CHESS MUSICAL - Jim Colyer 2010

February 26, 2010

As the 1980s dawned, ABBA showed signs of becoming political. Politics seeped into their consciousness in The Day Before You Came and into the conversation in Our Last Summer. The Piper hinted at the way the masses may blindly follow a leader. In The Visitors, the police are coming to arrest a woman whose home has been a meeting place for a political organization. ABBA was vocal about injustice in Poland, and their records were banned in the USSR. There is nuclear war in Soldiers, "that dreadful rumble, all that thunder and the blinding light."

Their interest in politics came to a head in the Chess musical. Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus teamed up with Tim Rice. Benny and Bjorn composed the music, and Rice penned the lyrics with Bjorn's help. Rice acquired his political savvy while doing the lyrics for Evita. Chess is reminiscent of Evita in that all the dialogue is contained within musical numbers. The entire show is sung.

Tim Rice helped Benny and Bjorn with the larger framework. They were accustomed to 3 and 4 minute songs. It is different to think in terms of two hours of music centered around a plot and a cast of characters. A production of Chess presents a very different soundscape from an ABBA concert. Songs must be linked lyrically to the ones before and after them.

Tim Rice is a master of irony. Evita dies at her zenith, and both romantic and married love fail in Chess. Chess is a love story in that the Russian and Florence have a year-long affair. Ultimately, the authors are saying that love suffers at the expense of political interest and competitiveness in games. Selfhood is paramount in the pursuit of fame.

Chess is a story of ambition, though not in a Macbethian sense. It is based on the Fischer/Spassky chess matches of 1972. Two warriors vie for the chess crown. That a serious drama can be enacted without bloodshed is an anomaly attributable to the Swedes.

Chess divides into three parts. There is the competition between the chess players, the struggle between east and west and the conflict between lovers and would-be lovers. Four characters are important. They are the American and his assistant, Florence, and the Russian and his wife, Svetlana. Two couples. Like ABBA! The Russian falls in love with Florence and defects to be with her. The American gets revenge by flying Svetlana to Bangkok. Svetlana spoils her husband's affair.

Chess is introspective, brooding. The characters are forever second guessing themselves. Suspicion is cast upon the American's sexuality, and Florence's history is tainted by her misconception that her father was a hero in the Hungarian uprising.

Chess was a hit in London's west end between 1986 and 1989. It came to Broadway in 1988. Reviews were terrible, and it closed after two months. Chess got a second chance on the road, touring 21 American cities, and I saw it at the Kentucky Performing Arts Center in Louisville, March 7, 1990. Audience response was excellent.

With the collapse of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, the American-led Allies poured into Germany from the west. The Russians poured in from the east. The armies met, victorious and exuberant. It did not last. Human nature being what it is, we tend to manufacture enemies when there are none. Winston Churchill envisioned an iron curtain splitting the continent. The United States and the Soviet Union squared off, Democracy versus Communism in a so-called Cold War. Russians put up the Berlin Wall as John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev went eyeball to eyeball over Cuba. The space race took Americans to the moon, and Bobby Fischer challenged Russia's domination of chess.

The 1980s saw a resurgence of Cold War policy under Ronald Reagan. This was the context in which the Chess musical was conceived. Eventually, the Soviet Union overspent and broke up. The Russian army pulled out of eastern Europe, and the two Germanys became one. Cooperation between Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin made the rivalries of Chess hard to understand.

The World Chess Championship is being held in Merano, Italy. We get the picture: the Alps, clean water and air, the ideal setting. Money is the city fathers' interest. Hotels will be full and the economy bolstered.

The American champion appears. He is happy about the media attention, also cynical. He knows they are interested in the east/west angle, not in chess.

From his room, the Russian challenger watches the American on TV. He and his assistant, Molokov, debate whether the champion is competent. The Russian wants to be his own man. Alone, he admits to himself that the dream and the reality are two different things.

The matches get underway. The arbiter is determined that past infractions will not reoccur. He knows that lurking beneath the veneer of diplomacy is the hostility of Soviet/U.S. relations. The inevitable commercialism is here. Public events are turned into a marketplace. Toothpaste, vests and chess sets are sold.

Florence's loyalty wavers when the American walks out. He brings up her childhood and the Hungarian uprising. He is obsessed with politics. The game resumes with the American outmatched. There will be a new champion.

Florence meets with the Russian and changes sides. Call it love at first sight. She and the Russian leave Merano together. He defects. He hated Communism anyway and the way the party thwarts ambition.

Time passes. The Russian must defend his title in Bangkok. The American is vindictive and has been to Moscow to plot with Svetlana, the Russian's wife. Drawn to Bangkok, the American prowls the streets, unmoved by this city of sin.

Again, Florence can not compete with chess. She raises hell when the Russian's wife appears on television. The American confronts his foe. He will spare Florence the truth about her father for a price. The Russian hates the American for going to Svetlana.

Spurned by Florence, the American regresses to childhood. He sees himself as a victim. Psychology replaces politics. His kings, queens, knights, rooks and bishops kept him sane.

As the new combatants hover over a chessboard, Molokov shows confidence in his new boss. The American assures him the expatriate will lose one way or another.

The Russian retains his title. In doing so, however, he rejects both wife and lover. Svetlana accuses him of being abnormal, of craving false adulation. He feels she never understood. Only when it is too late, does he feel the anguish of losing Florence.

A history of chess follows. It is seen as a game of mistakes, originating from a brother murdering a brother. Can its exponents be anything but losers?

Song sequence on the London album
..1 MERANO - Sets the scene and introduces the American. Rodgers and Hammerstein composed the music for The King And I, another musical set in Bangkok. SRO is standing room only.

..2 THE RUSSIAN AND MOLOKOV/WHERE I WANT TO BE - The Russian is ready for a change. He is neither satisfied with his backers nor his personal life.

..3 OPENING CEREMONY (THE ARBITER) - The referee asserts his authority. There are 64 squares on a chessboard. 8x8.

..4 QUARTET (A MODEL OF DECORUM AND TRANQUILLITY) - After the American walks out, the others decry the current state of affairs. The Russian, Molokov, Florence and the arbiter make up the quartet.

..5 THE AMERICAN AND FLORENCE/NOBODY'S SIDE - Florence no longer believes in the American. Elaine Paige is Florence.

..6 CHESS - The game breaks up.

..7 MOUNTAIN DUET - Florence and the Russian have something in common. Romance blooms.

..8 FLORENCE QUITS - Florence and the American accuse one another.

..9 EMBASSY LAMENT - The Russian defects. The sarcasm of the civil servants is understandable in light of their anonymity and meager salaries. This is comic relief. With the downfall of Communism, passage from east to west is not so sensational.

10 ANTHEM - The Russian proclaims his freedom. He feels contempt for his wife, his colleagues, everyone in Russia. There is no patriotism in him. His pledge of allegiance is to himself.

11 BANGKOK/ONE NIGHT IN BANGKOK - The American resists the temptations of Asian night life, preferring his intellectual sport. The chess board doubles as a dance floor. The stray square represents the defecting Russian. Siam is the old name for Thailand. Yul Brenner was famous for his role as the king of Siam in The King And I. Merano is the Tirolean spa. The Tyrol is a province in the Alps. Hastings is on the southern coast of England. The Battle of Hastings was the first Norman victory in England. Somerset Maugham traveled in and wrote about the Far East. Buddha lived in the sixth century, B.C. His statues can be standing, seated or reclining.

12 HEAVEN HELP MY HEART - Florence knows the Russian will tire of her.

13 ARGUMENT - Florence and the Russian argue when Svetlana shows up.

14 I KNOW HIM SO WELL - Duet between Florence and Svetlana about the man they love. Barbara Dickson is Svetlana. The wife fears he needs freedom. The mistress fears he needs security.

15 THE DEAL (NO DEAL) - The American threatens to expose Florence's father as a traitor unless the Russian throws the match. The Russian rejects his offer.

16 PITY THE CHILD - The American recalls his childhood in a burst of self-pity. He is remorseful about the lost relationship with his mother. Harold Schonberg's book, "Grandmasters Of Chess," contains biography of Bobby Fischer and a description of his erratic temperament at the Reykjavik matches. Tim Rice made his Russian a composite character, but his American is a copy of Fischer down to the broken home, a propensity for living in hotel rooms and his obsession with the Russians. Of 15 chess champions, Fischer is the only American to hold the title. When Murray Head sings, "I took the road of least resistance," we feel the passion of a man scrambling for his life, desperate to survive. The guitar has ABBA written all over it. Lasse Wellander has a tension in his lead which is very distinctive.

17 ENDGAME - The Russian beats his new challenger. His goal is attained even if his personal life is in shambles. A game of chess consists of three parts: opening, middlegame and endgame.

18 EPILOGUE: YOU AND I/THE STORY OF CHESS - Florence and the Russian are done. The choir recounts the history of chess. Chess functions as a metaphor. Romantically and politically speaking, life is a chess game. Rice was the one with the enthusiasm for the game, not Benny and Bjorn. He had an outline in 1977. We sense in him a need to downplay his subject, half apologizing for imposing a musical about chess on a public which associates the game with an ivory tower intellectualism.

Chess Moves is a video show accompanying the album. Tim Rice explains the significance of the clips. We see smoky lighting and detached characters. Included are One Night In Bangkok, Nobody's Side, The Arbiter, I Know Him So Well and Pity The Child. At the end of Chess Moves, the American raises the white king above his head as the black player resigns. Black and white are the traditional colors of both squares and chessmen. Players are also known as black and white. White has an advantage because he moves first. In a series of games, players alternately play each color. Games last between 40 and 50 moves.

Any blockbuster show spawns an effort telling how it was made, and Chess has its documentary called The Making Of Chess. It traces the recording of the album in 1984. We achieve intimacy with its participants, a sense of running back and forth between Stockholm and London. We share Anders Eljas' (yah) pride in working with the London Symphony Orchestra. When Tommy Korberg as the Russian hits the final note of Anthem, we feel his satisfaction.

I researched the game itself. Chess reduces society to its fundamentals. The pieces are a cross section of medieval society. Kings and queens rule. Rooks are the castles. Bishops represent the Church. Knights are armies. Pawns are peasants.

The Chess musical does the same thing on the personal level. It isolates elements of human nature. Ambition and emotion are compressed. Success becomes everything, and we are shown its rewards and its price.

The players were given names on Broadway. The American became Freddie Trumper. The Russian became Anatoly Sergievsky. Broadway let the American win, mirroring Reagan's victory over the Soviets in the Cold War. As the musical moved around the world, it took on the nature of a chess game, yielding to any number of variations. Each production shuffled the song sequence and altered plot and characters to suit itself. Chess ran for six months in Sydney. One critic called it the worst musical in history. It is certainly in a class by itself. Chess reflects the thinking of the 1970s even though it was written and performed in the 80s. It was an unpatriotic show trying to succeed in a patriotic decade. In these terms, we understand its limited success. Chess questioned authority at a time when people were raising flags, not questions.

Tim Rice claimed that he finally got his favorite show right with Chess In Concert. The production originated from the Royal Albert Hall in London. It aired in the States on public television in 2009. Adam Pascal played the American. Josh Groban played the Russian. Rice has anguished over Chess and said that he may someday write a book about it. That the show will not die is a tribute to the songs of Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus.

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