly on to "The Deal." This is a breakneck pace that most modern productions lose by giving "Someone Else's Story" to Svetlana. The song would work far better at the top of the act, maybe even before "Bangkok," as Sydney did it. And Svetlana should sing the lyrics that were written for her. "Will he miss me if I go?" makes no sense whatsoever for Svetlana to sing, at all, in any version of Chess. Having "Story" early in the act can be followed by a moment when Molokov welcomes Svetlana to Bangkok, turning it into a wonderful bit of foreshadowing.

But this is a post about cheating, and I haven't talked about the topic at all. That's because I wanted to clear up those two numbers. What I really mean is when a musical uses a song to paper over the fact that a piece of the plot has taken a turn (or in this case, several turns) that are illogical.

Up until "The Deal," the London Chess is a plodding, realistic musical that sets up its plot points heavily and then covers them thoroughly. "The Deal" is about 8 minutes and 30 seconds of something completely different. Chess has flirted with absurdism in "The Arbiter's Song" and "The Soviet Machine," but that is simply an inherent danger of dance numbers.

Suddenly, with "The Deal," it is a highly stylized piece - almost expressionist - narrated by an omniscient Arbiter. Characters pair off in spaces defined only by lighting and blocking, and in the original production wore stark black and white. They sing a lot of material that could not possibly be diegetic; for a large chunk of "The Deal," it's not even clear what is happening in the implied world being created by the play.

Three scenes later, London Chess has its single most brilliant scene in "Endgame." It's stylistically similar to "The Deal," using lighting, blocking and costuming to create a strange effect, but it works because "Endgame" takes place entirely in Anatoly's head. Viigand is not even present at the chess board. The problem is, "The Deal" is supposed to actually be happening.

Molokov's bullying makes sense, but when Svetlana and Anatoly reprise "Where I Want to Be," what exactly does this represent? It's a solid moment emotionally, but as a piece of theatre representing something in the world, it does not work. Where is Svetlana meeting Anatoly, and under what circumstances? If we were making a realistic non-musical film of the show, what exactly would be happening? It's not at all clear from this part of "The Deal."

Walter's confrontation with Florence makes sense. And we can give Florence her soliloquy; it's an important function of songs in musical theatre is to let characters express emotions like this. Walter and Molokov in the lavatory (presumably, from the blocking) is a functional micro-scene.

Then the music gets into the concept album "Deal," reprising "Florence Quits." Freddie, out of nowhere, talks to Anatoly and then Florence, and pleads with each of them only to be rejected. The whole thing unravels quickly, and the finale of "The Deal" - where everybody sings some lines of "Nobody's Side" - happens in a space that exists only on stage.

It's an emotional tour de force, but what is going on in this mega-scene is totally unclear. It particularly comes off the rails between Freddie and Florence; the absurdity climaxes in Florence's line, "Chess has nothing to do with this" - a statement that is not true about "The Deal," which is entirely about characters trying to convince Anatoly to throw a chess match, but Freddie wasn't talking to her about chess. He's asking her to come back to him ("Stick with me, honey / Leave him be, honey") and she reacts to something completely different. This choice sticks out as the poorest rewrite in London, since the concept album lyrics ("Are you sick? Are you mad? ...") make much more sense given what Freddie says.

Then there is Freddie's breakdown as the song ends. Given that he has no problem attacking Florence in "The Interview," his sudden confession "It can all be different now Florence - I love you!" is jarringly out of character. (And it will get much worse two scenes later.)

The one character we actually need to hear from in "The Deal," Anatoly, says very little. His concept album riposte to Freddie, which is followed by Freddie's brutal counter about a "tinpot competition", was stripped from the London score but restored for some productions, including the 2008 concert. We have more or less set up "Endgame," but cutting him to "Who put you up to this? There's no deal!" and then his lines about "preaching to the perverted" take him from a dynamic character to a bystander in this sequence.

I have to step back and say that I love the concept album "The Deal (No Deal)." It's a hard driving rock moment in the score and one of the most powerful confrontation songs in a show full of them. When Freddie comes on with an electric guitar playing and starts singing "Communist / Democrat," it's a brilliant moment. Emotionally the "Who'd Ever Think/Guess It?" verses are some of the most powerful moments in the show. But it's a difficult enough theatrical scene to pull off by itself; it's rarefied, suspended in the air and missing the solid grounding of the rest of the show.

The London "Deal" takes this and turns it up to eleven, completely losing touch with reality. The finale blows the roof off the house, but at the cost of anything resembling dramatic coherence. (And it's about to be followed by a show-stopping eleven o'clock number in "I Know Him So Well," and then a climax in "Endgame.")

What is a shame is that "The Deal" represents an intriguing theatrical vision. It is a scene driven by narration and the strength of the music, rather than the plodding recitative of songs like "Florence and Molokov" or thudding dialogue about slime and slugs. It's probably one of the moments that hews most closely to Michael Bennett's original concept for the show, with seamless choreography, a stage that changed shape, banks of monitors and minimalist sets. And it is a wonderful hint of what could have been done with Chess, even if the vision was too ethereal and difficult for a director like Nunn to pull off.

But the dramatic underpinnings are not there. Instead of the story unfolding, the dramatic vision of "The Deal" is used to cover up the weaknesses of the storyline and characterizations. I'm going to spend the next two posts talking about what went wrong, first with Freddie, then with Anatoly.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Talking London: Getting to Bangkok

Chess is inevitably tied to Bangkok, Thailand. If you want to explain it, you can always reference "One Night in Bangkok" as far and away the most famous song from the show. It is therefore inevitable that Bangkok is one of the settings for the musical - except in Stockholm, where "Bangkok" is only a musical cue in a nightclub.

As an act opener, "One Night in Bangkok" is functional but little more. It establishes that Freddie is in Bangkok, and gives a bit of heavily stereotyped local flavor, but fails to establish his media role. A bit of "on the scene reporter" dialogue is required afterward just to make the point clear. Physically setting the song as a TV report could seem a bit odd, but it would be nowhere near as bad as making Freddie spout reporter-speak after he gets a hand for "Bangkok."

Florence and Anatoly then sing a bit of exposition. "One More Opponent" is everything a dramatic scene shouldn't be. It literally uses almost every line to convey a piece of information to the audience, and does it clumsily. There is much less information in the concept album "Argument," but that song at least is actually compelling, as well as being a clever reuse of the musical theme from "Anatoly and Molokov." "Opponent" has none of the bite of "Argument," which sets up a real rift between Anatoly and Florence. Here, they just trade bits of information, react, and then end up dramatically inert. Even if "Argument" leading into "I Know Him So Well" is too on the nose with the "You could even call my wife" line, it still has punch that "Opponent" completely lacks.

Then there is one of London's most unfortunate stumbles. Tim Rice tries to turn "You and I" into a love duet for Anatoly and Florence. Broadway would repeat this; it simply doesn't translate well, although Broadway redeems it with a section of "You and I" for Svetlana that is simply devastating. My feeling has long been that it is better to leave the hauntingly beautiful "You and I" melody for the end of the show, when it has already become clear that Florence and Anatoly's story will not have a happy ending.

Dramatically this is the moment for "Heaven Help My Heart." The concept album put it here, as did Broadway and Stockholm, because it's the right song for this point in the show. Florence has both the time with Anatoly and the seed of doubt to make it a perfect fit for this moment. Rice, unfortunately, put it back in Act I and makes the wrong choice with "You and I."

After "You and I," the show veers wildly off the rails into pure silliness. Tim Rice had gone over the top with big production numbers that were sharply critical in previous shows; he was really successful in Evita with "And the Money Kept Rolling In (and Out)," But "The Soviet Machine" fails to rise to the same level. It's not a showstopper like "And the Money..." and its critique of the Soviets is extremely weak. And to be blunt, any critique would seem flippant when paired with a song showing the Russians as drunken Cossack-dancers. It turns Molokov into a caricature of a stage Russian, a bad impression that the Broadway script would fix.

True, the absurdity of London's "Soviet Machine" is nothing compared to the even longer version in Sydney; but the song disappears otherwise, and for good cause. Now, if staged reasonably well, it can be a bit of fun, but it's nowhere near as piercing as "Merchandisers," which is both the strongest of the production numbers and the best critique in the show.

But the real problem of "The Soviet Machine" is that it stops the plot for five minutes to give fairly obvious motivations to the Soviets. Structurally it is a production number acting as a classic "I Want" song, but we already had one of these ("Where I Want to Be") in Act One. This is somewhat useful because, in plot terms, we've basically started a new play. But it doesn't work dramatically, in large part because we don't sympathize with the Russians.

Rice fixed the problem for Broadway. "Let's Work Together" does several important things. Particularly, it manages to advance the plot of the show while at the same time it draws an equal sign between the American and Soviet spies, a far more devastating political point than weak allusions to Siberia.

London's script then has to advance the plot in the short breaks between songs. After Molokov's call to Walter, we go into "Interview" - which I'll tackle in my next post.