I’ve not been to one of the NT Live broadcasts yet, in which a play is beamed live from the National Theatre to cinemas around the country and even the world; but last night I went to a Shaftesbury Avenue cinema to see the screening of a live performance I originally saw at the Royal Albert Hall in May 2008 of a concert version of the musical Chess, and here’s an amazing thing: it was even better on screen that it was in person.
I wrote here at the time about the history of the show, and the tiny part I had once played – or at least been witness to – when it transferred, all too briefly, to Broadway.
The spectacular Royal Albert Hall version was not only an attempt to rehabilitate a great score in the concert conditions that it which it had always worked best, but also to create an ‘official’ version of what has become a much muddled and interfered with property.
And seeing it on screen last night proved that the work has paid off: easily the punchiest and most memorable of all the original pop theatre scores of the 80s, the “problem” has always been laid at the door of the book, whose story and lyrics were created by Tim Rice. But there’s no problem following it, at least when you can hear every word – and that’s where the screen version wins out on the live.
Whereas I complained in my May 2008 blog that Idina Menzel, for instance, was frequently rendered inaudible in the Royal Albert Hall’s unforgiving acoustic, here her powerhouse singing is crystal-clear and so is the radiance of her personality.
You may lose instead some of the sense of occasion of actually being there; but the benefits far outweigh the losses. In the high-definition pictures and sound, every performance resonates far larger than it did when viewed from the other side of the Royal Albert Hall.
And even if, intriguingly, you can spot in close-up detail that Josh Groban is one of those rare American performers who doesn’t have perfect teeth, he is in every other sense the perfect leading man: I said here last May that he should do more musicals, and I only wish he would.
This is one of the greatest leading man performances I have ever seen in a musical, anywhere: there’s a depth, passion, and range to his singing that I’ve rarely experienced in a theatre. Only Philip Quast’s still-unrivalled solo cabaret turn in the Divas at the Donmar season back in 2002, and Antonio Banderas in the Broadway revival of Nine in 2003, rival him in my personal pantheon.
But then this production is cast in strength throughout. Adam Pascal also brings a sexy allure – and full vocal attack — to the role of the American chess player Freddie Trumper.
I have previously noted how, in another musical coincidentally with Tim Rice lyrics, Aida, Pascal managed to lose his body hair en route to that show’s Broadway opening night; it wasn’t possible, even in high definition, to discern whether he’s managed to grow it back below the white tee-shirt he was wearing for Chess, but either way it is good to see him growing older so handsomely.
Last night’s screening saw a turn-out of cast members that included David Bedella (soon to return to playing Frank ‘n’ Furter on the road in The Rocky Horror Show) and Clarke Peters in the audience. Clarke was borrowing a cigarette in the interval on the pavement outside (which is a better way of limiting his nicotine intake that owning his own, I suppose), but while the occasional cigarette is probably not going to harm that silkily husky voice too much, my partner recommended the Nicorette’s nasal spray that’s stopped him from smoking!
Also in the audience was Patricia Hodge, who told me (as her husband queued to pay for his pick ‘n’ mix in the interval) that she’s such a fan that she went to both nights at the Royal Albert Hall!
Ice’s note: Thanks to Paul Carter who wrote to say that Sir Tim Rice, Clarke Peters and Siobhan McCarthy were at the Odeon Covent Garden.
- Chess – In Concert [DVD] 
- Chess in Concert: Live From Royal Albert Hall [2CD]
- Highlights from Chess in Concert