What in the hell is “pious waffle” and why are we leading with it? It sounds like it could be an overpriced breakfast joint in Mountain View (“try the Plutocratic Pancakes to achieve umami and reach a greater level of ennui…”) BUT in fact it’s a line from the gorgeous, strange, absolutely unique cult musical Chess.
In fact, the Tim Rice libretto contains an unending list of word combinations that strike an astounding balance of lyrical genius and utter pretentious nonsense. A poll of a few of my castmates (sidenote: I’m currently in rehearsals for a concert staging beginning May 28) gave me a few favorites.
So much is laughable, but you can’t help but take your hat off to what comes out of Rice’s twisted lexicon. I imagine he wished he had saved a few of these lyrics for The Lion King:
“We see a game that started by mistake in Hindustan and boosted in the main by what is now Iran become the simplest and most complicated pleasure yet devised for just the kind of mind who would appreciate this well-researched and fascinating yarn.”
“Some are set up in the Somerset Maugham suite.”
“This is a place where your arteries soften, cholesterol hasn’t a chance. From mountain to valley, the natural goodness is fighting pollution’s advance.”
“Listen, you plutocratic throwback, you and your cronies wanna go back home to your Dachas, not the salt mines?”
“And so you're letting me know! For you're the only one who's never suffered anything at all. How you've hated my success. Well I won't crawl, and you can slink back to your pawns and to your tarts. And every poisoned word shows that you never understood. Nothing you have said is revelation. Take my blues as red, my consolation. Finding out that I'm my only obligation. Is there no-one in my life who will not claim the right to steal my work, my name, my success, my fame and my freedom?”
“Clean your teeth with checkered toothpaste, wear our vests. Our kings, and queens on bouncing breasts. You could even buy a set, and learn to play. We don't mind, we'll sell you something anyway.
“As you watch yourself caring about a minor sporting triumph, sharing your win with esoterics, paranoids, hysterics who don't pay any attention to what goes on around them. They leave the ones they love the way they found them. A normal person must dismiss you with disgust and weep for those who trusted you.”
“What a load of whingeing peasants! Thinking they can win, they can't! What an exhibition of self-delusion. This one's a forgone conclusion.”
“No, I prefer, and I’m sure you concur, to see who’s ahead psychologically. For example, we have on tap and inscrutable chap, whose thoughts never stray from the state of the play.
And everyone’s favorite! Sing along please, in one breath:
“How sad to see what used to be a model of decorum and tranquility become like any other sport, a battleground for rival ideologies to slug it out with glee.”
You get the point. Let’s re-focus. I first became enamored of the show when a friend lent me the original Broadway cast album in my sophomore year of high school. Of course, as is true of all teenage boys, I knew “Anthem” from my collection of Anthony Warlow and Michael Ball solo album. But hearing that full score, for whatever reason, turned the music into part of my DNA… even though I had no idea what the story was doing or who these people were singing about.
Over the years I came to learn about the show’s history, attempt at a coherent story and wish for a potential future life. I’ve seen it staged live about 5 times. The most memorable was a wonderful production at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA, with direction by the great Eric Schaeffer and a cast led by Euan Morton, Jill Paice and Jeremy Kushnier. This was the most concise, heartfelt, gorgeous presentation I have seen to this day.
That being said, even under the best of circumstances, anyone who knows the piece will tell you that the plot is a mess. I think my favorite element of the story is that almost all of the characters are extremely unpleasant people. Even while “in love,” Anatoly and Florence don’t seem to be enjoying themselves on any level. And Molokov is apparently a lot of fun when he drinks.
Also fun is the fact that (spoiler alert), the story ends badly for everyone except Walter and Molokov. You might see it as a positive ending for Freddie, but I I think Freddie will never be truly happy due to childhood traumas so deep that he is fated to sing “Pity the Child” eight nights a week.
Wikipedia it if you need the full rundown, but it’s a lot.
And you’ll also learn that Tim Rice originally planned to write the piece with Andrew Lloyd Webber, but the latter was busy with Cats at the time, so Rice told the ABBA guys, “I’ll take a chance on you.” (sorry)
What we seem to have ended up with is a score that is thrilling, complicated and way too much fun… coupled with a story that, after 30 years of revisions, has never been fixed. Well, as some lady in another musical said, “Ya gotta take the rough with the smoothe!”
Cut to today. I un-retired from the stage after 13 years with the recent CMTSJ production of Sweeney Todd and, a few days later, went directly into one of five rehearsals for South Bay Musical Theatre’s concert staging of Chess - because clearly I’m a masochist and complete fucking idiot.
This has been a whirlwind experience, allowing me to fully immerse myself in the single musical score I am most addicted to. I literally play the Groban/Ellis/Bedella/Pascal concert in the background most nights of the week. In this time, I’ve been forced to ask myself just what it is about this show that is so appealing, and what is so problematic.
As we approach tech and our dress rehearsal, I spoke to two of the creatives behind this production: Director/Narrator Walter Mayes and Vocal Director Anita Carey. Both are true icons of the local scene, with dozens and dozens of credits under their belts.
Mayes is a true force of nature, a legendary figure in the Bay Area, whose energy and presence can’t help but sweep you up (as I learned when he staged the concert in the course of an hour). Carey brings an overall musical brilliance and has worked around the clock to master the pinpoint precision needed for the show’s ridiculously complicated tempos, harmonies and phrasing choices.
In this discussion, we talk about the piece, our imminent 2-nights-only presentation of the show and why Chess is like “your hot mess of an old college roommate.” (Let’s call her Joyce).
Starting off, how did you first get involved in theatre and was there a specific moment in your life where you knew it would be a lifelong passion and/or career?
Mayes: Fifth grade. My teacher announced we'd be doing A Christmas Carol. I went home and memorized the part of Scrooge. Got the part. There was no looking back. I was always doing theatre. From the time I was 13 to the time I was 30, I never went longer than 6 weeks without working on at least one show. But I never wanted to be a professional actor, because, being 6', 8", I knew I'd be relegated to a lifetime of threatening hulk and country bumpkin parts. I am a professional storyteller and traveled the world as a solo performer for much of the past 30 years, causing a 21 year break from doing theatre performances. I returned to the stage as Cervantes/Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha in 2008 and have been working nonstop since.
Carey: I got into theatre freshman year in college when I was recruited by a fellow freshman who heard me play piano. I had only ever played classical music before, so diving into the Gershwins’ Of Thee I Sing was definitely uncharted territory. It was a really fun experience, but my second show was what made me think that I’d like to keep doing musical theatre. I played piano for The Fantasticks, a story about a boy and a girl, their fathers, a wall separating their homes and some actors. The book contains contains my favorite stage direction of all time (“Simply, very simply”) and the music is unexpectedly gorgeous.
I was not consciously aware that theatre had become my lifelong passion until I realized a few years ago that theatre is the only place where I feel completely safe, where I can be like a child and just express joy. Most of the time, being an adult means being socially acceptable (not that people are not socially acceptable in the theatre!) and needing to hold back. Theatre is where I can exhale
What is your previous experience with Chess? Have you worked on the show? Seen it staged? Been a fan of particular recordings?
Mayes: I have seen it a couple of times. I own three recordings of it but have never been a fanatic about the show. I like the Groban/Menzel/Pascal version the best.
Carey: I started with the British recording of Chess and fell in love with the sweeping melodies. Then I discovered “Someone Else’s Story” in the American recording. I was smitten by the music - once it grabs you, it does not let you go.
The book is a different story. I read the liner notes and did not understand it. I read the script and did not understand it. I saw a San Jose Children’s Musical Theatre production and did not understand it. However, the music kept bringing me back.
This is one of my bucket list shows, so when I heard that SBMT was doing it, I emailed Howard Miller (the producer) immediately and begged to apply as vocal director. I would have been happy, though, doing any minuscule tasks just to be a part of this show.
Tell me a little more about SBMT and what the Concert Series is. How did you come to select CHESS as the latest installment, and how do the Concerts differ from the fully-staged SBMT offerings?
Mayes: These were conceived for a reason that doesn't exist any longer, hence the fact that we are not doing one next season: We paid a flat fee to rent the theatre for the run of the show and had these open dates where we could do a low cost performance. The City of Saratoga now charges us by the hour. Brad Handshy has done a very successful series of Broadway By the Decade concerts (which will continue next season), and the idea for our original forays was to organize them around a particular composer; Jerry Herman, Leonard Bernstein, Rodgers & Hart.
They sold out, cost very little, and added a nice chunk of change to the bottom line each season. Then we added things like Forbidden Broadway and Always, Patsy Cline to the mix, requiring more in the nature of costumes and staging than we had previously done in these settings, and this posed a strain on everyone's resources, budget, and time.
Chess was chosen because there is no way we would want or be able to do a full production of the show, yet singers are always badgering us to do it because they love the score so much. So we agreed to do a full concert version with orchestra... and we will see how well we pull this off as we consider whether or not we will include another concert show for our 2018/19 season.
To anyone familiar with the show, it's no secret that Chess is a peculiar animal. The book/story are all over the place, and the music is constantly being re-written. To those who are fans of the show, what might they expect from this production? Does it adhere to a particular version? Is it a bit of a hybrid? What makes this Chess unique?
Carey: I bow down to Walter’s genius for the staging of this show. Most theatre companies now produce Chess in concert because no one version makes sense. We are definitely doing a hybrid production! This SBMT version pulls from the British, American, and some other score whose origin I don’t know. Music director Asa Stern found the extra sheet music.
Walter has assigned a different singer for each song, so that a character, Anatoly, for example, would be sung by about 10 singers. This is a bit confusing, but in Walter’s description, it’s no more confusing than a regularly-staged production!
One of my contributions is that we are doing both the British and American versions of “You and I,” the number where the married chess master and his mistress express their wrong love for each other. The American version adds in the chess master’s wife, thus layering a gut-wrenching poignancy to an already sad situation. By having both versions, we will show the audience an example of why this show keeps being rewritten as well as why it is so addictive.
Mayes: It isn't Chess; it's Chess in Concert! We have a full orchestra and a gorgeous choral ensemble of 25 voices who will sing all the good songs (we did some editing) from both the UK and US productions, no one person playing any single role, and in full concert style--holding their books and using music stands.
We leave out the script except where absolutely necessary and rely on a narration I am writing to sew the story together and poke a little fun at the, as you say, "peculiar animal" it is.
To anyone not familiar with the show, what is it about this piece that makes it so intoxicating and beloved? From a musical standpoint, what is it in this score that has created such a solid cult following?
Mayes: I defer to Anita, our vocal director, on this question, as I do not find the show intoxicating, nor do I love it.
Carey: This show has some of the most glorious music ever written in Western history. It is sweeping, it is haunting, it is memorable. It is also flawed. And like your hot mess of an old college roommate who is really pretty great, you love her and you keep hoping that she gets her act together.
We know the intent, we pray for the successful execution, and we love the songs even when they miss.
For example, “Anthem” is about the Soviet chess master’s love for his country. Its lyrics include this rhapsodic verse:
How can I leave her?
Where would I start?
Let man’s petty nations tear themselves apart.
My land’s only borders lie around my heart.
And right before that is the very pedestrian:
You ask me why I love her
Through wars, death, and despair?
She is the constant,
We who don’t care.
That last line is awkward; what does “we who don’t care” mean? We know the intended meaning is that she (the mother country) will always be there even if we (I) don’t care, but surely there are four better words to choose?
There is also “I Know Him So Well”, which has been covered by many pop artists including Whitney Houston, although I don’t like any of the covers. In this instance, there is no improving on the original.
And then of course there is “One Night in Bangkok” that conjures up the not-so-hidden greasy world beneath the oh-so-civilized chess championships. What a song of fantastical contrasts!
The show has always amazed me with its complexity and bizarre ability to tug at the heartstrings unexpectedly. Do you have any particular moments in the piece that really hit you on a musical, lyrical, emotional, political, dramatic or otherwise visceral level?
Mayes: Well, as I get to do the Act One closer, "Anthem," I can speak to the enormous power the song has--it moves me every time I sing it. The show is a kind of triumph of the 80s pop style adapted to Broadway, and the iconic numbers ("I Know Him So Well," "Heaven Help My Heart," "Nobody's Side," and "One Night in Bangkok") do what they do better than most relics from the 80s.
I am quite partial to "A Model of Decorum and Tranquility," a superb quartet, and some of the choral writing is great fun. But I find the politics of the story deeply confused and think the women come off far better than the men, both dramatically as well musically.
Freddie is so unpleasant as a character that it takes an actor of great charisma to make the role work, and I think the bottom falls out of Anatoly halfway through the second act, leaving him without a moral center.
There are so many moments that take my breath away. Here are three.
(1) The realization in “You and I”:
There will be lies.
(2) Anatoly on the price of fame:
Is there no one in my life
Who will not claim
The right to steal
My work, my name,
My success, my fame,
And my freedom?
(3) Florence’s heartbreak in “Someone Else’s Story”:
Will he miss me if I go?
Looking at the attempt at a plot... given what sentiments might have been in mind when this was written... do you feel that the story of these characters and countries holds a particular resonance in today's political climate?
Mayes: No, and I wouldn't even try to rewrite the show one more time to address today's politics; it's been tried and tried, each time coming off worse than the previous attempt. The story is a historical relic of a bygone era and should be treated as such. If audience members want to make connections, that is their right, however.
Carey: The archetype of two evenly matched adversaries is identifiable to most audiences, so the story is relevant in that sense. However, I think that this book needs a little bit more focus to to be able to hold resonance; I feel it is somewhat anachronistic in its current form. Perhaps the story can be about two intelligent adversaries informed by Cold War tensions instead of two stereotypical opponents who do not understand the other’s motives.
The show also depicts the commercial, merchandising and media aspects surrounding the events, in that very British 1980s way of seeing things. Do you feel it was perhaps ahead of its time or "prophetic" in its portrayal of the sensationalist media and how it impacts the real world?
Mayes: Yes. It is one of the truly clever things about the story
Carey: Oh yes, absolutely! I’m not sure that the authors intended to be prophetic, but Chess is brilliant in using the electronic sensationalist media as a foil to the elite competition world. As much as I hate thinking it, Chess probably was one of the paving stones on the way to today’s real housewives.
Looking forward, this is a piece which the creators have admitted, they've been trying to get right for 30 years. Do you see a future vision for the show, and is there an audience for it?
Mayes: I do not. All audiences want is to hear the songs. I'm even betting many of the people who claim to love the show really only love a handful of musical numbers.
Carey: I have spent years trying to think of how this book can be improved and it’s really, really hard! I do hope the creators try again - there really is a good story in there that wants to come out. However, the audience will be there whether the story is rewritten or not. Good music wants to be heard. Even if this show will forever be performed in concert, it will keep being performed.
Finally, tell me about how this whirlwind process has been for you personally. All said, this is a cast of nearly 30, offering this score in a matter of 5 rehearsals. No small feat! Once this is all said and done, any projects on the horizon?
Mayes: We cast well, and the level of musicianship is quite high, so the concert will come together in the time allotted and be well worth attending--the individual performances are so good and they gave me a chance to work with a group of performers who are half new to me and half beloved theatre colleagues
It will be hard but worth it, cause how many times do you get to do Chess? And after this, my fifth show of this year, so far, I will be taking time off until I being rehearsals for my production of Peter and the Starcatcher in November.
Carey: There were originally six rehearsals and that would definitely have been enough because I have a fantastic cast. My singers are all experienced musicians who understand the intent of the song, the sound I am striving for, and able to get to a professional level quickly. I felt comfortable enough to cancel one of the rehearsals to attend the March for Science in Washington, D.C. (I had to throw that in). I knew that my singers would be able to handle the challenge to put on a great show, even if we had to scramble a bit.
Our vocal rehearsals have been five-to-six-hour long exhilarating marathon sessions. My favorite part of vocal direction is ensemble work and to have the luxury of immersing myself in this glorious music with such good singers must mean I am being rewarded for doing something good in a previous life!
My next show is playing keyboards in Avenue Q. I always love alternating between vocal directing and playing in the pit. Vocal directing is the big picture, I get to shape the sound of a show, I fix enunciation, I care about the story arc, I worry about staging… I get to watch! Playing in a pit means I am in my little well, responsible for only my notes. Each has its own kind of challenge and I love both.
South Bay Musical Theatre’s staging of Chess in Concert plays May 28 and June 3 at the Saratoga Civic Center. Tickets and info can be found at www.southbaymt.com. Tickets are going fast, and any remaining seats may be had at a $10 discount by using the code “PAWN” at checkout.
Matt Blank is an arts journalist, educator, designer, and lecturer. He most recently spent a decade on the editorial team for Playbill.com and as Editor-in-Chief of PlaybillArts.com, publishing over 7,000 articles and covering five Tony Award ceremonies. Follow him on Twitter @MattBlankPlease and Instagram @brdwymatt.