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.

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