Friday, November 07, 2014

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.

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