Dir. Hugh Wooldridge. Starring Idina Menzel, Josh Groban, Adam Pascal
For half a second back there, I thought that the Christmas movie musical was about to become a staple of the American film schedule. Les Miserables hit, Into the Woods missed, and then The Force Awakens came out a year later, with a new Star Wars property expected every Christmas, in glory undimmed, until the breaking of the world. We may not see a real Broadway adaptation come to theaters at Christmas until 2019, when Wicked, which will have taken, by then, sixteen years to reach the big screen, is supposed to arrive. In the meantime, live TV musicals (from the same family as The Sound of Music, Grease, andThe Wiz), mid-year offerings (next year’s Beauty and the Beast), and animated Disney princess offerings (Moana) will have to tide us over while we wait for the Big Kahuna.
Chess would never have been that Christmas movie musical. It’s not nearly recognizable enough, has little interest for families compared to a flick like Into the Woods, and, weirdest enough, the studio would have to choose a plot. Chess has been performed with several of them, and the best ones feature an American who loses to a Russian. The best case scenario for Chess-the-film is something like what happened to the underwhelming The Last Five Years: some patron saint of Broadway comes to view it as a passion project, it gets a February release, and it lives on Netflix forever.
The reason that seems terribly sad to me is because Chess is the kind of musical which would make a marvelous film, even though my spider-sense is pretty sure that Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan would get lead roles again. If you liked the lyrics from The Lion King or the literal music of ABBA, then Chess was written by people you already know and love. It has intrigue, romance, a Cold War setting. From “A Model of Decorum and Tranquility,” which is maybe halfway through the first act, through the end of the play, every single song is incandescent. This is not Sondheim, whose lyrics are brilliant but whose tunes are merely memorable without Patinkin and Peters; nor is it Webber, whose parts for women are borderline absurd. This is Andersson and Ulvaeus, and they’ve managed to pare down the music to what fits within their performers’ ranges, to maximum effect. (Except for “Pity the Child,” which is both perfect and impossible to perform, but I’ve rhapsodized about that on this blog before.)
It’s the ’80s. The Cold War is still on, but it’s in an obvious period of decline. The two best chess players in the world are Anatoly Sergievsky (Groban), a Russian with a mind of his own and just enough leash to speak it sometimes, and Freddie Trumper (Pascal), a brash American Achilles who has, in Sergievsky’s words, “revitalized chess singlehanded.” Trumper is the reigning world champion and a true Reagan-style Cold Warrior, certain that he’ll obliterate Sergievsky and willing to crow it to any microphone that lands under his chin. After staging an incident during the first game of the world championship (in a ploy, we discover, to get more money from the networks covering the matches), Freddie gets blasted by Anatoly, who becomes world champion and defects overnight. Insult is added to injury when it turns out that Anatoly and Freddie’s second, Florence Vassy (Menzel), have fallen for each other. Freddie is obviously interested in Florence, but Florence is too exasperated with Freddie’s immaturity and hot temper to stay with a man she’s helped for years, and when Freddie blames his loss on her, that’s the final straw.
It’s a fair first act. The first quarter of the show is spent on setting a tone not just for the characters to follow, but on the setting as well. This would be a better musical if it didn’t try to create a setting: that goes not just for Merano, but for Bangkok as well. Although “One Night in Bangkok” is probably the most recognizable song for people who don’t listen to musicals, and “Merano” likewise dates back to the concept album, neither one adds much to the show itself: this is really the story of the menage between Florence, Anatoly, Freddie, and their shadows. Molokov (David Bedella) is Florence’s opposite number as much as Anatoly is Freddie’s, although he is removed from romance and much more invested in the geopolitical ramifications of a chess match. Walter de Courcey is a television producer with deep CIA ties, or vice versa, who takes Freddie on as analyst and pawn in Act 2. (Clarke Peters plays him in the concert version. Yes, the guy who plays Lester Freamon on The Wire. No, you can’t unsee it in either context.) And then there’s Svetlana (Kerry Ellis), Anatoly’s wife stuck in the Soviet Union in Act 1 who is brought to Thailand in Act 2 by Molokov for the specific task of throwing Anatoly off his game. In short, if it doesn’t have to do with one of those characters, it’s hard to know what it brings to the show in effectiveness.
I’ve written before that the measure of a musical is in its second act: how does it conclude its plot while continuing to hit you with song after song? It’s a test of characterization, for one thing: if your catchiest tunes don’t have much to do with your characters, then your second act will almost certainly be devoid of the songs…which is kind of the point. Grease is an offender here, and if we’re honest so are a bunch of Rodgers and Hammerstein joints, from Oklahoma! to The Sound of Music. Sometimes the pressure of concluding the drama weighs on the music as well, and here’s where Webber shows up: take Sunset Boulevard, for example, which features “Too Much in Love to Care” as the romantic linchpin of the entire show. Unfortunately, “Too Much in Love to Care” is a terrible song. Evita has a strong second act until Eva really starts dying, and then the music is utterly forgettable. But there are some musicals which, about halfway through the first act, ratchet up the stakes with killer songs and then keep up the pressure throughout the second act all the way to the end. Les Miserables does that, and so does Miss Saigon. The Last Five Years after “The Next Ten Minutes” is stunning. Hamilton stumbles over itself something awful during Yorktown, but redeems itself with an absolutely ridiculous collection of winners beginning with “Non-Stop” and going all the way through the end of the show. And Chess, which gets into gear with Florence’s solo, “Nobody’s Side” (I recommend Judy Kuhn), crams “Mountain Duet,” “Heaven Help My Heart,” and “Anthem” into the first act before the most perfect vocal second act in musical theater.
The second act is like an hour and change of Diplomacy, if all the negotiations in Diplomacy had to be sung really loudly. Florence’s father, an American intelligence agent, was last seen in the short-lived Hungarian uprising of 1956, which in Act 1 is an item of interest for someone like Molokov and a knife to twist for Freddie (“Where’s Daddy?/Dead, or in the KGB!”). In Act 2, it’s revealed that Florence’s father may very well be alive and just needs the right deal to be fixed to get him back on American soil. The right deal that Molokov and Walter decide on is fairly straightforward: if Anatoly, the self-exiled Soviet, will lose to Viigand, his inferior Soviet golden boy competition, and summarily return to Russia, then Vassy comes home. It’s a deal which has something in it for everyone: Molokov and Walter get what they want, Svetlana gets her husband (and the father of her children) back, Florence gets her father, and Freddie’s path to Florence is unimpeded once again. The problem, of course, is that there’s nothing in it for the fulcrum himself.
That deal is fleshed out, for the most part, in “The Deal/No Deal,” which is more than ten minutes long and one of those glorious operatic musical theater moments in which all of the themes from the show come back again and better than before. It’s sort of a musical theater trope at this point, but it rarely fails to be effective; in Chess, it is very nearly perfect. Anatoly, by the end of the song, seems more determined than ever to stay with Florence in Britain, but deeply distracted. This kind of psychological disruption has long been Molokov’s calling card. When he was Anatoly’s handler, he encouraged him to get cozy with Florence in an effort to throw Freddie off his game; with Viigand, who isn’t anywhere near Anatoly’s (or Freddie’s) level, Molokov throws not just the possibility of Vassy’s freedom into the mix, but the literal presence of his wife. The result, Molokov hopes, is “His horsepower dead/On the board and in bed.”
After “The Deal/No Deal,” the show’s politics get a little bit wonky. “I Know Him So Well” is a marvelous duet for Florence and Svetlana, but is grating from a perspective that sees women as people; the song predates the Bechdel test by a year, maybe, but it’s at least a couple decades out of date. In the three parts of “Endgame,” in which Anatoly wins the decisive match against Viigand while managing to quiet his doubts, has lyrics that sound like Neil Peart held a gun to Tim Rice’s head. Freddie, in a secret conference with Anatoly, points out a flaw in Viigand’s structure which Anatoly could use to win and gives him a pep talk. “You’ve let them all down already,” he says. “Win or betray yourself, too.” Post-Freddie, Anatoly shouts down all opposition to his decision, proclaims himself an individual, and becomes the repeat chess champion of the world. There’s very little hint of any of this happening earlier in the show; it’s a good ending in terms of plot, but Anatoly’s turn to egotism, followed immediately by a magnanimous show of goodwill – he will return to the Soviet Union and presumably to his family in the hopes that Vassy will be freed – is confusing.
Chess loves reprises so much that the original iterations of some tune in this musical tend to be much shorter and less developed than that tune’s reprise. “Pity the Child” is a minute of whispered self-pity in Act 1; in Act 2, it’s five minutes of desperate soul-searching. “You and I” is a nervous but assured declaration of mutual affection at the top of Act 2; at the bottom, it’s a longing, despairing keen for a love that’s about to be separated for good. It’s not quite perfect: “But we go on pretending/Stories like ours/Have happy endings” clangs largely because “endings” has too much /i/ in it. But the rest of the song soars. “Knowing I want you” is probably the lowest-sung phrase Groban gets, and it’s almost purred; alternately, Groban leaps into the first words of new phrases with an unrestrained gusto. Unlike Menzel and Pascal, who were in their late thirties when this concert played, Groban was not even thirty. He has a younger voice, and compared to the strain that has become part and parcel of his co-stars’ vocal identities, the melodiousness and fullness he can conjure is almost shocking. If Adam Pascal hadn’t redefined Tenor 1 performances in musical theater, Groban would be the standout performer in this show; unfortunately for him, Pascal is the Simone Biles of this show, the very first among equals.
As a stage show, Chess has never really known what to do with itself; as a concert, the way that this performance was staged, with light dancing and minimal blocking, Chess is highly successful, a contemporary update on a secular cantata. As a film, with someone besides Rob Marshall directing, I get the sense that Chess could be highly successful, and yet I worry that its actors would take the Hugh Jackman/Anne Hathaway route and sing ugly. For Les Miz, it’s appropriate. For Chess, which is arena rock for the musical theater crowd, that would be a catastrophe.