I’ve mentioned before that I don’t particularly like musicals. I’m pretty good at the willing suspension of disbelief required for plays/movies/television/Fox News, but I find my ability to accept the ridiculous and sublime tested when people keep bursting into song for no apparent reason. Really. This grave and great moment just inspired you to make up a soaring anthem complete with perfectly choreographed dancing? Even if the music is absolutely brilliant, I find myself unable to put up with the mental acrobatics required to accept all the singing and dancing in an otherwise ordinary story.
That said, there’s a few musicals that I happily put up with, although in most cases it’s for the music more than anything else. As a senior in high school, I got the opportunity to spend a month in Europe. Two teachers from our school organized an annual senior trip to the Old World, including hotels, transportation, tickets to attractions, and most meals. It was an incredible deal that I’m pretty sure doesn’t exist anymore. I am eternally grateful to my parents for doing what was necessary to send me on this trip, and for the fact that I missed an entire quarter to mononucleosis for the chance. (I was a student of one of the organizing teachers, and I think he felt bad for me, so he made sure we knew there were still seats available.) When we were in London, one night was reserved for a show in the Theater District. We had tickets to Chess.
Chess is (very) loosely based on the matches between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky for the world chess championship. It’s a Cold War love triangle (or quadrangle, if you include the Russian’s wife) between The American, The Russian, and Florence. There are lots of references to what was then-current politics, but which have made it rather dated and stale today. It was originally released as an album in 1984, which partially financed the stage production. Murray Head (older brother of Buffy alum Anthony Stewart Head) was the original American, and had a hit single with “One Night in Bangkok” (that song opens the second act, and really makes a lot more sense when taken in context of the show). The music for Chess was by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus from ABBA, with lyrics by the magnificently sardonic Tim Rice. The show was okay–not great, not horrible. But the music was terrific.
My favorite has always been this number. It’s the penultimate number between Florence and The American. He’s aggressive and abrasive, and she’s his long-suffering girlfriend and assistant. He’s trying to justify his childish behavior at the match, and Florence is coming to the realization that he’s self destructing and she’s falling in love with the Russian.
I’ve always identified with Florence’s anger in this tune. She’s so lost and alone, trying to figure out which side of the equation she’s on, knowing deep inside that the only person who’s ever going to look out for her is herself. “Better learn to go it alone, recognize you’re out on your own. Nobody’s on nobody’s side.” Elaine Paige really knocks this one out of the park. It’s a showcase for any female singer, really, one of those numbers you use as an audition piece. It’s a showstopper, and it stopped me in my metaphorical tracks. It’s angry, but it’s also a declaration of independence: I’m not on your side because you’re not on mine. I’m going to look out for myself for a change.
Florence’s fate at the end of the show is uncertain. The Russian leaves her to return to his life and family in the Soviet Union, but the American is still waiting in the wings (literally in the production I saw; he’s walking out on stage toward a solitary Florence as the lights fall). But if she goes back to the American, he’s going to find out she’s not the same. She’s willing to stand up for herself and what she believes. Hmm, I’m starting to think this show might not be as dated as it looks.