TALKING CHESS: BEHIND THE GREASEPAINT WITH THE CAST OF CHESS

After a most successful return to our home at the Havre de Grace Opera House, we are excited to begin our second season back with equally amazing plans for the new season. To welcome you back to year two of this blog, BEHIND THE GREASEPAINT, we bring the next edition of one of our more anticipated features as we sit down with the stellar leads of our critically and artistically acclaimed new  hit production of the new London concert version of Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeuss, and Tim Rices masterpiece CHESS. This legendary show, which is the last cast album to give us a top 40 radio hit, Murray Head’s “One Night in Bangkok”, has had a, pardon the pun, checkered past, and the creators have continued to rethink it and evolve it through countless editions, most recently this new version which ironically goes back to the original cast album for inspiration. After having the honor to direct my first original play here last season, Without a Clue, I am thrilled to continue my apparent legacy of boardgame productions directing this landmark show with music direction by R. Christopher Rose and Stephanie Carlock Cvach, and choreography by Bambi Johnson, I am so proud to welcome stars Barbara Hartzell, Shawn Doyle, Rob Tucker, and Eileen Aubele for the third interview in this series of insights into our artists behind this amazing music.

Could you briefly tell us a little bit about yourselves, your past Tidewater credits, and some of your other favorite roles? Who here have you worked with before?

SHAWN: This is my first venture at Tidewater. I have been performing in the Baltimore area for almost 30 years. I have also performed on tour, in California, NYC, Philadelphia and Delaware. I’ve been fortunate to play a lot of great roles–Che, Jeckyl & Hyde, Stine, Jasper, Leading Player, Raoul, Joseph, Judas, and others

BARBARA:  I have done a handful of shows at Tidewater over the years, most recently, Abigail Adams in 1776. I spent the bulk of my early theatre career in the DC/Northern Virginia area, and started to audition closer to home once I got married and had children. I have been blessed to have played my big bucket list roles; Eliza (My Fair Lady), Cinderella and The Baker’s Wife (Into the Woods), Mother (Ragtime), Emma (Jekyll & Hyde), Lizzie and Pam (Baby), Amalia (She Loves Me), Maria (The Sound of Music), and Mary Poppins, to name a few. I have also been blessed to work with most of this talented cast of CHESS before.

ROB: I’m just answering to my 9th year residing in Maryland. I teach theater at Edgewood High School, and have perform several favorite roles. These include Franklin Shepard, Che, Pirelli, Barrett, Andrews, Mungojerrie, Fabrizio. I’m attracted often to musically or vocally challenging to, and am a post-sondheimian at heart. At Tidewater I’ve been northern soldier Bill in The Civil War,  Marius in Les Mis, Prince Herbert, the historian, the minstrel, and Not Dead Fred in Spamalot, and Princeton in Avenue Q,

EILEEN:  I lived in NYC for 10 years. During that time, I was fortunate to do the first national tour of Master Class with Faye Dunaway and study acting and voice with some pretty amazing people. I was very active years ago in Baltimore theatre but more recently I’ve worked at local theatres–Tidewater, DCT, Cockpit and Vags.  I have worked with Rob before here at Tidewater in Avenue Q (Lucy); Barb and I have not worked together in many years but we did shows in HIGH SCHOOL together!  I’m super excited to be working with Shawn..First time! I’m a mom of 3 and I do real estate with my husband.

BTGP: During a slow point of the season, I would LOVE to sit down with you and do a separate interview on those Faye Dunaway years. Preferably over a glass of wine or four.  I bet there are some stories there! But wow, those are some impressive credits to be gracing the Tidewater stage.

All these characters are, to say the very least, at least a little flawed to downright unlikable. Tell us who you play, and a little about them. Be their advocate and explain what makes them sympathetic to you?

BARBARA:  I play Florence, Freddie’s chess second (and girlfriend for 7 years), and then Anatoly’s girlfriend and chess second (after an ugly break-up with Freddie). Florence was ripped away from her father when she was 5 years old. Her last memories of him were him instilling a love of the game of chess in her. Her love for her father and the loss of having him in her life is truly what drives every choice she makes. She is passionate about chess because it makes her still feel, in some way, connected to her father and she yearns for the love and acceptance of a man because of the void losing him left in her life. At the same time, even when she does find that love, she is constantly fearful of losing it again. That is why she makes some monumental poor choices; her fear of losing love.

BTGP: that explains a lot. Florence has a magazine rack full of daddy issues. Accounts for her dreadful decisions about the men in her life.

SHAWN: I play Anatoly, the Russian Grand Master. He is someone that is searching, like all of us I guess. He is struggling with the concepts of free choice, love and romance, winning, sacrifice, manipulation. I think his heart is absolutely in the right place, but he doesn’t like being told what to do. He thinks his stature as a grand master should give him certain rights, etc. In the end, he is just another person being used.

BTGP: Dude, aren’t we all….

ROB:   I find it very difficult to sympathize with Freddie, the character I play. Freddy operates from a defensive state. He doesn’t trust anyone, especially women, as his primary role models failed Freddie, who has amazing Chess skills but lacks the emotional resiliency to bypass his origins. It’s terribly frightening to embody that kind of brain. Toward the end he almost transcends it all, singing “…Pity the child with no such weapons; no defense, no escape from the ties that bind.”. He recognizes his own inability to move beyond his childhood experiences, but it just about makes it toward the end.

BTGP: I’ll probably get more into this later, but I must add that you are the only person to ever embody the role who has ever made him remotely sympathetic for me. That’s an accomplishment.

EILEEN:  Svetlana is a pawn in this situation.  I think she loves Anatoly but knows that he doesn’t love her anymore.  She is forced to confront him to ask him to give up his passion…lose on purpose and come back to Russia.  I don’t believe she thinks he will do any of it and is in a no win situation. She does what is asked of her because of her children and maybe the small hope that he will come back of his own volition.

BTGP: And the fact that in 1980s cold war Russia, if she can’t accomplish her mission assigned her, getting him home, her accustomed lifestyle and maybe even her very life are at stake.

This show has its own fascinating history. Tell us about any history you have with this iconic show, as a performer, audience member, fan, or otherwise? 

EILEEN:  I love this show and the music so very much. I wore out my cassette tape back when it first came out.  It was exciting to me because it was the first time I was listening to a show that had complicated “real world” issues; the music is awesome and I think I have sung every single song for auditions!

SHAWN:  I fell in love with CHESS  like most everyone. I heard the score and just couldn’t stop listening. It came out as rock musicals were just really getting mature and accepted. I saw the NY version at the prestigious Papermill Playhouse. It was directed by THE Rob Marshall. I then got to do the show at Towson for the Maryland Arts Festival, the first production in the area. It was directed by Rob’s sister, the now famous Kathleen Marshall. It was her first show as a director I think. That was 1993. I then had the opportunity to do the show in Catonsville. And now this production.

BTGP: The Towson production was the only one I’d had the opportunity to see before directing it, because no one does it. It was the most impressive local non-union production I’d ever seen at the time. Still didn’t make me understand the story any better at the time, but I loved it.

BARBARA: I honestly don’t remember NOT having the soundtrack of the NY version of CHESS Florence has a lot of angst, so it was always my go to soundtrack to sing in the car when I was having a bad day! The year that Maryland Arts did it, I had 2 friends doing other productions of CHESS; both in Northern Virginia. It was the year of CHESS.

BTGP:  Ironically, it was the Mamma Mia of 1993.

BARBARA: I saw both productions, and both were very different, but one version in particular was very relatable and I knew that I wanted to be a part of the show one day. Never, in my wildest dreams, did I think it would be as Florence!

BTGP: first time around, you originally auditioned the first time around for Svetlana, didn’t you? Lesson, aim higher.

ROB:   I discovered the music to chess late in high school. I would call this my primary musical exploration period. Freddie had been a part that I had wanted to play for a very long time. I got that opportunity with Winters Lane 9 years ago alongside this very same core cast. I’m happy to be returning to it today.

BTGP: Trust me, none of you are as happy the three of you returned as I am. I had the honor of directing Barbara, Shawn, and Rob in the Winters Lane production ten years ago in Catonsville, and am ecstatic that you’re back to build off for round two.

Shawn, Barbara, and Rob, how have your various experiences in these roles compared to each other? Has anything changed your perception of your characters over time or life experience?

SHAWN: The shows are different, certainly, the chemistry between Barb, Rob and myself feels the same if not more. The biggest difference is the story line the story arc.

ROB:  The primary difference from last time to now is that Freddie does not remain a pawn in the greater story. He evolves toward the end.

BTGP: Yes, Freddie in particular has an almost entirely different second act. He’s no longer the player but sits on the outside, and he does grow and redeem himself a little.

BARBARA:  The plot is quite different in this version than the one we did 10 years ago. I may be in the minority here, but I actually prefer a lot of the elements of that version. Little bits of dialogue that made the audience aware of the fact that Florence and Freddie were a couple (all be it dysfunctional), until Walter came in and became the puppet master. Or that Anatoly and Florence talk and realize that their situations with Freddie/Walter and Svetlana/Molokov respectively are similar which is surprising to each of them and draws them to one another, finally having someone who understands them which gives some credit to their rapid romance. And then there are the elements of the script that put the heart into Florence’s relationship with the father she hardly knew. I think that Anatoly and Florence are better people in the old version, which makes that ending all the more tragic.

The music in this show is epic. What is your favorite song you get to sing, and your favorite song sung by another cast member?

SHAWN:  My favorite song to sing is “Anthem”. My favorite song by other character is “Pity the Child”.

BARBARA: It is a glorious score. I don’t think I can pick just one. For various reasons in my own life, I feel very connected to “Someone Else’s Story,” so I guess that would be the frontrunner. It’s, by far, never been my favorite song in the show, but Rob’s version of “Pity the Child” is epic, so that is one that I love to hear every night.

ROB: Easy. “Pity the Child” is the favorite song I get to sing. And my favorite song sung by another person in this show is Anthem. That song is spellbinding.

EILEEN:  Hmmm, tough one…My favorite song is “Heaven Help my Heart”. And Barb sings it so beautifully. I love listening to her backstage. She nails it! The guys knock it out of the park too with “Pity the Child”–Rob’s acting is beautiful and touching and that voice!–and “Anthem”–Shawn is so powerful, it gives me chills.

BTGP: I have to weigh in here too as a lifelong fan of the show AND as your director. First off, I want to say that I have never particularly liked “Pity the Child”. I’ve always thought it was too much, too over the top, too unlikable a character to care about for all that. Until I first heard Rob sing it. I think Rob is the only person I’ve ever heard who truly understands how to make Freddie sympathetic, then throw that performance on top and it is the rock star moment of the show. And you’re even stronger this time. I take my hat off to you. And I’ve said in other interviews that Shawn’s “Anthem”, as a director one of the most overdone, usually badly, songs to cross my audition table, and in your hands it is breathtaking. Barbara, your take on “Nobody’s Side” is a pet favorite because I love when every audience who has pigeon holed you into the golden age classic soprano they know you as gasps when they hear this different side of you that I’ve known you can do all along. It gives me such a warm feeling. I’m so proud of you at that moment. But my favorite moment in the show amongst all this amazing music is Barbara and Eileen’s moving duet of “I Know Him So Well”. You both have such powerful voices and temper them so to blend perfectly, swell perfectly, and crescendo perfectly to make this understated moment a highlight of a very powerful show full of star moments by everyone. Your performances are all something that should not be missed.

We are the first in the region to do the newly released London concert version, as opposed to the old NY musical. Tell us what you know about the differences in these or other in-between versions of the show, and why you think the composers made what changes they did over the years?

SHAWN: There a number of differences but they all have to do with the book, the story. I don’t think the book ever really came together, but everyone seems to want to figure it out. Now it seems to be a little scattered.

BARBARA: I have talked quite a bit about the plot differences in the London concert version and the NY version. I think that the composers have heard over and over again about how Chess has a glorious score, but a flawed book, so they stopped trying to fix the book and just added more “dialogue” type musical sequences in hopes that people would stop trying to pick apart the plot. I think that’s a shame because it made the plot even more difficult to follow and sucked the heart out of some of the characters.

BTGP: For those readers who don’t have the script, to support your case, Tim Rice personally has included a letter to all productions to follow that basically says, “Hey, we’ve been trying to fix this for over 30 years and it’s become pretty obvious that we don’t have any idea what we’re doing. So change what you want, cut what you want—we even suggest cutting this and that, just please don’t add anything that isn’t in one of the old versions —because you probably know more than we do.” That is one of the funniest—and most honest—things I’ve ever heard an artist say, particularly one as huge as Rice. I still laugh when I read it.

ROB: I understand that the main function of these characters are as metaphor. I always viewed Freddy as a metaphor for McCarthyism and the Red Scare. He is an amalgam of xenophobic obsessions. I believe it because he more or less represents a collective idea; it becomes difficult to really truly flesh him out. I think this is a lot of the problems that the writers run into when they try to create a story for chess. It’s driven by the metaphor they want each character to represent, rather than the goal of presenting well built and fully characterized human beings. I think this is the best version so far.

BTGP: I too, for artistic reasons think this one is the best out there. I see what Barbara is saying, but some of those scenes were just ridiculously long to even laughable. Remember the scene in NY where there’s a whole thing about spies in the Cathedral just so she can be in church to sing “Heaven Help My Heart”? Or the best, the whole silly interview segment with Freddie (who is still a player in that version throughout), where it all goes badly warming up to the question “Tell us about your childhood, Freddie?”, which segues right into “When I was 9, I learned survival……” [the first line of “Pity the Child”]. I cringed every time I even read that scene. So to get rid of all those unnecessary scenes, and hence the accompanying pointless sets and costumes and focus on the concert nature of the show, flowing into and out of songs like on the LP, that’s what we all want in the end. And it also returns all the old wonderful music they cut to make room for those stupid scenes. Actually, I think I need to contact the ABBA guys and tell than that I actually have all the answers to their questions about how to fix their show permanently, especially after talking to you guys.

Which brings up this point. Not many people know that the show’s composers, Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, are better known as the creative half of ABBA. Knowing that, do you see any parallels between their work here and their iconic work with that legendary group?

SHAWN:  I wasn’t necessarily an ABBA fan when I first heard the show. I knew about ABBA of course. So I really looked at the composers from this perspective first, then associated them with ABBA.

BARBARA:  The biggest similarity I see with the CHESS score and other ABBA music has to be the echos of “Partner” and “Honey” in the Deal. It is done in classic Abba style.

BTGP: I believe that, especially the “Honey (Honey)” has to be a salute. I can’t hear it without making that association.

ROB:  All I know is that no one can write a ballad like these guys.

BTGP: Couldn’t be said better. I’ve always maintained they were the most underrated composers in modern musical history. Even the ABBA stuff that gets branded as bubblegum is insanely complex in musical layering, harmonies up to 18 parts, and small stories fleshed out in most all their lyrics, which are in their second language. CHESS shows how accomplished they really are in virtually any style of music. This show has elements of pop, rock, neoclassical, chorale, rap, and even Russian folk music—all done beautifully with no weak spots. Ulvaeus and Andersson rule. I, the ultimate ABBA fanboy, can hear elements of their pop work in so many of the backup vocals to songs like “Where I Want to Be” and “Nobody’s Side”. And if they had stayed together, there is no doubt that they would have had Anafrid and Agnetha tear up “I Know Him So Well”. Maybe on the new reunion tour!!

One of the most striking songs in this wonderful score is “Someone Else’s Story”, a lament to bad choices and the advice one would give their former selves. What advice would you like to give your character to give them any chance at happiness?

SHAWN: Probably to think through all of the moves first. He knew how this was going to play out, I think. He could have used his status and gotten a lot more by leveraging that. He didn’t necessarily have to run away then come back.

BARBARA: I think the best advice I could give Florence would be to let go of the past and not be so trusting. She should never have stayed in that abusive relationship with Freddie for so long, and she should let go of the longing to be reunited with her father (who, deep down inside, she knows is dead) and fight for the love that is right in front of her, Anatoly.

ROB:  Move past it, your worth doesn’t lie in the esteem of others.

EILEEN:  Advice for my character….Go NOW!  Move on.  Make a life for yourself and your kids.

Here is a trick question: Who here is most like their character and in what way? Everyone must answer.

SHAWN: Tough question. I think all of us are actually a bit like our characters. Most? Probably Barb.

BARBARA:   Shawn is right, we are all a bit like our characters, but I am probably the most like mine. Far too often, I am led by heart, and even though Florence says, “Never lose your heart, use your head.,” she doesn’t follow her own advice.

EILEEN:  I agree, Barb.

ROB:  I guess the easy way out would be to pinpoint myself, but I am a far meeker creature than he is. I would say that Barb is very similar to Florence in that they both think an awful lot about morality of actions. Florence in a secular way, and Barb through religion.

End on a nice note. Pay someone else a compliment. What is your favorite thing about one or more of your costars, here or otherwise?

SHAWN: It’s so awesome to be working with Eileen. We have known each other forever, but never worked together on stage. She is so talented and awesome energy. Barbara and Rob are rockstars. Seriously—I never worry about anything they are doing, their commitment, there ability. It’s a great place to be as an actor.

BARBARA: Chemistry wise, I don’t think Shawn, Rob, and I have missed a beat in 10 years, and it is a privilege to share the stage with both of them each and every night. I have so much fun doing Freddie and Florence’s screaming break-up with Rob, and singing “You and I” with Shawn while Florence and Anatoly fall in love is like going home again. I look into the eyes of both of these talented men each night and feel complete trust; I couldn’t ask for better leading men! Add to that getting to sing with the immensely talented Eileen every night (which I think has only happened once since we were in high school together!) and I am one blessed Florence Vassy!

EILEEN:  I’m so excited to be performing with these three.  Amazing talents all of them.  Seriously…

Bonus question: What’s your favorite board game?

SHAWN: I love Yahtzee, not sure if qualified as board game. Otherwise it would be Catan. Play it all the time. I was at one time a Trivial Pusuit fanatic.

BTGP: Yahtzee is a classic. Judges say yes, it counts.

BARBARA: More of a party game than a board game, but I love Quelf. I’m also a fan of Harry Potter Clue.

BTGP: Is Miss Scarlet in Harry Potter? Then that’s not Clue.

ROB:  Trivial Pursuit. Always answer Either Jack Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer for the golf questions. %50 correct guess rate.

BTGP: Trivial Pursuit trivia: What is the Trivial Pursuit question that for 30 years as of the last generation has been wrong? Answer: “Who shot J.R.?” The answer listed is Pamela Barnes, Victoria Principal’s character who wasn’t even a viable suspect. The answer, as viewed by a then record 83 million witnesses, it was Kristin Shephard, played by Mary Crosby. Argue it.

EILEEN:  Board game…I am the current reigning champion of Connect Four in my house.  I love a cutthroat game of Sorry!  And We love Catch Phrase….Lots of laughs! I’m also the reigning Mini Golf Champ but you said board games.

BTGP: I’ve been a little traumatized by Sorry since Eunice and Mama played it 40 years ago. You might be fun to play with. I always incorporate Eunice’s bell. Obviously, mine has always been Clue. I mean I spent 30 years writing a freaking play about it. Followed closely by, yes, Chess. I’ve handmade about 5 chess sets over the years. I wish I could immortalize you all as figures in a very special anniversary edition of the game. Anatoly & Svetlana as the black king and queen, Freddie and Florence as the white king and queen (even though Florence would be in red because she’s on nobody’s side)

Thank you all for your time on this interview. This one is so much more in-depth and introspective than some of the others, but I guess that’s the nature of the material. Let me close by answering one of my own questions and giving you the compliments you deserve, because I never could have remounted this show in the time allowed without the commitment of you three, Shawn, Barbara, and Rob. and it was an amazing opportunity to have the chance to revisit this new/old piece with the three of you again. And I’ve always dreamed of working with Eileen, which in all the years we’ve known each other we’ve only done as performers as Sir Robin and the Lady of the Lake in Spamalot here in 2014. But as a director, you each bring something so wonderful and unique to this show. Shawn, your Anatoly is so dignified and relatable, a perfect everyman to build around. And when you sing “Anthem”, it sends collective chills down everyone. Barbara, I so appreciate your willingness to step so far out of your comfort zone, and then reap the reward of knocking your performance out of the park every night. Florence is unlike any role I’ve ever seen you conquer and it makes me so proud that it’s in my show. I love hearing the side of your voice that no one be me seems to know or trust every night. And you look amazing in red. Rob, I said ten years ago the role of Freddie petrified me because there was no one in Baltimore who could embody him let alone make him work. I was right, because you had just moved to town and made him your own. But to have watched you grow and deliver an even more complete Freddie with even more amazing vocals today is mesmerizing. As I said, I’ve never liked “Pity the Child” much ever before, but you see the admiration from your cast and the buzz from the audience and reviewers that it is the main event of the evening. Honestly I hear it and am like Adam who? Murray who? As far as I’m concerned, you OWN that song, and you are a rockstar delivering it. And Eileen, Svetlana is my favorite character in the show because I’ve always felt she is the only good, decent person in it. Everyone else gets caught up in their fast paced, high profile, celebrity lifestyle, but you are the force that elegantly grounds the story in reality with a dignified, selfless presence. And the on top of that, you and Barbara blowing me away with “I Know Him So Well”. You’re all the best and this will be a very special experience for me. Most times people say don’t revisit a good experience, but I am so glad I did. And even though they’re not here, I want to also compliment Terry D’Onofrio, Aaron Dalton, Bobby Sullivan, and the most amazing ensemble I’ve ever seen in this area who have fleshed out a dream show in barely 5 weeks.

Get your tickets to see this amazing cast in CHESS at the link above. One more weekend. Pity the Child who misses this event of the theatrical season.

Photo credit Austin Barnes Photography