Leave it to Eric Schaeffer and his innovative Signature Theatre to forge ever onward with its first rock musical. Since 1984, “Chess (One Night in Bangkok)” has been staged around the world in a variety of productions with shifting emphasis on the Cold War angle. The commonality is the tale of two men competing for the world chess championship and the love of one woman. This first major American production since 1993 stars Euan Morton as Anatoly, the Russian chess master, Jeremy Kushnier as Freddie, his American counterpart, and Jill Paice as Florence, the woman both men love.
Morton is enthusiastic about the role, especially the music by “Mamma Mia!” composers Bjõrn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson and lyricist Tim Rice. Although he has been singing the score in the shower since he was a kid, he has never seen the show. He regards this as an advantage because it has been done in many ways with different endings and the characters are so fluid there is ample room for interpretation. He approaches it as if he were creating a role in a new musical. In one sense, it is. This production differs from those in the past because it focuses on Florence rather than the two men.
A native of Falkirk, Scotland, Morton trained in classical theater during college. Ironically, after many years in dramatic roles on stage, film, and TV in the UK, his big break came as Boy George in “Tattoo” on London’s West End. After earning a Whatsonstage and a Laurence Olivier Award nomination in the UK, he reprised the role on Broadway in 2003, walking away with a Tony Award, Drama Desk Award and Outer Critics Circle and Drama League Award nomination, along with the Theatre World award for Outstanding Broadway Debut.
That role changed his life. The first time he visited the United States was to play Boy George on Broadway. Since then, he has settled here, married an American and traveled all over the country acting and singing. He appreciates the size of the country, so big he has skied in Vermont then hopped on a plane for Alabama to sing in a beautiful southern mansion. He is struck by the honesty and lack of false modesty wherever he goes. Although he loves his homeland and the family he left behind, he loves the United States equally and the common history shared by the two countries.
Following “Taboo,” Morton played Ligniere in “Cyrano de Bergerac” on Broadway, the title roles in Tony Kushner’s Off-Broadway adaptation of “Brundibar” and “Caligula: An Ancient Glam Epic” at the New York Musical Theatre Festival and “Measure For Pleasure” at the Public Theater, for which he won a 2006 Obie Award. Additional shows include “Howard Katz,” “The Who’s Tommy,” “Into The Woods” and the American premiere of “Leaves of Glass.”
Although “Taboo” marked his first professional singing role, he has been heralded ever since for his beautiful voice. He attributes that talent to his mother’s Carpenters routine performed with a friend at football clubs in Scotland and to his own perseverance in singing along to vinyl recordings of Joni Mitchell and Karen Carpenter, his “singing teachers.”
To celebrate his vocal persona, he issued his debut album, “New Clear,” in 2006 and was immediately crowned by one reviewer as “the most gifted new vocalist to have emerged from the musical theater in the new millennium.” Subsequently, he was invited to appear in concert at such venerable rooms as the Algonquin’s Oak Room, the Metropolitan Room, Joe’s Pub and Birdland. At the Kennedy Center, his reverence for Robert Burns and his interpretation of the songs of his homeland delighted audiences who will be pleased to learn that those ballads will be the focus of his next recording.
Morton came to “Chess” rehearsals directly from a four-month run of “Sondheim on Sondheim,” a tribute to the 80-year-old composer. In addition to his duet with Barbara Cook, “Beautiful” from “Sunday in the Park with George,” he sang the contrasting patter song, “Franklin Shepherd, Inc.” from “Merrily We Roll Along.” Now he is thrilled to concentrate on the rock music that captivated him years ago.
He wants the “Chess” audiences to take away excitement about the score. Even more, he wants them to have an understanding of the story, saying, “People have never understood the book, but Eric has made it more of a character-driven piece about the love of two men for the same woman and the cause for betrayal.”