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The Story of Chess: The Musical

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[Spoilers below] 

Prologue

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 city settings. 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. Each production desperately seeked 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. 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 that utterly changed the face of musical theater.

However, the relationship between Tim and Andrew began to sour. The final straw came when Andrew replaced Tim’s lyrics for the song “Memory” with Trevor Nunn’s. By the time Cats opened in 1981, the Tim Rice-Andrew Lloyd Webber dynamic duo had split into two solitudes. 

The Conception

Unattached, Tim went foraging for music collaborators. He soon found Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, the male members 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, when its concept album was released, Chess was born. Tim was very familiar with the strategy of releasing a recording first and then scrounging for a producer to stage it. This had worked very well for Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita. The Chess concept album was a great success. 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 was 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.

Molokov, Anatoly's second and probably a 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 altruistism, they succeed in persuading Anatoly to return to Russia in exchange for Florence’s father’s freedom. 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 Chess's successful London run, which lasted for three years, could not be replicated in New York. But the New York production closed in less than 2 months.

The original story was thought to be too convoluted and to put the Americans in a bad light. Richard Nelson was hired to revamp it. 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. He also 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 has just one. A new character called Walter, (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, the defector Anatoly, to return to Russia.

It was probably not any one factor that was responsible for Chess’s American demise. Some blamed Richard Nelson’s revamp. Others blamed the poisonous reviews of several influential theater critics, like New York Times' Frank Rich. Personally I think that some of Richard Nelson’s changes were positive. He added more depth to the characters and increased the political content. Also, 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, broadcast on Swedish television, and released as a DVD version. The book was completely rewritten. A back story about 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.” 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 unsatisfying.

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 on. 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. Hopefully, this version will gain ascendancy for future performances.

Epilogue

There are some object lessons to be learnt in the story of Chess.

First, the old adage that “you live by the book, you die by the book” still holds. The major criticism 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. 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. The English version 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 and used more selectively.  

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. It ultimately collapsed in 1991 and the the Cold War ended with it. At the same time, computer chess programs became increasingly sophisticated and difficult to defeat. In 1997, the IBM computer Deep Blue defeated the reigning chess champion, Gary Kasparov. Without the Cold War and with a declining interest in the game, I would surmise that Chess may have suffered a loss of relevance and appeal to American audiences in 1988.

Nevertheless, Chess 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.

Chess Recordings

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.

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About ken

  • http://storyofchess.blogspot.com Wayne

    Overall, this is a fine review. But I would say one thing — as a fan, I would rather not see any definitive version of Chess. The show’s variety keeps it alive and interesting, and while I’d love to see other variations come to US shores, I just don’t think it’d be as fascinating a show if “stuck” in one version.

  • http://kenlyen.bravejournal.com/ Ken Lyen

    Thanks. Your point is well taken. However, I sit on both sides of the fence. As a producer, I would like to have the freedom to shape a musical in my own way. On the other hand, as a composer and writer of musicals, I would like my works to be performed in its entirety and in the way that it has been written. I get annoyed when directors cut out songs, rewrite script and lyrics, and add songs not written by me (all without my permission). Nevertheless, within the boundaries I set, I allow directors quite a lot of leeway to make changes to my own musicals. It is in this context that I suggest that Chess should have a definitive version, so that directors can use as a source of reference.

  • Jon

    Thanks for the site… after many many years the show is finally being produced by a local company in Syracuse, New York… I can’t wait.

  • Bookworm

    I agree with a lot of this. However, re your comments on the Swedish production, the hostility between Florence and Svetlana is a natural outgrowth of the Swedish lyrics, which are rather hostile instead of the tone of sad resignation of the English version. It doesn’t seem amiss for Josefin Nilsson to be singing “I’m ready to fight” (Jag ar beredd at slas) as she tosses off her coat.

  • Stevie

    Can anyone tell me if there is a Chess The Musical DVD – a movie or footage of the stage play? and if so where can i buy this ASAP?

    Thanks

  • http://kenlyen.bravejournal.com/ Ken Lyen

    As far as I am aware, the only DVD available is the 2003 Swedish production (region 2). It is in Swedish and there are no subtitles. In general the singing and acting is excellent. The DVD is available from Dress Circle in the UK.

  • John McGrath

    Nice piece and thanks for the info on the DVD…Always wanted to see the musical, but, by the time I was going to make the trek across the pond-production had shut down

  • Keith

    Interesting – the Dress Circle link doesn’t mention the language. Wonder how many people have been caught.

  • John seracuse

    Nice reviews , My high school (wissahickon high school ,Ambler pa 19002) is doing a production of chess , on march 9 , 10 , and 11th 2008. If you would like tickets go to (John conahan . com), and email him for info , and the price. We are doing the 1988 brodway version. Last year we were prasied for are production of Miss.Saigon , SO TELL AS MANY PEOPLE AS YOU CAN ABOUT US.

  • Leslie C

    My high school is performing chess and I have the part of svetlana. I’ve never seen it before and I was wondering how big of a part it is and how many songs she’s in.

  • Alex Cockell

    To No 10…

    IIRC, she’s in Act 2 mainly…

  • Ron

    My wife and I saw the original version in London in 1986. I thought it was the best show we saw during the three years we lived there and we saw a lot of them (includes the original version of Phantom, Cats, Les Miserables and other classics) I particularly liked the opening scene in which living chess pieces moved around a large chessboard on the stage to a song that described the history of chess. Was a video or film of the original version in London ever made? Would it be possible to acquire a copy?

  • Duane

    Back in the late 80s or early 90s a friend introduced me to a gentleman named Andre who said he had directed one of the productions in either Sweden or Denmark. I’d like to get in contact with him again. Do you think you can help me locate him?

  • Frank Vulliet

    I, too, saw the original London production (probably October, 1988) and found it intriguing but at times hard to follow. I assumed it had pretty much gone to the bottom of the musical dust bin due to the limited public interest these days both in the Game and the history of the Cold War.

    Surprise! This evening CPB is presenting “Chess in Concert” performed at Albert Hall. Given public television’s propensity to offer numerous reruns in fairly quick succession it should give many an opportunity to revisit or see it for the first time. Unfortunately, my local station provided virtually no publicity beyond an e-mail two days ago.

  • Patricia Sullivan

    I just finished watching Chess on my WTTW station here in Chicago and although I knew nothing about this (I never learned how to play Chess) the only reason that I recorded it, was because Josh Groban (Who is my favorite), was going to be in the production. I was completely taken by not only the music, but the casts ability to perform so well.

  • Ron

    My wife and I saw the London version in the late 80’s and it was spectacular. The TV broadcase on PBS the other night was a pleasant surprise to say the least, albeit a departure from the original to some degree. It was well staged and the singing was excellent.

  • Clive

    For those keen to see/hear the show in its entirety: a new 2009 recording of the recent Royal Albert Hall concert of Chess (in English!) is now available on DVD and 2CD. This follows the original version of the story, with the addition of “Someone Else’s Story”. It is the most complete version of the show yet released (bar the excellent “Danish” cast recording from a few years ago), although some people have voiced concerns about a few of the performances.

    You can read about the Chess DVD on Amazon.

  • Bill

    The real problem is that most of the songs are well crafted and fit the genre, but the plot sucks. I hate to say that, but if someone could create a musical with songs like these, but a timeless yet relevant plot, it would be the next big musical.

    People consider Mama Mia a musical. I do not, because it suffers from the same affliction. Good music, bad plot. Sorry.

  • Judy

    I fell in love with this story and music back in 1988. When the musical came to my city, I was mezmerized by the “Romeo & Juliet”-esque plot and likened it to a Shakepearean tragedy. I was shocked and very disappointed by the “new” version” that appeared on PBS recently. In my view the story is ruined. I am sorry that my 12 year old daughter, who has also come to love the music, will never see the original iteration. Mssrs. Rice and Nunn did us purists no favors with their changes.

  • Christopher Griffin

    The greatest musical score yet written but the story lacks true drama. The show should end with Anthem,a song with balls!

  • Christopher Griffin

    West End full of warmed-over gormless tribute shows yet Kristina-a musical with enough cracking tunes to fill the entire West End for an eternity-still denied a theatrical debut staged as a musical…on the way to Finland and Russia though!

  • Robert

    I had the pleasure of seeing both the 1992 and 2010 Hungarian productions and although it was a bit strange for me in hungarian I enjoyed both immensely. My favorite musical of all time ;)

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