Monday, May 26, 2014

Chess: The Original Broadway Cast Recording

My original exposure to the Tim Rice, Björn Ulvaeus & Benny Andersson musical called "Chess" was pretty much like everyone else that listened to pop music of the 1980's, Murray Head's hit single One Night In Bangkok. That song got serious airplay on both radio and MTV. During my time in New York in 1992, I befriended many aspiring actors and it seemed that every tenor I knew had a similar repertoire of "audition" songs, each including The Music of the Night and a song called Anthem. I had never heard the song Anthem and my curiosity got the best of me, I asked one of my friends about it and he played and sang along to Tommy Korberg's rendition on the original concept album. He made a copy of his cassette on a Realistic blank tape from Radio Shack for me, which my Panasonic branded "walkman" ate within a few days, I hated those damn Radio Shack cassettes since the 80's.

Rather than ask him for another copy, I headed the Sam Goody in A&S Plaza to buy my own copy. Sam Goody wasn't my favorite record store, Tower was, but something about the pink glow of neon made it an appealing store for me to shop in...Yes I'm a complex weirdo.

I loved A&S Plaza because it was on the same location as the famed "Gimbels" and it was a 13 floor shopping mall that took about 10 minutes to get to the top no matter if you took the escalator or elevator. It's now called Manhattan Mall and the shops are only on the first few floors.

So, I'm standing in Sam Goody, staring at the wall of cassettes in the cast recording/soundtrack section. I see two recordings of Chess, one with a white cover and the other with a black cover.

I wasn't sure which recording I had previously had so I took a stab in the dark and bought the Original Broadway Cast recording. I bought knowing it was the same show and there really couldn't be much of a difference. The moment I popped it into my walkman and pushed play, I noticed differences including the Sound of Music-like opening called "Merano" was replaced with a suspensful and brooding overture entitled "Prologue" followed by the story of Chess. The voices were MUCH more theatrical than the black album also but being a fan of musical theatre, nothing that would displace my overall listening enjoyment.

It's impossible to not compare the black and white albums, as each have their own strengths and weaknesses. The Original Broadway Cast Recording is not exactly a disappointment but I was disappointed I had chosen the wrong recording by mistake. A few days later, I went back to Sam Goody to purchase the black cover recording.

During the time I was in NYC, I spent many of the daytime hours hanging out in Central Park. I found that sleeping in the park while "laying out in the sun" was less obvious than trying to sleep on a park bench on the mornings when a trick would kick me out of his apartment because he had to go to work or was tired with my "expensive" company. With my sunglasses and headphones on, I would fall asleep on my huge beach towel, listening to show music...This was until it got cold and as my tan lightened, the bags under my eyes darkened. Since I had the Original Broadway Cast Recording of Chess, I might as well listen to it and try to enjoy it. As I mentioned, the voices were theatrical and less pop as the black album. The black album contained a mix of musical theater actors that were also pop singers in their own rights whereas the Broadway cast recording were all actors. Being that this was a cast recording made to preserve the original Broadway production, accents were utilized by some of the actors, mainly the actors portraying the Hungarian and Russian characters. If you are listening to the songs on this recording as one would a pop album, this would be distracting. The fact they use accents for the characters is helpful as it keeps the differences between the actors distinct. Judy Kuhn's Florence is drastically different than the portrayal of Florence by Elaine Paige. Elaine's voice is "pretty" and more of a pop voice where as Judy's is 100% theatre. The age difference between Elaine and Judy are obvious also. With this production, the role of Florence got a new song with Someone Else's Story. Judy Kuhn certainly shines and belts this out to her fullest potential. Since this production, the song has occasionally been shifted over to the character of Svetlana. I have an issue with many cast recordings in regards to following storylines between the musical pieces but this recording's storyline is obvious. There's no reason to read the synopsis to follow what's supposed to be going on throughout the show as it follows the happenings very well.

There are a few negatives with this recording. The orchestrations are simplified and not as lush, many numbers that contained heavy use of bass and guitars on the black album were now synthesized. Many of the tempos have been tampered with also, not for the better. One Night In Bangkok, the most famous song of the show, has been sped up and it's tempo sounds incredibly rushed. Philip Casnoff's voice also comes across as too condescending and cocky throughout the scene, yes the character is cocky but this is a song that was already iconic by this point and re-inventing it's interpretation was not a necessity. Had the producers released this version of One Night In Bangkok as a single, it would have most likely bombed. On the other end of the scale, the voice of Svetlana, sang by Marcia Mitzman is possibly the best of everyone featured on this recording, it's a shame that she's only heard on only a few of the musical numbers.

With all that said, would I buy this recording again? Yes and No. I now own it on CD because of the fact that I am a fan of the show as a whole and I am a completest. The recording I most recommend to anyone curious about Chess is the 1994 Gothenburg Concert entitled Chess In Concert featuring Anders Glenmark, Tommy Korberg and Karin Glenmark. If you are interested in purchasing the other two recordings of Chess I mention, please use the following links.


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