Sunday, May 04, 2014

Talking London: The Well-Oiled Machine

"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.

Talking London: The Set-Up

"I've taken shit for seven years and I won't take it any more!"

Ha! How's that for a dramatic re-entrance.

It's been literally seven years since I was originally writing this blog, and the one thing I've always regretted was that I left my thoughts on the London version of Chess badly incomplete. It's especially unfortunate seeing as how London Chess has become more standard than ever before, between the 2008 concert and a change in the licensing in the United States.

We have to be extremely clear on something before going down the rabbit hole: the London show was not, at the time that it was mounted, considered satisfactory by any of the parties involved. If Tim Rice has changed his tune twenty-odd years down the line, that's his right, but in 1987 there was no question but that the show was going to be rewritten. The question was who would do the rewriting, and Richard Nelson won that, to the eternal chagrin of the show's fans.

This is going to take a few posts, and I want to critically examine the London show. There are several problems with presentation that I need to talk about, because London's far from perfect. A couple aspects of the show, such as the structure of the recitative in pieces like "Commie Newspapers" and "Talking Chess," I'm going to keep in their own post.

I've said before that every version of Chess has Act Two problems. The thing about Act Two problems is that they tend to be rooted in Act One problems. London may have the worst of these.

As a story, Chess doesn't really start until the chess match happens. There is some buildup to the match, in London including an assault upon a reporter in "Press Conference," but it's action incidental to the plotline. Characters are introduced, hype is built up about the chess match, themes are expounded, but no moment prior to "Quartet" is really telling us the main plot. This is a structural weakness of the show, but fans tend to be drawn along simply because the music's so good while we're getting there. (This generally explains the patience many fans have with Chess: the score is good enough to excuse many of the show's faults.)

The London show is extremely ponderous and bombastic in getting the plot moving. There are two opening numbers, "The Story of Chess" and "Merano," one five minutes long and the other seven. "The Story of Chess" is a remnant of Michael Bennett's work on the show; it was to have seamless choreography throughout, and the story would be aided both by ballets and by a bank of monitors. These both became perfunctory elements in the hands of Trevor Nunn, who has no eye for human beings in motion. "Merano" isn't bad, but seven minutes is an awfully long time to stick with a song that's intentionally corny so that it can get interrupted by a rock number. The Swedish production cut a minute and a half and lost nothing.

Freddie is introduced in "What a Scene! What a Joy!" - a quick rock number that makes him out as a bombastic American player, supremely confident in himself and his game. Then he's introduced a second time in "Commie Newspapers," this time as a genius whose talents aren't appreciated for political reasons. Florence is also introduced in this, as a wry and sarcastic but caring figure. "Press Conference" tells us about Freddie for a third time, as a paranoid and egomaniacal prima donna, and gives Florence a wonderful establishing moment ("Smile, you got your first exclusive story ...."). While "Commie Newspapers" fleshes out the relationship between Freddie and Florence, it leads to some introduction fatigure, where Freddie has been established too well and not too consistently as a character.

This is one of the things that Broadway did well: it cuts the "Commie Newspapers" bit, although themes from that scene are present in "How Many Women?", and combines "What a Scene, What a Joy" with "Press Conference," both in severely cut-down versions. There are issues with this scene in the Nelson script, but they are issues that can be worked around. In the London script the only thing we can really do is cut "Commie Newspapers," which does nothing for the plot. "Merano" deserves to be shortened as it was in Sweden, including cutting the break for whistling.

After "Press Conference" we switch to "Anatoly and Molokov / Where I Want to Be." This is one of the places where London stuck to the concept album, and rightly so. It's a great scene – Molokov is established as villain and Anatoly as hero in two minutes flat. The issue of course is that we've taken so damned long to get to it. "Where I Want to Be" is perfect as an "I Want" song, but it should be about 5-10 minutes earlier in the script than it actually is.

Then we hit the "Opening Ceremony" material. "Diplomats" ("US vs USSR") is needed more in the 21st century than it was in 1986, but the extra verse that was added since the concept album has no dramatic function other than to make the song longer. That's awkward because if you try and stage this as a proper dance number, it quickly devolves into bad comedy. Hunt down the video of the 1992 Auckland, NZ concert with Tommy K├Ârberg, Murray Head, and Deliah Hannah as Florence if you don't believe me.

Next, "The Arbiter's Song" has a dance break added, which kindly gives the choreographer something to do since they're so underutilized throughout this show. The Arbiter is a featured part, which is remarkable given how relatively unimportant he is in the action of the show. Tim Rice gave the Arbiter a few lines after "The Story of Chess" and a narration bit in "The Deal" as part of a half-hearted attempt to make him into a narrator figure, which he followed through in earnest in the Sydney script. In London it's only halfway done. This song, the scene that immediately follows it, a short reprise of "The Arbiter's Song" a few minutes later, and "Quartet" are the only places where he contributes as a character. It's a wonderful little number, and it works better as a counterpoint to "Diplomats" than vice versa, but dramatically it's a lot of time to spend on a character who will pop his head in twice more during the show.

The scene following this is not on the Danish recording, but it is in the 2008 concert. There is bickering, but it has not yet risen to the level of being plot. A bit of sparring between Florence and Molokov is interesting but entirely gratuitous, because we'll see real sparring between them (with music) in a few minutes in "Quartet."

"Hymn to Chess" is a lovely choral, but in context "Let us dedicate ourselves to the spirit of chess" is an exceedingly silly thing to say. It serves no purpose but to be interrupted by "Merchandisers," which is the very definition of a fun little number. Done well, it's a light moment in a very ponderous, political show, and it makes some wickedly barbed points while it's at it. What's unfortunate is that we've now spent between 35 and 40 minutes to get to the point where our plot starts.

It seems very weird to say that nothing has happened in 40 minutes, but up to this point we've had characters on stage, singing and dancing and arguing and fighting, without actually doing anything that moves us along in terms of the plotline. Reporter #2 (the reporter who gets punched in "Press Conference") never presses charges as far as we know, and never actually appears on stage again. Molokov is the only character who sings during "Diplomats" who actually does anything again. Once the Arbiter leaves the stage, we won't hear him sing again until "The Deal."

In fact, for many of these songs, literally nothing is happening. "The Story of Chess" takes place in a non-diegetic never-never land. "Merano" is literally an introduction song, and "Diplomats" is cover for absolutely nothing happening. "The Arbiter's Song" at least can be argued to happen in the sense that the Arbiter comes on stage and yells at people not to be political for a few minutes. We've established an awful lot, but it's a ton of build-up to what winds up being less than 4 minutes of chess-playing.

You can put this material in almost any order and it will work, so long as Freddie does something interesting before "Anatoly & Molokov." You can cut as many songs as you want; the only constant is that Anatoly must sing "Where I Want to Be" relatively early in the show. And I'm not talking in hypotheticals here. Every other song has been cut by some production or another. Except for "Commie Newspapers," it's all good songwriting, but most of it is inert in terms of story. The pieces can be set up much more quickly.

It is possible to tame this bloat and wind up with a quicker, lighter piece. "The Story of Chess" can end at "They thus invented chess..." like it does in most other variations. "Merano" can lose the entire first verse and begin with "Oh I get high when I saunter by...", and it can lose the whistle break. Skipping "Commie Newspapers" and going right from "Merano" to "Press Conference" will save two minutes and an unnecessary scene change; in fact, "Press Conference" could happen at the train station. "Diplomats" can lose its extra verse, and "The Arbiter's Song" its dance break. "Hymn to Chess" can be cut, or not, at the director's preference. All the same themes and characters are set up, and we've removed between eight and ten minutes of an overlong first act, without significantly damaging the score.

Of course as a fan of the show, eight to ten minutes less of Chess seems like a bad thing; but the truth is, in a dark theatre the people watching aren't going to miss what is gone. What they will find is that the show doesn't drag along quite so much before getting to the actual plot. Bits that were labored in London now become pretty snappy, and to the point.

But as we'll see, this is the eminently fixable half of the first act. The second half has problems that run much deeper. I'm also going to have to go into some depth as to why I think some of the numbers, including "Commie Newspapers," are such a problem.