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. (Update: I finally did!) 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.


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.


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?”

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.


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.

Seeing Ragtime on stage is a vastly different experience from listening to it, and not just because it’s live theater. There’s so much context, so many connections, so much subtext that you don’t get from the songs alone. It’s very much a go-home-and-hug-your-kids kind of show.

I’ve been a fan of the music ever since we did a few songs from it in a revue back in college, but I’d never actually seen it until this month, when I caught 3D Theatricals’ production in Redondo Beach.

It’s a big show — forty-six people on stage, according to the director — and they turned in a great performance. The vocal standout, I thought, was the actress playing Mother. The actor playing Coalhouse had a very different voice than the one on the album, but he had physical presence and was able to really convey both his optimism in act one and his rage in act two. The character needs both to work.

Speaking of differences between the production and the cast album, I should note: when you just have the highlights, Father comes off as just kind of clueless. When you have the full songs and the book, he’s a bit of an obstinate jerk.

I found myself struck by the layers of historical interpretation: It’s a modern production of a 15-year-old adaptation of a 40-year-old novel about life in America 100 years ago. And we’re still dealing with the same problems: Institutionalized racism and sexism, exploitation of the working poor, conflict over how to handle immigration. It really hit at the moment when authorities kill a young African-American because they think (wrongly) that she has a gun. You can argue that any historical fiction is as much about the present day as it is about the period it’s set in, and maybe it’s a matter of each era distilling the common themes from the older work, but it was telling (and disheartening) how topical the story still is.