Monday, October 27, 2014

An Aside on Russian Dialog

Sometimes, incidental dialog can reveal interesting things about culture. I want to look at two incidental moments, one from London and the other from Broadway, that both happen to occur between Anatoly and Molokov, and both happen to fall right before "Where I Want to Be."

The first is London:
Anatoly: I'm a chess player, Mr. Molokov - you go and play these other games!
The line is traditionally delivered with a dramatic disgust as Anatoly sends Molokov off.

The Broadway line is sort of its opposite, Molokov ordering Anatoly to play an ambassador:
Molokov: He went to University with the First Secretary. You have no choice.
I'm bringing up these lines because neither of them would have been said by a Russian, particularly not in the Soviet days.

The Russian language doesn't have a word meaning "mister." Today there is occasional use of the extremely formal господин (gahspuh-DEEN) - which was a way to address a nobleman in the old Imperial Russia, closer to "master/Lord" than "mister". It was totally out of use in the Soviet period. It was far more common to use товарищ (tah-VAR-ish), which in English is translated as "comrade." This was a common form of address in the period, and it's frequently enough used by film and stage Russians that it's something of a cliché, but it is much more accurate to have Anatoly say "comrade Molokov" than "Mr. Molokov." Now, and then as well, it would also be acceptable to have him simply call him "Aleksandr" or "Molokov," the latter being a bit overly formal.

Broadway's line is really odd. The leader of the USSR was the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union; for the period described by Chess there are only three candidates for the post. Yuri Andropov was General Secretary from November 1982 to February 1984; Konstantin Chernenko followed until March 1985; and Mikhail Gorbachev until August 1991. Given the timing of the London and Broadway scripts, Gorbachev was General Secretary.

"First Secretary" was a peculiar form of the title used by Nikita Khrushchev (in power 1953-1964), who was consciously distancing himself from Stalin. Brezhnev restored it to "General Secretary" in 1966, and this form was used until the CPSU was outlawed in 1991. But being General Secretary was not like being President in the US. Two Russians in discussion would have referred to "Gorbachev," and definitely not to "the First Secretary." This is actually really helpful for staging Chess over two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union. It immediately contextualizes the piece for Molokov to say "He went to university with Gorbachev."

Happily, Gorbachev did go to university. There's no record of whether he actually knew the only ambassador to Thailand that was appointed while he was General Secretary, Anatoly Valkov, but photographs of the candidates can be seen here. Valkov is the image of the bureaucrat that Anatoly didn't want to play chess against. Sadly there are no detailed biographies for these Russian ambassadors, but Valkov was born in 1927, and his predecessor Kasatkin in 1930, so it's quite possible for either of them to have been at university at the same time as Gorbachev (born in 1931).

So in our revised form, these lines go (London):
Anatoly: I'm a chess player, Comrade Molokov - you go and play these other games!
And then Broadway:
Molokov: He went to University with Gorbachev. You have no choice.
Both of these help set the tone for a modern audience, placing the characters more firmly in their Cold War settings.

There is also some value in talking about Russian names, at least briefly. Russians tend to have a middle name (patronymic) based on their father's first name, with ovich added for men and ovna for women, so Viktor's children Ivan and Marina would be Ivan Viktorovich and Marina Viktorovna. Giving the characters patronymics helps make them feel more authentically Russian at key moments. I would suggest Anatoly Viktorovich (a reference to Korchnoi), Aleksandr Grigorevich, and Svetlana Petrovna.

There are also stereotyped nicknames for most common Russian names. For Anatoly it's Tolya, for Aleksandr there is Sasha (it can be a man's name in Russian), and for Svetlana there is Sveta and the less common Lana, the latter of which would work more smoothly in English. These are much warmer in usage than first names or patronymics, and give another variant to make the dialogue feel more authentically Russian.

I'm going to go through some more dialogue for other ways to add context that may not have been obviously needed in 1986/1988. It's one of the little things about making Chess more of a period piece that I think is a dramaturgical necessity.

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.