Tag Archives: Chess

Chess in Concert at UCI

The cold-war musical Chess works surprisingly well set in the present day.

UCI Drama’s production is a concert staging of the show, with the orchestra and choir onstage, and the actors carrying handheld microphones with minimal props. It works well, especially for the more 80s-pop numbers like “Nobody’s Side” and the big ensemble songs like “Merano” and the chess games, though it gets a little awkward when the characters are singing to each other with microphones. (The show features two competing styles of music, achingly 80s and classical musical theater.)

The show’s structure is fluid, with vast differences between the original London and Broadway versions and later productions, and just about every version tweaking the story and moving songs around. This version largely follows the London stage version, with a few key changes:

  1. It’s set in the present day. This updates the USSR to Russia and drops the CIA vs KGB elements of the background game played between Walter and Molokov. Florence is the daughter of Hungarian refugees, rather than a former child refugee herself (Budapest 1956 is the only fixed date in the story.) The political stakes may be a bit lower, but the personal stakes work just as well.
  2. Several roles have been recast as women, including Molokova and the arbiter, which makes the show even more “alto-licious” (as Katie puts it).
  3. The second act drops a lot of the connections between songs (it is done as a concert, after all), which means you don’t see the breakdown of Anatoly’s and Florence’s relationship, or Anatoly cracking under the pressure, until he finds his “one true obligation.” You get the before and after but not the process.

The performances were all solid, with Molokova in particular as a standout.

An aside: I found it interesting to see an actual production of Chess at UCI, since the songs had been so popular with the musical theater crowd when I was there in the 1990s. “I Know Him So Well,” “Heaven Help My Heart,” and “Someone Else’s Story” were standards in the library, and I heard them a zillion times, while all the guys who were serious about musicals wanted to sing “Anthem.” And really, can you blame them?

I’m still not sure how well “Someone Else’s Story” works for Svetlana, but that ship has sailed. And “One Night In Bangkok,” despite being instantly recognizable to anyone who lived through the 80s, is cringe-worthy now. For this production they downplay the stereotyping by playing up the fact that it’s seen through the perspective of a total lout (Freddie). It’s still cringe-worthy, but at least it’s a character statement rather than a narrative one.

The production continues through this weekend.

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?”

B5, Kean Coffee, Flu and Chess

  • Went to Kean Coffee (new place by founder of Diedrich). Very good. The place was packed. Starbucks never knew what to do w/that location. #
  • Single-shot flu vaccines (instead of yearly) may be coming if this discovery pans out. (via @BadAstronomer) #
  • JMS’s original notes for what became Babylon 5. #
  • Listening to Chess. Only 1 year before Les Miserables, but sounds so much more dated because it was done in a 1980s pop rock style. #