The Story of Chess: the Musical
This strong musical with an iffy book has been in development for so long that the Cold War world it's set in has changed completely.
Chess, the musical, has been in "development" for so long that the Cold War, which was still on during the show’s early years, had already ended. The creators kept modifying the script, trying out different variations in diverse cities. Like chess-players brooding interminably, they could not decide upon which story to commit. Unlike most musicals that are workshopped and opened “out of town”, i.e. in small provincial cities, Chess was executed in reverse order. Its “tryout”, so to speak, was in London’s West End and New York’s Broadway. This was followed by tours in smaller cities in America, Europe and Australia. The problem was that nobody considered the London or New York productions to be the gold standard. Thus, nearly every reincarnation of Chess became an invitation for further tinkering, with each production desperately seeking musical nirvana.
TIM’S BACK STORY
Tim Rice, one of musical theater’s demigods, first thought of writing a musical based on the game of chess in the 1970s. Together with Andrew Lloyd Webber, he had written the book and lyrics to three groundbreaking musicals: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1968), Jesus Christ Superstar (1971), and Evita (1978). These three musicals were like extreme makeovers, changing the face of musical theater utterly. However, the relationship between Tim and Andrew could not last, and began to sour. The final straw came when Andrew replaced Tim’s lyrics for the song “Memory” with those of Trevor Nunn’s. By the time Cats opened in 1981, the Tim Rice-Andrew Lloyd Webber dynamic duo had become two solitary phantoms.
Thus, unattached, Tim went foraging for music collaborators. He soon found Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, the male components of the pop group, ABBA. He presented his idea of Chess as a musical to them. Tim would write the book and lyrics while the two Bs of ABBA would write the music.
In 1984, the concept album was released, and Chess the musical was born. Tim was very familiar with this strategy of releasing a recording first, and then scrounging around for a producer to stage it. This worked very well for Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita. Indeed, the Chess concept album was a great success, and it scored smash hits with Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson’s duet, “I Know Him So Well”, and Murray Head’s “One Night In Bangkok”.
LONDON’S OPENING GAMBIT
Nevertheless it took a further two years before Chess the musical could be staged. It opened in the West End in 1986 to generally favorable reviews, and ran for three years.
The original story begins in the Italian city of Merano. Anatoly, the Russian world chess champion, falls in love with his American opponent's second, Florence. Anatoly defeats the American, Freddie, and defects to the West to be with Florence. The second act takes place in Bangkok, where Anatoly defends his title against the next challenger, a Russian. However, Molokov, Anatoly's second and probable KGB agent, is keen to get Anatoly back to his motherland. Initially he thinks Anatoly's Russian wife might do the trick, so the KGB flies her to Bangkok. When this fails, they concoct a story about Florence’s father wanting to leave communist Hungary for freedom in the West. Appealing to his altruistic sensibility, they succeed in persuading Anatoly to return to Russia, in exchange for Florence’s father’s freedom. Unfortunately in the end, the deception is revealed; the father had died some time ago, and the person released is a CIA spy. Anatoly is a mere pawn in the ruthless Cold War.
THE BROADWAY FLOP
Like musical theater, chess is an unpredictable game. There was no reason to suspect that London’s success could not be replicated in New York. Chess lasted for 3 years in London, but the New York production closed in less than 2 months.
The original story was thought to be too convoluted, and it seemed to put the Americans in a bad light. Richard Nelson was hired to revamp the entire story. Unfortunately he diluted the parts that might have caused discomfort among the American audience. He took away some of the lighter touches from the original story, and made it depressingly serious. And he added one character and one subplot too many.
The show opens in Bangkok, and moves to Budapest for the second act. Instead of having two tournaments, the American version is confined to just one tournament. A new character, Walter, who is Freddie’s business associate, is added. Freddie’s second, Florence, now has a long lost father whom she is asked to help defect to the West. However, in exchange for this favor, the KGB asks her to persuade her new-found lover and defector, Anatoly, to return to Russia.
It was probably not any one single factor that was responsible for Chess’s American demise. Some blamed Richard Nelson’s book. Others blamed the poisonous reviews by several influential theater critics, like New York Times' Frank Rich [] Personally I think that some of Richard Nelson’s changes were positive, and did improve the musical. He added more depth to the characters, increased the political content, and by having one instead of two chess tournaments, he could retain the main conflict between Freddie and Anatoly throughout the show. The songs were reshuffled to preserve the flow of the story, and the addition of “Someone Else’s Story” is a bonus.
THE STOCKHOLM VARIATION
In 2002, Chess was translated into Swedish and broadcast on Swedish television, and a DVD version released. The book was completely rewritten. The back story of Anatoly’s family is fleshed out right at the start of the musical. Quarrels with his wife show that his marriage is becoming unstable. However, he loves his young son, who is to play an important role in the end. There is only one chess tournament, and the conflict between Anatoly and Freddie continues all the way through. Even the location is restricted to Merano. The love triangle between Anatoly, Freddie and Florence forms the backbone of the plot. While Florence’s back story of her family’s escape from Budapest during the Soviet invasion is preserved, the subplot of her father wanting to defect to the West is removed. Walter, Freddie’s business associate in the American version is also deleted. In all the versions of Chess, Anatoly defects to the West. To persuade Anatoly to return to Russia, both his wife and son are brought to Merano. In the end, it is his son who is instrumental in bringing him back home.
The Swedish version has the best book. The motivation of the protagonists is well delineated, the characterization is sharp and has sufficient depth, the love story is believable, and the subtle emotional changes are captured sensitively. Tommy Körberg plays Anatoly, a role he established in the original London concept recording 16 years earlier.
In terms of songs, the major casualty is “One Night in Bangkok”, which is demoted into disco music played in a bar. “Someone Else’s Story” is preserved, and beautifully sung by Helen Sjöholm, playing the role of Florence. However, her rival, Anatoly’s wife Svetlana played by Josefin Nilsson, is disappointing. She starts the song “I Know Him So Well”, which in fact this is more logical, but I am not enamored by her voice, and I could not help comparing her to Elaine Paige, who sang the same song with Barbara Dickson in the London album. As this is my favorite song, the less than optimal interpretation drags the Swedish version down one notch. Moreover, the hostility between Florence and Svetlana is acted too intensely for this lyrical ballad. The Arbiter is given a comic slant by Rolf Skoglund, and I have no problems with this. However, he is not a strong singer, and ultimately his performance is the most dissatisfying.
In terms of pacing, the first act is very well constructed, and the story is rivetting. Unfortunately, the second act runs out of steam, and drags. There are too many slow songs, and unnecessary distractions, like a pair of acrobats writhing on a static trapeze bar suspended above the protagonists. Despite these reservations, I like the Swedish version the best. The story and characters are the most believable, and the emotional elements are the strongest. I understand that this version will be translated back into English. I anticipate that further improvements will be made, and hopefully, this version will gain ascendancy for future performances.
There are some object lessons to be learnt in the story of Chess the musical.
First, the old adage that “you live by the book, you die by the book”, still holds. The major criticisms of the early versions, was that the book was flawed. Some of the characters were underdeveloped, the protagonists were not too likeable and thus one did not care much for them, and the plot was unfocussed with perhaps one subplot too many. Even the smash hit songs could not save the show.
Second, there can be some benefit of having a musical translated and performed in a foreign language. The best example of this is Les Miserables which was translated from the original French into English, where it became so successful that it was then translated back into French. Chess improved when it was translated into Swedish. Compared to the American version, the characters were fleshed out more fully, one of the characters, Walter, was removed, and the subplot of Florence’s father was deleted.
Thirdly, every element in a musical must be right, otherwise, the less successful components can drag the entire production down. This was probably the reason why the Broadway production closed only after a couple of months. Critics complained that the show was too serious, too long, too boring.
One final comment. World affairs can have a tremendous impact on the success or failure of a musical. I think Chess may have been affected by two events. The Soviet Union was waning in the late 1980s, ultimately collapsing in 1991, and with it the end of the Cold War. At about the same time, computer chess programs have become increasingly sophisticated and difficult to defeat. Eventually, in 1997, the IBM computer Deep Blue defeated the reigning chess champion, Gary Kasparov. Without the Cold War, coupled with a decline in interest of the game, I would surmise that Chess the musical may have suffered the same loss of relevance and appeal to American audiences in 1988.
Nevertheless, Chess the musical will survive because of the strength of its music and lyrics. Hopefully the latest Swedish version of Chess, translated back into English and tweaked a bit more, will find success, and become the definitive blueprint for future productions.
Currently there are four CD recordings and one DVD recording available. The original London 1986 concept album remains my favorite, featuring Elaine Paige, Barbara Dickson, Murray Head, and Tommy Körberg. I also like the Swedish 1994 Gothenburg concert version. I have not heard the Danish version, which is highly rated. While the American version is bottom of my ranking, it is nevertheless a good recording and does not disappoint. As for the Swedish DVD version, it has some excellent singing, but I am disappointed by the duet in “I Know Him So Well”, and by the Arbiter, who is not a strong singer. See table below.
Published in BlogCritics: http://blogcritics.org/archives/2006/11/13/114624.php]