Songs from Musicals: #2, “Pity the Child,” from Chess

Honorable mentions: “The Deal/No Deal,” “You and I (Reprise)”

Like Grenada, Chess is a victim of American late Cold War insecurity. In the British version, the Soviet grandmaster beats the American grandmaster to take the latter’s championship before defecting, and with a little help from the American, topples the Soviet challenger for his crown. In the American version, the American wins back his title from the godless Russkie. One of these endings is fascinating, and the other is dull and ordinary, and there’s a reason no one’s ever tried to revive this play after it cratered on Broadway. This ugly history is the reason that Chess is not recognized as one of the all-time great examples of the genre, up there with Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera.

The music comes from an unlikely source, although after taking a listen through the whole show, one wonders how ABBA wasn’t even bigger than they were. The B’s in that group, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, have created a score with more and better opportunities for individual voices than any other musical I’ve ever listened to.  (If you’re surprised that I think ABBA is behind one of the best musicals of our times, go get hypnotized by the last forty seconds of “Lay All Your Love on Me” and report back.) For the most part, they are extremely manageable. Personal favorites like “Anthem,” “Nobody’s Side,” “Heaven Help My Heart,” and “Someone Else’s Story” are more difficult to find perfect phrasing and emphasis for than they are to actually sing. They are great songs to belt at seventy miles an hour and more on an otherwise quiet two-lane highway. Other songs, like “The Deal/No Deal” or the three parts of “Endgame,” are dynamic and actively play off the key melodies in the show. “The Deal/No Deal,” which is more than ten minutes long, brings back melodies from several songs we’ve already heard in the show, setting up the conflicts and intrigues of the denouement. Every character with a name is on stage to sing at least part of that song. It’s a tour de force, two and a half times longer than “One Day More!” and many times more specific.

“Pity the Child” is one of the melodies used in “The Deal/No Deal,” and the long solo near the end of the show is actually a reprise. I prefer the Adam Pascal performance from a concert version in 2008. If we were talking about the Murray Head version, which is iconic in its own shouty way, we wouldn’t be talking about “Pity the Child” at all. I would have picked a different song from this musical.

Pascal makes this song his son, even though there may not be a more notoriously difficult song for a tenor in a musical. It takes power well into his head voice – here’s where your Tenor 1s and your Tenor 2s make like the wheat and the chaff – and then there’s the end of the song to deal with.

Pascal eats it alive. Try this, maybe when you’re home alone and you don’t think you’ll disturb the neighbors or the cat. Yell. It’s got to be a pitchy yell, short of yodeling for its force. Hold it as long as you can. Good. How long did you keep it up? Because Adam Pascal can shout a note at the top of his range, go up and down the staff during his run, push it for twenty-three seconds, and through all of this sounds so good that your limbs begin to twitch involuntarily. No one else can do this. Philip Casnoff from the Broadway cast cracks a little bit and holds the note less than half as long. James Fox gives it his best, holding the note out up high, but he is straining the whole time. Head, who originated the role on the concept album, sounds like he’s in physical pain. A younger Colm Wilkinson, for goodness’ sake, about has the note, but like Casnoff, doesn’t take it very far. Adam Pascal is the only person I have ever heard who can sing this song like a tidal wave, and when he does “Pity the Child,” it completely steals the show. One is impressed with Josh Groban’s “Anthem” or Judy Kuhn’s “Nobody’s Side,” because they are incredible renditions. I’ve heard renditions that are 75%, 85%, even 95% as good as both of those performers’ versions. Adam Pascal looks at the rest of the group singing “Pity the Child” and abolishes the entire curve.

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