I love musicals. There is just something about them that really captivate me. So this column is devoted to my all-time favorite musical called Chess.
My love of Chess started a long time ago before I got into musicals. There was a pop song that came on the radio when I was in elementary school that I adored. I remember recording the song off the radio onto tape. (remember when you had to do that?) It was One Night in Bangkok by Murray Head. I had no idea that came from a musical, as it was not a true musical at the time. It was a concept album but it was made with the intent that it would be made into a musical or concert. That song stuck with me all throughout my life. Later in life I spent 2 years on an LDS mission to New York and it was at that time that I began to love musicals. After I returned home from my mission, I quickly looked for a copy of the musical (the London version) and fell in love with it.
But then the unthinkable happened. Chess was not a very successful musical at all so the chances of me seeing a live production were extremely slim. But then my friend Lared and I got some dates and we went to see the StageStop’s production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which was a very funny and very nice production. I saw on the back of the Playbill that they were planning to produce Chess the next year. I was extremely interested and enthused. The StageStop was a local theatre company so I knew I wouldn't see the complete version but at least I would see Chess and understand what Broadway attempted to do so many years ago.
Later in the year my friends and I got together and saw The Secret Garden also produced by the StageStop Theatre. I sat beside David Weekes (whom I would get to know much later) and we spoke about musicals and we laughed at how they would put the furniture props on the sick boy who was in bed. Which we all thought was pretty unprofessional. During intermission I brought up the subject of Chess to David and that I might try out for a production next year. David was also excited, he loved that musical as well and we both decided to try out when the time came. A few weeks later, on the way home from school one day, I dropped by the StageStop Theatre to find out when tryouts were. I spoke with Andrew Barrus and he was impressed that I knew the musical. I told him that my dream part would be the Arbiter and to sing the "Arbiter’s Song". Andrew said he loved that song as well and would do everything to keep it in the production. He told me when tryouts were and what to expect (because I have never done any performing arts) and I came home excited.
I called my good friend Lared Hansen and we worked on what would be best for me to audition with. We both decided that "Any Dream Will Do" would be a fun one to do. I also told a new friend of mine, Curtis about this. He was interested and both him and his wife tried out too. I practiced with Lared for a couple of weeks and I went to my audition and I was soooo nervous. David Weekes was also there and it was fun to speak with him again. He really boosted my confidence. Right before I auditioned, this kid went in there and slaughtered "Pity the Child". David and I looked at each other and we both knew that he was not going anywhere and David joked that it was good that I was next. Before I went in, to my surprise, Lared came. He had gotten off work and made the trek over to Smithfield to support me. What a good friend. When I got into the audition I noticed that Anne Campbell was playing the piano. She was a friend of mine back in high school and she was happy to see me. That helped ease my apprehension but I must have been more nervous than I thought because I totally missed a verse when I sung my song. I didn’t stop, I just kept going. Luckily Andrew liked my voice well enough that he told me to come back Saturday morning to try out again. I was elated! I walked out and David remarked that I had a soft and gentle voice but was very sweet and surprising. I stayed to listen to David and then Lared and I took off.
(If you look closely, you can see my name in the credits even though they spelled my name wrong.)
I had about a week to find another song to sing and practice. I wanted to do something completely different than the normal songs that people used to try out. I wanted to show my depth and I wanted to show what I was capable of. So I decided to go with "Grow for Me" from "Little Shop of Horrors". I again practiced with Lared and Saturday finally came. I sat with Curtis, whom I was happy that he had made it to Saturday as well, and I was called up to sing. And I personally gave one of my best performances. It made Andrew's mom laugh and she clapped when I was done. I stayed through the whole audition and took Curtis home and lent him my Chess Cd’s. I think Andrew was impressed at my dedication and enthusiasm for going for this that he called me later that night to tell me I got the job. Unfortunately I was not the Arbiter but I was the lead Merchandiser. I quickly called Lared and told him the good news. But I foresaw a problem. My job at MotorCargo was every night and I needed some evenings off to work. So I took the part as the Merchandiser and quit my job at Pepperidge Farms and worked for my dad at Dutro. It gave me a good schedule so I could go to school during the day and could work at night but I was also able to practice and put on live performances in Chess. My role was not as good as I wanted. They cut the Merchandiser song because of time limits and I didn’t have any speaking roles and I had only one solo during "Endgame". But honestly it didn’t matter, I was in a production of my favorite musical.
In addition to being the Merchandiser, I was also assigned other acting jobs. I was one of the lead reporters, the waiter at the restaurant, drunk frat guy at a bar in Bangkok‚ and a CIA agent. And I had a hoot doing each of them. We started to practice and sing parts of songs and to figure out how we can move the set around. The StageStop was a unique theatre because it was "theatre in the round". Meaning the stage was in the center of the theatre and was surrounded by audience members. We had some room up on the stage but not enough to really make a scene out of it. Practices were a lot of fun. There was a lot of the music that I was not as familiar with. We used a mix of the American version and the London version. To prepare even more, I purchased the American version of Chess.
February was soon approaching and we stayed very late to get things up and going. They painted the floor in a black and white chessboard which we revealed after intermission. They also made chess pieces that were large (about up to your knee) for the dramatic finale.
The first scene I was in was the reporter scene where we questioned Florence and Freddie. I made a lewd comment that pissed Freddie off and he would confront me. He would come right up to me and throw his glass of water in my face. Then I would sing my first solo "Well, what did I say? He’s out of his tree!" That was one of my favorite parts to do. Opening night came and went and my family came and so did my friends to support me. There were times I was a little frustrated because the main Merchandiser part was not totally within my voice range. But all in all I had a fantastic time doing this and I regret nothing. I met a lot of great people. There were a lot of funny moments that happened during the 2-3 months we staged this. Hopefully I will remember them all here.
The most exciting part of the play for me was the Night on Bangkok scene. I played one of the guys at the bar that was drinking away with a gal beside me. One time we sang it and I took a sip of the fake beer I had (usually there was water in it) and this time we forgot to empty out the apple juice we had used before. It hit my lips and I spit it right out. It was so gross. It took ALL evening to get that taste out of my mouth. Andy was always pushing us to go all out during that song. Daniel (our Arbiter) did a fantastic break dance scene (we even extended the song to include it) and it was hilarious to watch everyone in the audience watch as he pointed and danced right to a couple of front row seats. One time, Andy really wanted us to go all out and I remember getting off my chair and swinging my arms right out that I smacked Rebecca’s tray of drinks. They came crashing to the floor and I didn’t miss a beat, I sang and danced and picked up the shards of glass from the floor. Another time, I hopped on top of the bar and did my best impression of Saturday Night Fever.
Daniel replaced David (who was cast as Freddie) for a couple of nights and his first performance and opening scene was one to remember. I was supposed to get water in the face but he was so nervous that he threw the water clear over my head and it splashed one of the patrons on the first row. This wasn’t the first time we had the audience participate unwittingly. After the second scene I along with Daniel (different Daniel) was supposed to go and grab a heavy couch. As I headed towards the exit, he yelled quietly that there was a guy in a wheelchair that we needed to avoid and be careful with. I backed Dan right on to the guy’s lap and he was pissed. I couldn’t stop laughing though.
One of my other responsibilities was to be the waiter. This was an easy role, all I had to do was escort then Russians to there table and then walk over and intervene during a tense moment between Anatoly and Molokov. Some people in the audience didn’t notice me (I was WAY off the stage) and that became more apparent when I saw a girl *ahem* mess around with her boyfriend in the back row. They realized I could see them when I walked on stage during the confrontation. After the play we would meet the audience in front of the theatre and talk with them. That couple came up and wanted to shake hands. Oh boy.
Another one of my favorite moments was during "Nobody’s Side". There was a real cool dance scene and Florence would sing while they danced around them. During the chorus we would sing from the background. Kristy’s mom and younger sister Renae attended one evening and she saw me march behind (all dressed in black) the audience. She turned around to see where I went and saw that I was DIRECTLY behind her. She quickly whirled around in embarrassment. At that point I would go and dance on stage. This part always made me a bit embarrassed because I am not a singer at all. During practices they would play the music and Andy and Angela would dance. Sometimes I would go out and sing the song for them (which was horrible because it was well out of my range). One time Angela split her pants during rehearsal. I decided to be funny and I changed the words I was singing to "Maybe I should change my pants!" She didn’t find it as funny as I did.
The CIA agent I played was even easier. All I would do is escort Florence (Katie) on stage and watch for Walter to come. I would also run on stage in another scene and run them out off of stage. I came up with the idea to jump from the balcony (sometimes right over the top of people) and run down to the stage. This was fun because it would startle the patrons. I remember one time I escorted Katie on stage and Walter (David) came running in the scene and he tripped and fell right into me. I tried not to laugh but it came right out. He yelled at me in character and I replied I was sorry sir in character. I really tried hard not to laugh but he looked so silly trying to keep his balance.
Endgame was the big finale. This was where I had a chance to sing all by my lonesome. All the chess pieces were on the board. My part was right in the beginning. I would march out on the board and tell the Arbiter that I was displeased that the game was not started. "Does the player exist in any human endeavor? Who’s been known to resist, sirens of fame and possessions? Threaten to cut off supplies and he’ll come out to play!" Then I would watch the match. I also decided that it was best for me to support Freddie because he was making me the most money. After watching the match, I was supposed to go out and celebrate with Freddie by raising his hand in victory and then lifting him on our shoulders and chanting USA! This didn’t always go right, about 90% of the time it would work but one night we blew it big time. Dan and I counted off and we lifted him up and he fell flat on his face. He remarked "Let’s try that again boys!" and we got him up that time. But this time it FELT different. I realized that he had split his pants and my hand was on his bare thigh. He was showing his tighty-whities to everyone. I wanted to die. Freddie about did. Part of the fun is when the unexpected happens.
We had a fun scene we called the "Yogurt Scene" because it was a funny exchange between Anatoly and Freddie about how they didn’t trust each other because Freddie thought Anatoly was getting secret messages through yogurt. One evening the lights came on and Freddie was no where to be seen. We all looked at each other and waited and waited. We could hear this rustling sound and then we all came to the realization that Freddie was backstage changing. He totally forgot about the scene. Florence improvised and went backstage to get him. Then we heard this small whispered word over the mike. "Sh**." Then Freddie busted on stage with his pants wide open and his belt flying all over. He tucked his shirt in and was mad that he was interrupted during his sabbatical in the restroom. The audience I think believed it. We were very lucky.
(I wish I had more pictures of the cast. This was my only clear one and it didn't have everyone.)
It was also fun backstage. One time I was in the dressing room by myself and I thought it would be good to quickly get dressed in my tux ahead of time. I stripped down to my underwear when one of the girl stagehands came busting in. I was up against the wall with no pants on and she walked right past me. She didn’t even know. When she was out of site, I quickly put my pants on and she came back and was startled to see me. She said she was sorry and I replied "What about the first time?" And then she realized that she came in when I had no pants on.
I will never forget the fun time I had. I made some good friends and I am extremely lucky and fortunate that I can say that I was in my favorite musical. Hopefully other funny memories will come back and I will comment on this blog.