Throwing Out My CDs by Ben Rimalower: CHESS
Ben Rimalower revisits favorite musical theater recordings as he digitizes and declutters his collection.
Well, the next step in my decluttering/digitizing journey is throwing out my Chess CDs, not that they take up much space. I only have the Original Concept Recording and the Broadway cast. I'm going to download the freaking 2008 Royal Albert Hall concert version (with Idina Menzel, Josh Groban and Adam Pascal) to try to keep this column hip. But let's all just remember two things: 1.) I am not hip; and, 2.) I'm just downloading the concert for this column, so it doesn't really count as part of my digitizing.
For those sadly not in the know, Chess is the pop opera (in some ways, maybe the quintessential pop opera) about a Cold War era chess match between the United States and the Soviet Union, with music by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (the BB of ABBA) and lyrics by Tim Rice. The 1984 concept album (with Elaine Paige, Tommy Körberg and Murray Head) was a big hit, spawning the international hit single "One Night In Bangkok" and led to successful West End staging (initially directed by Michael Bennett and then finished by Trevor Nunn when he got ill) that ran for three years. The 1988 Broadway production (directed by Nunn and with the addition of a book by playwright Richard Nelson) was a notorious flop. There have been numerous small scale revivals and large scale concert productions around the world and almost as many major revisions, but Chess has yet to be attempted again on Broadway, despite numerous fits and starts.
The leading role of Anatoly ("the Russian") was created on record (and shortly thereafter on stage in the West End) by Swedish actor-singer Tommy Körberg. His handsome baritone and smooth manner became the mold followed in all future casting to date. He went on to score career successes with such roles as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables and the Beast in Beauty and the Beast. If the concept recording of Chess is the first version you knew, Körberg is probably your favorite.
My heart, however, belongs to the late, great David Carroll on the Broadway cast recording. I find his voice just a little richer and just a little prettier than Körberg's and I find Carroll's renditions of the song just a little more dramatic and captivating. But truly, just a little. They're both great. David Carroll's performance on the Broadway CD of Chess reveals him to be one of Broadway's most tragic losses to the AIDS epidemic and we must treasure the small legacy left behind. I'm not being sentimental, though; he really is my favorite
In a sense, Anatoly is the easiest of the three leads with this music most firmly planted in the soaring classical realm of Andersson and Ulvaeus's string-laden pop. Anatoly gets perhaps the most beautiful solo in the score, the stirring "Anthem," as well as the soaring duet "You And I" (and its reprise). Perhaps it says something about how muddled a show Chess is that I know two different recordings by heart and have seen two different productions and watched the video of the concert a couple of times and yet I still don't really know the story. (When I emceed a concert version in college, I held the CD liner notes to help me get through explaining the plot to the audience. Full disclosure: I was on ecstasy--or "Molly"--as the kids call it today, but I've been sober now for eight years and I still have no idea what the hell happens in Chess.) All that to say, it's my impression that Anatoly is the more likable of the male leads (Freddie always seems dickish), but then again Anatoly cheats on his wife, so it all depends how you look at it.
In any case, Anatoly is always cast "likable" and the 2008 concert is no exception with Josh Groban taking on the role. For my taste, his voice is a little too peanut butter in his mouth sounding classical style for this material that we've already heard done less froufrou by Körberg and Carroll, but it's an undeniably grand instrument. And again, if Groban was your first, he's probably your favorite. They really are all three good.
So, yes, the other male lead, Freddy ("the American"), is dickish, but that's far from the biggest challenge in playing him well. Freddy has the hardest singing in the score, maybe the hardest male vocals in any show. His big song, "Pity The Child," goes up a high D flat three times, all in the height of passionate angst, which must be given full voice and yet kept consistent with the decidedly pop/rock feel of all Freddy's music--no operatic pyrotechnics allowed! This brings up another hurdle facing all Freddys, which is to somehow essay that rock style without breaking the narrative story arc of the show. Freddy is the one who sings "One Night In Bangkok," and how do you "stop the show" without stopping the show...
Freddy was created on record (and on stage) by Murray Head. Between this role with its hit single and singing Judas on the original concept recording of Jesus Christ Superstar with its hit title song single, Head is the very voice of rock musicals. This star presence on the concept recording of Chess lends the album a cool vintage Brit rock vibe that stays in the air even when he's not singing.
That said, I prefer Philip Casnoff on the Broadway recording. Casnoff's Freddy sounds more human and relatable. And he doesn't sound like he's been sleeping off a hangover in the Abbey Road Studios hallway like Head. Casnoff brings a musical theater professional's clarity of lyrics and an extremely pleasing sound, even on those insane high notes. For a happy medium between the two, there is original Rent star Adam Pascal in the concert. His voice fuses sweet and sour so you get the vibe of a great rock and roll band, but only though the lens of its "pretty boy front man."
But enough about the men. The star of Chess is its Florence. The role was written for and created by the First Lady of the British Musical, Elaine Paige and no one will every sing it as naturally and authentically as she did on the concept album (and in her Olivier nominated performance in the original West End production). After being denied the chance to recreate on Broadway her original West End performances in Evita and Cats, it must have been an unspeakable heartbreak for Paige to watch as Judy Kuhn took on the role of Florence on Broadway.
Broadway fans may not fully grasp the magnitude of this loss considering the failure of Chess on Broadway, but it's important to view this in the context of Paige's stage triumphs. If you think of Elaine as Bernadette, then Chess was her Sunday in the Park with George or Into The Woods--not a forgettable flop.
Still, as with the male leads, the Broadway version is my favorite. In fact, I would venture to say Judy Kuhn's performance on the Broadway cast of Chess is the finest theatre singing ever. Hard stop. Where Elaine sang the role effortlessly, sounding like Elaine Paige kind of just being Elaine Paige, you can hear Judy singing, hear the mechanics as she scales the wide range of styles (and notes) in the score. Judy offers a master class in vocal production, occupying the darkest low chest voice sounds soaring up to the highest lovely ringing belt notes with every imaginable mix in the middle. It's hard to imagine any other woman ever being able to so fulfill all aspects of the taxing demands of this role. Plus, Judy got the wonderful added song "Someone Else's Story" (easily the best Broadway power ballad of the 1980s).
In high school, my friends and I were so obsessed with Judy and "Someone Else's Story," the climactic key change line "I could be in someone else's story..." came to represent just good singing and acting or like musical theatre in general, maybe they way someone in the old days might randomly sing a line of Ethel Merman or like the kids do with Wicked today. As a matter of fact, our obsession led me to lies and deceit. When I was sixteen and in New York for the pre-college summer program at Barnard, I had the pleasure of seeing Ms. Kuhn in She Loves Me at the Roundabout's intimate former Broadway house, the Criterion Center Stage Right. I was't satisfied bragging to the folks back at home about seeing Judy. I had to make up a cock and bull story about going out to Joe Allen and Judy serenading me in the restaurant with "Someone Else's Story." Of course that, never happened and I doubt she ever sang the song at the restaurant to anyone--so it wasn't even someone else's story. It was nobody's (side)!
Back on earth, Florence sings (together with Anatoly's wife, Svetlana) the second most popular song in the score, "I Know Him So Well." While not a hit in the United States, Elaine Paige and concept album co-star Barbara Dickson's single release had some pop chart life in the UK and overseas. It's always a great track no matter who's singing, but the best version is the one Whitney Houston recorded with her mom, Cissy Houston, in 1987. They sing a different note on the climax of the song that really ought to be incorporated moving forward.
Seth Rudetsky used it in his 2002 Actors Fund Concert (where it was gloriously sung by Sutton Foster and Julia Murney), but it was surprisingly not included in the 2008 Albert Hall concert is probably the one and only musical misstep on that entire album.
For the 2008 concert, Idina Menzel claimed her rightful place as heir to the great pop opera lineage of mega musicals by taking on Florence. In some ways, Idina's Florence makes the most sense of all. This is, let us not forget, a pop musical composed by the guys from ABBA.
What was a little hint-a suggestion-of affected pop phrasing in Elaine's recording (and completely absent from Judy Kuhn's) is a dominant force in Idina's rendition. She has all the notes where they're needed and for some of the score's highest sections, she sounds quite nice transitioning into a more common sounding mix voice, but for most of it, she is in full force Idina-ness with all the requisite mannerisms. Elaine Paige sounds like Kelli O'Hara by comparison! It's not my favorite Florence, but for some kids who "grew up on" this one, the others feel boring!
One thing the concert gets most right of all is striking the balance between rock and pop and musical theater. The original recording seems so hellbent on proving it's not a stodgy cast album, but a cool new rock project. Despite all the strings in the London Symphony, sometimes the concept recording relies on more electric and synthetic sounds to stay pop. The Broadway album does the opposite, like they were trying to fit in with "Phantom" and "Les Miz" and wanted to avoid being linked with ABBA at all. (This was, of course, several years before Mamma Mia!)
The 2008 concert corrects all these mistakes. With the London Philharmonic given full permission to soar alongside arrangements that embrace the different styles encompassed by the score, this is a recording that trusts the integrity of the piece as a whole to withstand its own diversity and come out richer. And that's just what it does. My suggestions: make a playlist. And of course, throw out all the CDs!