As I'm sure everyone knows, the London Chess DVD and CD were released today. For me, one of the little personal highlights was Florence's minor line in "Mountain Duet" - "He couldn't wait to join you up here / Maybe he walked, cable cars scare him." I always liked the line and was disappointed when the 2001 Danish cast album used the concept album line ("All I can say is moments ago / He was right here, ready and waiting"), which is suitable but doesn't really have the little flourish that the London line did.
For the concert itself, of course one must start with the performers. Josh Groban's Anatoly is still a decade younger than he needs to be, but his voice is good and, while I was not blown away by his "Anthem," he got the job done for the most part. Adam Pascal's Freddie is not as spot-on as Philip Casnoff was for the role, and lacks the unique qualities Murray Head had (at least on the concept album, before he blew out his voice trying to play the role live). Both are good, better than their counterparts in the Danish concert cast and the 1994 Swedish concert in Gothenburg. Neither is definitive in the role.
Most of the side parts were played well. David Bedella's Molokov lacked a bit in the deep bass, but he managed to seem progressively more like a lovable stage Russian as the night went on, of course peaking in "The Soviet Machine." Marti Pellow's Arbiter is a little thin on the vocals but made up for it, certainly, with moxie if nothing else. Clarke Peters does fine on what is left of Walter's part, which isn't much. And Kerry Ellis simply knocked "Someone Else's Story" out of the park, with the best delivery of the whole show. Her parts in "I Know Him So Well" and "Endgame" were likewise top notch, and it almost seemed a shame to use her in such a small part.
Idina Menzel's Florence, though, was probably the biggest problem. I enjoyed her work in Rent and Wicked, and was honestly a bit surprised at how she came off in the concert. Her voice was nasally, pretty much throughout, although she pulled out a respectable performance of "Heaven Help My Heart" the constant use of head tones and inability to stick with the printed song in places really put a pall on the rest of the proceedings. Like it or not, Chess is very much Florence's show, and without having a certain hard-edged charm, which Menzel lacked in vocals and acting, there's a barrier you just can't get across. "Nobody's Side" - I don't even think there is a comparison; the Helen Sjöholm and Judy Kuhn recordings are very nearly sublime, while Menzel's is almost joyless. (It doesn't help that she moves away from the written music, when "Nobody's" is very rigidly structured to benefit from some amazing harmonies.) She benefits from a terrific partner in "I Know Him So Well," easily the most forgiving song in the score, but even in the recitative pieces comes off as a detriment to the proceedings around her. There is also a noticeable lack of vocal chemistry between her and Groban, which does no favors whatsoever to "You and I," which really needed to sound twice as beautiful as it did here to have the intended effect. More on "You and I" later.
The massive chorus was underutilized, and the handful of "featured solo" performers were undermiked, which really led to the other major problem of the concert - as a recording, it's a bit underwhelming. "Endgame" in particular simply droops when it should be epic. With as many performers as they had, advantage simply wasn't taken.
For the lyrics and story, there were a lot of things I was privately very happy about in this production. Probably the single best thing is that Tim Rice moved "Pity" back to Act II, where it belonged, rather than jamming up the end of a very long Act I where it competed with "Heaven" and "Anthem." Choosing to use the short "Pity" in Act I and the long version in Act II still works brilliantly. Also good to hear was the moment that had been cut from the London "Deal" - the second half of the concept album exchange between Freddie and Anatoly - restored in full, without apology. ("The Deal" actually had a marathon three
choruses at the end, as opposed to its usual two.) The large majority of the lyrics were either taken from London or the concept album, with a few exceptions. The majority of the new lyrics were for "Talking Chess" and "Endgame," with a new part for Freddie in the latter (taking the place of "Though it gives me no joy...."):
"How straightforward the game
When one is free from distraction
When your only concern
Is laid out so clearly before you
They're the reason you know you exist"
There was also one act of judicious pruning, the cutting of "Der Kleine Franz" - a thoroughly unnecessary number.
Some of the moves were less than terrific. A number of lines (from "What a Scene" and "Difficult and Dangerous Times") are given over to Florence that are mildly out of character for her to sing. "Quartet" is screwed up six ways to next Sunday - it cannot decide whether it is the London or Broadway version, and winds up an unsatisfying hodgepodge where characters sing over each other half the time and then do the round of absolute nonsense at the end. Yes, it's pretty, but you're singing strings of words, not actual meaningful lyrics. And Rice seems to have forgotten that the characters overlap in the song because Molokov doesn't shut up until the very end. It doesn't work if he's quiet half the time! Personally I'm a little disappointed that Rice didn't come up with yet another final couplet for Freddie in "Budapest is Rising" - it was always one of the little oddities of the show that you could run that thing for about five verses without repeating a line. "Talking Chess" was about doubled in length, which did give the scene a bit more punch but seemed about on the edge of overdoing its point.
Lyrically, I think Tim Rice did the wrong thing by assigning "Someone Else's Story" to Svetlana with Florence's lyrics. He rewrote the song so that Svetlana could sing it in Sydney and Off-Broadway; sure, it's not the well known lyric of the song, but it makes much more sense in character. It's not a huge variance, I don't think it would have made a lick of difference as far as the lyrics on the new CD being different from the over-rehearsed version, and I think it works a little better as a song.
But what really broke my heart, in two ways (I didn't know that was possible), was "You and I (Reprise)." First - it didn't close the show. That's so tremendously backward from everything good about Chess. It closed the show in the concept album, in Sydney and in Stockholm - and for good cause. The "Anthem" ending is an awful contrivance of Trevor Nunn's, and it should have been buried along with oh so many shoulder pads as the '80s went off into the sunset. Second - Rice did not use his original lyric for the song. For me, this was mystifying. So much of the rest of the show was happy to stick with the London lyrics; yet, the one song that really had the wind taken out of its sails in its Broadway incarnation, the "You and I" reprise, was imported. The revised lyrics don't even hold a candle to "I pray the days and nights / in their endless weary procession / soon overwhelm / my sad obsession." (Compare: "There will be days and nights / when I want you more than I want to / more than I should / oh how I want you.")
Finally, I should say a few words on the concert staging. For the most part, it was painfully banal. "Merano" passes by without a single muscle twitching when a ballet is clearly called for. "US vs. USSR" has...a bunch of people standing around and posing a little. (Which, to be honest, is all that Trevor Nunn ever did with it anyway.) "The Arbiter's Song" and "One Night in Bangkok" are the most skillfully presented numbers, and there was some art in how "The Soviet Machine" and "The Deal" were presented. But for the most part it was bland and lacking in drama. For all the people who will ever say that Chess is better as a concert, I defy you to compare this to the Stockholm production DVD. Stockholm was dripping with astonishing staging for its songs, visually engrossing with brilliant Robin Wagner sets. Even if "Ni dömer mig" ("Endgame", kinda) sucked, and it did, that was one number out of two dozen that fell on its face. This has four or five really worthy moments out of thirty-five or so. And even a well done moment, like "The Deal," doesn't hold a shadow to "Vem Kunde Ana", its Swedish counterpart. "Endgame" was particularly underwhelming and has absolutely nothing on the 1986 London production's interpretation of the scene.
In story terms, it's London. It still has the split-format match, which is weak, and it still strings together a very loose sense of plot in Act II with Freddie thrashing about wildly for motives. (He's out to get Anatoly, no he wants to help Florence, now he still loves Florence even though he was demeaning her on international TV ten minutes ago, no now he really loves chess. Zuh?) There's enough dramatic oomph to get you through, but it's muddled at best. And the conclusion just doesn't have the punch it's supposed to. I've really come around to the conclusion that Stockholm did the right thing and dropped the whole damn "Florence's father" subplot entirely - it has never really worked. My fiancee, who's seen the Broadway version in community theater, thought the lack of resolution at the end was "lame." And she wasn't really wrong. The first act doesn't drag quite as much as the original London production, only about as much as it had on Broadway, which isn't a capital crime. Still the same very much dramaturgically mixed bag that is London.
It's very good to have a mostly competent album and a well-shot DVD of the show on shelves and displayed prominently. There are very real weaknesses here, and to be honest the only thing it has on the Swedish cast recording and DVD is that the Arbiter is better. (And it's easier to understand if you only speak English. Although, really, you should probably just learn Swedish.
) It's not a great album for everyday listening; we already had terrific recordings of "Someone Else's Story" by Kuhn and Sjöholm, so the contribution here is on the light side. But it's absolutely necessary for its comprehensiveness, although the CD seems to be missing some recitative (the track labelled "Florence and Molokov" is really part of "Budapest is Rising" and "Florence and Molokov" is absent from the disc).
You know you're going to buy it anyway, but here's how I'd rate it in the hierarchy of Chess recordings, from top to bottom.
1988 Original Broadway Cast
2002 Stockholm cast (Chess På Svenska)
1984 Concept Album
2008 London Concert Recording
2001 Danish Complete Cast Recording
2001 Chess Karaoke CD
--- Hey kids, make your own Chess album and get a spot here ---
--- someone uploading his cat yodelling to YouTube ---
1994 Gothenburg Concert Recording
So that's about what I think of the new concert. Your mileage may vary.