Category Archives: Music

Les Mis / Chess: Cosette vs Florence (and Eponine)

Judy Kuhn sings both Florence on the Broadway cast album of Chess and Cosette on the Broadway cast album of Les Misérables. My recent Chess-listening binge got me thinking about the two roles, how much stronger a character Florence is (at least when looking at the stage version), and how Eponine’s greater degree of agency might explain what makes her so popular.

Of course in the book it’s a bit different: There are hints that Cosette would really like to be able to do more on her own, but as a respectable young woman, she doesn’t have many choices available. Éponine can do more because she doesn’t have to worry about losing her respectability.

Check out the full article, Agency: Cosette vs. Éponine vs. Florence on my Reading Les Misérables blog.

Listening to Chess

Chess (original)

I recently went through a few weeks listening to Chess over and over again. This happens every few years when I find a new (to me) recording of the musical, and then I forget about it for a few years until I stumble on another version and the cycle starts again.

I’ve never seen the show. It took me years to even listen the whole way through. But it’s been on my radar forever. “One Night in Bangkok” was a Top 40 hit when I was around ten. JMS used to open his Babylon 5 convention panels with a music video set to “Nobody’s Side.” The solo songs were immensely popular in my college musical theater classes: The guys who were serious about it all wanted to sing “Anthem” (can you blame them?), and I lost track of how many times I heard “Heaven Help My Heart,” “Someone Else’s Story,” and “I Know Him So Well.”

For those unfamiliar with the show, it’s about the personal rivalry between American and Soviet chess champions and the political machinations surrounding a world chess tournament during the cold war.

Contrast

Chess (Broadway)

One of the things I find fascinating about Chess is that it’s got two very distinct musical styles: timeless classical, and glaringly 80s synth pop, sometimes both within a song. Listen to parts of “Merano” or “Mountain Duet” or even “Anthem” and you’d be hard-pressed to say what decade they were written in. “You and I” sounds like it could be part of a 1930s movie soundtrack. But “One Night in Bangkok,” or “Pity the Child,” or “Nobody’s Side?”

Totally 80s!

After listening to the concept album, the Broadway cast album, and Chess in Concert, I’ve come to realize why it’s done that way, and why it works. The show is about duality and contrast: American vs. Soviet, East vs. West, and of course the ancient civilized game of chess and the very modern lives of those who play it.

80s synth-pop is not only perfect for the time it was written and is usually set, it offers a perfect contrast to the classical sound. You could probably update the arrangement on “I Know Him So Well” if you really want to, but what are you going to do with “One Night in Bangkok?” Or going back to “Mountain Duet,” the jump from slow, beautiful melody to jarring hard rock brings the tension from the background to the front of the scene.

Comparison

Chess in ConcertMusically, my favorite is the original concept album. The overall sound just works better for me, though it’s hard to follow the choral numbers.

The best thing about the Broadway version is Judy Kuhn. She’s amazing, and the expanded role for Florence gives her plenty of opportunities to shine. A few of the orchestrations work better too – “Heaven Help My Heart” is better without the echo, for instance. But while Philip Casnoff is good on most of the recording, he just sleepwalks through “One Night in Bangkok.” Maybe it’s a character choice that works on stage, but isolated as audio it just can’t compare to Murray Head.

The concert version has the clearest story to it, and the additional songs are fascinating for the additional layers they add. Adam Pascal and Josh Groban are great, and I like that they cast two actresses with very different voices for Florence and Svetlana. (Funny that they’re both known for playing Elphaba.)  Strangely enough, Idina Menzel almost sounds too soft here (how did that happen?), but she’s grown on me as I’ve listened through a few more times.

Plus I had this great idea to do a fan video using her version of “Nobody’s Side” for Frozen.

I’ll probably never get around to it, but wouldn’t it be awesome? Or at least *ahem* cool?”

Flash and Les Mis in the Golden Age of Radio and Comics

Two of my fan interests sort of intersected* with a pair of articles I wrote last night, as I found myself looking at the Flash and Les Misérables in the late 1930s/early 1940s.

I review Orson Welles’ Les Misérables radio play over at Re-Reading Les Mis. Last weekend I stumbled on a cassette recording of the 1937 series, but since I don’t have anything portable to play cassettes on anymore, I went looking online, found it at the Internet Archive’s Old Time Radio collection, and listened to it on the way to and from work for several days. (I wish I hadn’t already used the Cassette…now I remember pun.)

A 1943 Flash comic book features Jay Garrick playing every role at once in a stage play, quick-change style, when the entire cast is quarantined for a measles outbreak. I’d recently updated the scans on an old post on the one-man team trope. The Disneyland outbreak made me think of the story, and I’ve posted a few scans at Speed Force.

*They’ve been intersecting all week, actually, since the actor playing Pied Piper on the Flash TV show is playing Marius on Broadway right now, and has been posting Les Mis-related stuff.

Going “Into the Woods” on Stage & Screen

Like Ragtime, Into the Woods is another show that I listened to years ago and never quite got around to seeing. “I Know Things Now,” “On the Steps of the Palace,” and “Giants in the Sky” were popular with the musical theater crowd back in college, and I performed “Agony: Reprise” in class once*, but somehow I never watched the filmed version of the stage play with Bernadette Peters (I’m kind of baffled, honestly), and it wasn’t popular among the local theaters…until this year.

I decided I wanted to see a production onstage before I saw the movie, and managed to score a discount ticket to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production when the tour hit Los Angeles.

For those unfamiliar with the show: Act One weaves Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel together with the story of a childless couple seeking to lift the curse a witch placed on them years ago. Act Two picks up on the consequences of what happened in Act One: an angry giant looking for Jack, princes who are more charming than sincere, Rapunzel trying to overcome years of emotional abuse, and so on. “Happily” may exist, but “ever after” is an illusion, and everyone’s more complicated than their stories might suggest.

OSF On Stage

The cast was quite good, and I got a kick out of seeing John Vickery (whom I remember as Neroon in Babylon 5) as the Narrator and Mysterious Man. I did have trouble following some of the larger ensemble numbers, though: So many voices singing high-speed, precision Sondheim at once. There’s a reason the Sondheim section in in The Musical of Musicals (The Musical) is called “Into the Words.”

The set consisted entirely of several levels of platforms, scaffolding and ladders to suggest towers, beanstalks and the like. Costumes started out similarly minimal, just contemporary clothes that suggested the character’s personality or role, then slowly became more period over the course of the opening number. The show is strongly built around storytelling (the narrator’s abrupt disappearance in act two isn’t just a gimmick, it marks a major shift in the characters’ lives), and the costume changes fit with that.

Something I’d missed or forgotten from the songs was just how much of act two is set up in act one. Cinderella’s uncertainty, Jack’s recklessness, even the turns taken by the baker and his wife are given enough setup to be believable. (The baker seems like a nice guy in the songs. Add in the bits in between and it’s clear he’s also a bit of a “nice guy” at the beginning.) [Edit: Now that I’ve listened through the cast album a couple of times, there’s a lot more than I remember.]

I loved Little Red Riding Hood’s turn for the savage after the wolf encounter: wearing the wolfskin cape, living in a cave, carrying a knife and hunting wolves.

The Witch especially is a lot more complicated than she seemed in the songs that I remembered. I kept comparing her and Rapunzel’s relationship to the version in Tangled, which has got to have been influenced by this show. She’s less of a clear-cut villain than Mother Gothel is, though: as cruel as she is, she’s actually sincere in her love for her stolen daughter. She’s just waaay off base in how to show it.

I left the theater with a much greater appreciation of the show!

The Movie

I liked the movie a lot as well. The ensemble numbers actually worked better: a movie lets you perfect the sound balance, so everyone’s intelligible. [Edit: Also, the more complicated numbers like “Ever After” are gone.] Having actual children play Little Red and Jack also makes a big difference, and while I liked the actors’ performance on stage, I think it works better this way.

It takes itself a bit more seriously than it should, but the only place the movie really fell flat on its own terms was with the wolf. Everything else in the film is presented as a realistic take on fantasy (well, with singing). Making the wolf look human with furry ears and a mustache works on stage where everything is impressionistic, but here it just doesn’t mesh. It might have worked if they’d presented him more like a werewolf, transforming into human form for the song.

Compared to the stage version, act two loses something when it’s set right after act one instead of giving it time so that we’re seeing people adjusted (or not) to their happily ever afters. That’s a bigger loss than, say, the narrator, or Rapunzel’s aftermath. Rapunzel doesn’t really do much in the show, so much as she is — cutting her from the second act hurts the Witch’s story more than it hurts hers.

I really missed “No More,” though. It sums up everything the Baker experiences and learns in the show, and builds to his key self-realization and decision. What they did instead sort of works, but it’s not nearly as effective. Sure, they cut the Mysterious Man, but I think they could have made it work using the device of the Baker imagining his father.

I thought it was a great version of the musical, and while it does make me want to dig up the  Bernadette Peters version, it’s not out of disappointment, but a rekindled interest in the show.

*Flashback

When we presented the scene in class, I** mispronounced the title as “Agony: Re-prize.” My scene partner quickly corrected it to “Re-PREEZE,” and I automatically repeated it. It wasn’t planned, but it was a perfect echo of the “Dwarves–” “Dwarfs!” “Dwarfs.” exchange in the song!

**Actually, I can’t remember which of us got it wrong and which of us corrected it. But it was probably me.