Monday, March 17, 2014

Best to Weirdest - "I Know Him So Well" from Chess

Chess is one of those musicals that started life as a concept album. And it probably should have stayed that way. Through two different versions that spawned a varying number of variations each, a plot between two Chess world champions competing against each other while international relations and their personal love stories crumble around them has never been successfully strung together into one, cohesive and enjoyable storyline. The music itself though is damn enjoyable, and several songs have enjoyed life outside of the musical, even in mainstream pop.

"I Know Him So Well" is one such song, and also stands apart as one of the only female duets out there. There aren't a lot. (Seriously, without thinking too much about it? I might be able to name ALL OF THEM...: "Take Me Or Leave Me" from Rent, "In His Eyes", from Jekyll and Hyde, "Some Things Are Meant to Be" from Little Women, "What You Don't Know About Women" from City of Angels, "Everyday a Little Death" from A Little Night Music, "I Will Never Leave You" from Sideshow, "Statues and Stories" from The Light in the Piazza, and "For Good" from Wicked. ...I may have missed a couple. But, still.)

Originally, I was going to do this as a Fine, Fine Line post, but, gods' honest truth, I couldn't find a particularly lacking performance of the song.
What I did find though, were increasingly inexplicable performances.

Let's start at the most normal, and arguably a very strong performance from two girls who I occasionally find to be inconsistent. And when I say that, it's not necessarily a critique of their abilities (though some of it admittedly is) it's also that their track record is extremely well-documented. YouTube houses a great many bootlegged video of both these women performing, for better or worse. Idina Menzel and Kerry Ellis are powerhouse voices who may occasionally miss the mark. But here, they shine and prove they are a couple of the best.

The next step is back in 2003's concert, which isn't that weird by any means. It's a pretty star-packed duet, with Julia Murney and Sutton Foster and some of the arrangement is kicked up a notch. It's my favorite version of the song.
I mean, those belted notes where there were none before (Ellis and Menzel's version represents the closest to the original arrangement) are impacting in a way that strengthens both characters. It's a harder find to look for female empowerment songs of rejecting love and they follow through with it. (There's nothing empowering to me about a female character who expresses her rejection and lack of need for love, only to fall in for a different person just because that person is so unexpectedly different from everything before.)

This is where we begin to go off the rails just a little bit. Again, I must reiterate: the rest of these are not "bad" performances. I have no problems with these whatsoever. But, and surely you'll agree with me, they are just extremely strange.
For this, we go somewhere to around 1987 or 1988, (I don't know for sure) but this is a concert with The Voice herself: Whitney Houston, joined onstage by her mother, Cissy Houston.
Whitney is still in her absolute prime here with all her melismatic glory (I have always loved her downward riffs especially) and Cissy, god love her, keeps pace. It's interesting to hear them together, because if Whitney's voice had stayed together and she'd stayed alive, you can see where her voice would end up in Cissy.
It's taking us to church, by all means, though the pacing is a little plodding. Whitney's variations of melody and phrasing are nice additions and I could've done with a tempo change here and there. It feels like a number the two sang when Whitney was a child, even though it's not that old of a song at this point, which makes it strange.
It is just such a strange experience, and I can't exactly explain why. But judge for yourself:

Fast forward to 1999, and cross over the pond, with the British pop equivalent of S Club 7. Imagine if S Club 7 had ever sung a legitimate cover like "I Know Him So Well." That's what's happening here. Steps is a British pop band and their performance here is admirable.
S Club 7 probably never could have pulled off something like this.
Again, there's nothing inherently wrong with this performance. The slightly pop-ified sound and affectation, the R&B-esque in-sync sway back and forth, and the completely unnecessary men acting as bookends for the three ladies in addition to the epic crane shots and foggy backlighting should all be cringeworthy but it's not. The three-part harmony at the end is also a cool little coda.

First of all, I don't understand why everyone comes down so hard on Patti LuPone or any "diva." First of all, there's no such thing as a diva who doesn't have immense abilities to back up warranting that term. If they didn't, then they're not a diva, they're just a bitch. I see all these wonderfully talented and tough ladies do things that are stellar and yes, occasionally what they do is self-indulgent and off-base. But there's only one diva who could pull off such an act of hubris so gracefully.
Barbra Streisand sings this on her Broadway album. She isn't joined by anyone. It is a duet by nature, so who's singing the second part? Why, Barbra Streisand, of course. Yup. There's counterpoint singing and it will throw you for a loop, because it's Babs, IN STEREO.

There's nothing so weird about this next video as the intro: which is performed, instead of a synth or piano, by flute and electric guitar.
John Barrowman and Daniel Boys turn the song on its head. I'm glad no one attempted the lame switching of gender pronouns that always bothers the fuck out of me (anyone see the new Tempest? Helen Mirren plays Prospera. Yeah, was there something wrong with being Prospero? With a girl playing a guy? Because Shakespeare was kinda doing it already, and it's been done for the last 400 or so years in the interim.) So kudos to Barrowman and Boys.
It's a beautiful version, but I do prefer the girls' key that it's in. Also, I love Barrowman, but one little affect he has that I love and hate is on the lines, "Oh so fine.." in echo, he says it more like, "Ah!" and he really digs into them. It's both grating and entertaining.

Now we're more firmly in weird territory. I give you the original number, sung by its original performers Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson, in the most decidedly 80s version of this song you're likely to find.
They're wearing shoulder pads, the big hair, the almost exclusively synthesizer backing, the primitive split screen with "cool" cropping... It's all there. It's also so hard to take their emotions seriously when they're dressed in what is essentially 80s stereotypes. If you were going to an 80s party, you'd be dressed as Paige and Dickson.
I feel I have to say it again, there is nothing wrong with this performance. It's so well-sung, these two know the phrasing better than anyone. But it's a funny little glimpse of the past, frozen in time, forever on film.

Speaking of frozen in time, here's a throwback for you: Melanie Chisolm and Emma Bunton.
90s kids will remember them more fondly as Sporty Spice and Baby Spice of the eponymous band The Spice Girls.
Mel C. is the one of the five who has most consistently continued her solo music career, while Bunton has arguably had one of the least successful (unless you count Victoria Beckham, formerly Posh Spice, or more modernly, as Doesn't Sing Anymore Spice). Scary's is a little less scary, and she's been more successful, but her and Geri have mostly been relegated to reality talent show judges.
There's a few different versions of this duet, because it was actually professionally released. The music video is quite an interesting one in itself, featuring Mel and Emma singing in a studio, next to a grand piano, and it's all just a little too precious, ending with a hug.
But I wanted to go with this one, because it's an entirely surreal experience. The camera is filming from behind the audience, which is an odd choice, and everyone's phones are in the air, capturing the song. (I'm pretty sure they were just hoping to see Sporty and Baby make out.)
Sporty's voice is so weird. It's got a strange tone and some of her pronunciations are so wide, it's not a British thing...because Baby doesn't seem to have nearly as many idiosyncrasies. It's a weird choice, but again, I find no fault with the performance. It's spirited and they manage to do a lot with arguably limited abilities, at least in terms of who has sung this song. Still, when I think musical theater, I don't think Spice Girls. So for that, this video has to come in just short of the weirdest videos.

The only thing weirder than seeing two ladies of their era firmly ensconced in a video of that same era, is watching them perform live almost two decades later.
The pantsuits are still weird, but at least Paige and Dickson are much more assured, more comfortable, with showtime experience under their belts. But there's something disjointed about this performance, maybe it's the fact that Dickson seems a little bored, maybe Paige is a little too affected with her facial expressions, maybe it's that the blocking amounts to them circling each other exactly once, but it seems wholly uncomfortable. Also, the set decorations are for Phantom of the Opera. Or the 80s. So there's no recapturing either.

The only male/female version I could ever find of this song, and it's Lily Savage, so...not really male/female at all. It's weird having Dickson sing Paige's part of the song, and the arrangement is entirely rushed through. Add to that, Savage not knowing any of the words anyway, it makes for one of the strangest half-assed performances I've ever witnessed.

And speaking of drag queens, our final stop on this train of weirdness is a shot-for-shot remake of the original 80s music video for Comic Relief, with Peter Kay as his drag persona Geraldine McQueen as Dickson's part, and Britain's Got Talent breakout star Susan Boyle as Paige's part. Yup. I wish I could embellish that description, but that's all you need.
Well, I do want to say, they managed to make Boyle look hideous, and all of Kay's asides and takes to the camera are hilarious.