Music by Benny Andersson & Bjorn Ulvaeus
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Based on an idea by Tim Rice

INFO:

Opened at the Prince Edward Theatre    May 14, 1986    It ran for over three years.
Original Director: Trevor Nunn
Original Choreographer:  Lynn-Taylor Corbett
Original Producer: The Schubert Organization, Robert Fox Ltd., Chess Productions Ltd.
Original Leads: Trumper: Murray Head    Florence: Elaine Page    Anatoly: Tommy Korberg
Cast Size: Male: 8 Female: 2 Ensemble: As large as possible Total Cast Size: 10 plus, at least 24
Orchestra: At least 22, probably could be done much smaller, ay 3 keyboards, bass, drums, guitar maybe a few specialized instruments but they could be done without. That makes it 6.
Published Script: Samuel French (Both the U.K. version and the NYC version.  The U.K. is far better.)
Production Rights: Samuel French (NYC)   For the U.K. version
Recordings: The original concept album is fantastic.
Film: None
Other shows by the authors: Rice: Joseph And His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, The Lion King     Andersson & Ulvaeus: Mamma Mia

WHO SHOULD DO THIS SHOW:

A large orchestra (that could perhaps be reduced) and cast size may render the show difficult to do. That said, the set is a unit set, a chess board, perhaps with multi-media to present locations as needed, That’s not too expensive or rough. Costuming is modern, simple. Outside of multi-media and lighting needs, the show is not hard to do on a technical level. It calls for little actual choreography. If your cast can sing it, and you can find a way to afford the orchestra or reduce it, you do this show.

Be Warned:

The show is a very political one, discussing the cold war mentality and relations between Russia and the United States, which remain strained as of the writing of this entry, late in 2013. If your audience doesn’t want to do much thinking, this isn’t a good show for you.

The vocals are often difficult, and a young cast could hurt themselves singing a few of the pieces, such as “Pity The Child” (if the version you’re using has the song in it…)

There are numerous versions of this show, at least four. Any audience member who has seen and enjoyed any version other than the one you’re going to present may be disappointed in the version you use. And there’s nothing to be done about it.

And do you understand the game of chess well enough to do a show that revolves around it?

THE STORY: (Outline from the album, and other sources, including Wikipedia, of the London West End version, which ran over three years.)

ACT ONE: The president of the International Chess Federation – the “Arbiter” speculates on the origins of the game of chess (“Story of Chess”) before announcing the location of the upcoming world chess championship, in Merano, Italy. As the townsfolk prepare for the occasion (“Merano”), the current world chess champion, Frederick “Freddie” Trumper of the United States, arrives with his second and implied lover: Hungarian-born, English-raised Florence Vassy (“What a Scene! What a Joy!”). Florence privately derides Freddie for his bad boy attitude and brash behavior (“Commie Newspapers”), which immediately gets out of hand when he assaults a journalist who questions his relationship with Florence (“Press Conference”). Freddie’s Soviet Russian challenger, Anatoly Sergievsky, as well as Alexander Molokov, Anatoly’s second, bicker (“Anatoly and Molokov”), and Anatoly in solitude laments the selling out of his dreams to get to where he is today (“Where I Want to Be”).

The opening ceremony features the American and Soviet delegates each vowing their side will win (“Difficult and Dangerous Times”), The Arbiter insisting on a clean game (“The Arbiter”), and marketers looking to make a profit (“The Merchandisers”). During the increasingly intense match, Freddie suddenly bursts out of the arena, leaving the chessboard on the floor (“Chess #1″) and Florence to pick up the pieces with Anatoly, Molokov, and The Arbiter, whereby she promises to bring Freddie and Anatoly back together diplomatically (“Quartet”). It turns out that Freddie engineered the outburst for the American media company, Global Television, though Walter de Courcey—the company’s representative in Freddie’s delegation—criticizes the stunt as ludicrous. Florence and Freddie fight until he spitefully turns the argument toward her missing father, believed captured by Soviet forces during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution (“1956: Budapest is Rising”). She reflects cynically about chess and politics (“Nobody’s Side”) before heading off to the Merano Mountain Inn for the peaceful meeting she has scheduled between Freddie and Anatoly. Freddie does not immediately turn up, leaving Anatoly and Florence awkwardly alone together; however, they eventually embrace as surprising romantic feelings arise before being interrupted by Freddie, who has been working out new financial terms with Global TV (“Mountain Duet”).

The chess tournament proceeds, culminating in a series of victories for Anatoly with only one more needed to make him winner of the tournament (“Chess #2″). Due to Freddie’s atrocious attitude, Florence finally deserts him (“Florence Quits”), whereby Freddie ponders how his unhappy childhood left him the man he is today (“Pity the Child”). He sends The Arbiter a letter of resignation, resulting in Anatoly’s becoming the new world champion. Anatoly now defects from the Soviet Union and seeks asylum at the British embassy (“Embassy Lament”). Florence, accompanying Anatoly, reflects on their strange, new-found love (“Heaven Help My Heart”). Walter tips off the press as to this recent news story and they ambush Anatoly and Florence (“Anatoly and the Press”). When the mob of reporters asks Anatoly why he is deserting his country, he tells them that his land’s only borders lie around his heart (“Anthem”)

ACT TWO: A year later, Anatoly is set to defend his championship in Bangkok, Thailand (“Golden Bangkok”). Freddie is already there, chatting up locals and experiencing the Bangkok nightlife (“One Night in Bangkok”) because he has become Global TV’s special presenter for the tournament. Florence and Anatoly are now openly lovers, and worry about Freddie’s sudden reappearance as well as the impending arrival of Anatoly’s estranged wife, Svetlana, from Russia (“One More Opponent” / “You and I”), which Anatoly suspects is part of Molokov’s plan to shame him into returning to the Soviet Union. Molokov, meanwhile, has trained a new protégé, Leonid Viigand, to challenge and defeat Anatoly (“The Soviet Machine”).

Walter, now Freddie’s boss, manipulates Freddie into embarrassing Anatoly on live TV during an eventually heated interview between them (“The Interview”). Molokov, who indeed is responsible for Svetlana’s presence in Bangkok, blackmails her into making Anatoly lose the match. Walter, who has been promised the release of certain American agents if he can ruin Anatoly’s play, informs Florence that her father is still alive though imprisoned in Russia, and that he too will be released if she can convince Anatoly to lose. Neither of these ploys work to get Anatoly to throw the game, however. As a result, Molokov and Walter team up to get Freddie to personally persuade Anatoly and Florence, knowing that Freddie is vengeful toward Anatoly and interested in winning back the love of Florence; however, Freddie’s attempts fail (“The Deal”).

Svetlana and Florence talk one-on-one for the first time about their respective relationships with Anatoly. Florence ultimately admits that it would be best for Anatoly to return to Svetlana and their children (“I Know Him So Well”). Anatoly, meanwhile, is sent an anonymous letter telling him to go to Wat Pho, which he does; to his surprise, Freddie appears, having decided to merely facilitate a brilliant match, regardless of his own personal conflicts with Anatoly. Because of this new change in attitude, Freddie informs Anatoly of a significant flaw in Vilgand’s play that will help Anatoly win (“Talking Chess”).

In the deciding game of the match, with the score at five games all, Anatoly manages to take a superb win against Viigand. The victory comes even as Svetlana castigates Anatoly for wallowing in the crowd’s empty praise and Florence expresses similar annoyance with him for casting aside his ideals (“Endgame”). Later, Florence confesses her sentiments that he should return to his family in the Soviet Union and the pair reflects on the conclusion of their romance (“You and I: Reprise”). Walter later approaches Florence with the news that Anatoly has defected back to the U.S.S.R., meaning that her father will certainly be released. He startlingly admits, however, that no one actually knows if her father is still alive. Florence breaks down, telling Walter that he is using people’s lives for nothing, before repeating Anatoly’s prior sentiments that her only borders lie around her heart (“Finale”).

THE SONGS:

“The Story of Chess”, “Merano”, “The Russian and Molokov”, “Where I Want To Be”, “The Opening Ceremony”, “A Model Of Decorum And Tranquility”, “Nobody’s Side”, “Chess”, “Mountain Duet”, “Florence Quits”, “Embassy Lament”, “Anthem”, One Night In Bangkok”, “Heaven Help My Heart”, “Argument”, “I Know Him So Well”, “The Deal”, “Pity The Child”, “Endgame”, “You And I”

THE SONGS – ALBUM VERSION:
“Merano”, “The Russian and Molokov”, “Where I Want To Be”, “The Opening Ceremony”, “A Model Of Decorum And Tranquility”, “The American And Florence”, “Nobody’s Side”, “Chess”, “Mountain Duet”, “Florence Quits”, “Embassy Lament”, “Anthem”, One Night In Bangkok”, “Heaven Help My Heart”, “Argument”, “I Know Him So Well”, “The Deal”, “Pity The Child”, “Endgame”, “You And I”, “The Story of Chess”

Hits include “One Night In Bangkok”, “I Know Him So Well”, “Anthem”, but almost the entire score in the original concept album is beautiful, smart, or impressive.

MY OPINIONS:

These are my opinions, and this is my site, so check. Of course, you can always ignore this section and read on, so, um, checkmate.

I’m going to discuss only the concept album, which I personally enjoy and believe is the best version of this show. The Broadway was a mess, much longer and with lots of unnecessary additions and changes. I was always impressed with the theatrical possibilities of the concept album, and would love to see it staged as is, with just minor additions as connective material. It does not “deepening”, it only requires context. The lead in from number to number needs to provide the missing beats in the story – and thee should not be much of that.

The New York version, which turned what is essentially a pop-rock opera into a book musical (and added something like an hour to the running time) was savaged by the critics, and after looking it over, I can see why. The U.K. Version, while successful, is not as strong as the original album, in my opinion. And it’s too long.

There are only six principle performers in the original album, and I like the way it focuses attention of the main stories. There are two Kings (the players), two Queens (the women), and everyone else is a piece of lesser but varying interest. It works nicely as analogy and as drama.

A LOT of experimentation and change was done on Chess, particularly between London and Broadway, and in later presentations. I think that the farther they get away from the original album, the bigger their mistakes. They have erred on the side of complexity in terms of story and book, and this piece already has a very complex score to provide it depth, as well as a historical background that is inherently dramatic, with the cold war in full bloom. This show is waiting for a simple, pure, dynamic production that will give it the “two star” rating I think it will someday earn. It currently remains unproven to some extent as theater. But I believe it is going to acquit itself someday, and spectacularly so.

By the way Rice and Webber had moved on to other partnerships when this show came out in London, and it ended up competing with Phantom of the Opera for the Olivier Awards. It lost Best Musical to Phantom. I think someday, history will reverse that decision.

MY RATING: * (A better-than-average and interesting show, right for many groups.)

 

PRODUCTION CONCERNS AND IDEAS:

DIFFICULTY OF MUSIC:

Not a simple score. I’ve seen several semi-pro orchestras butcher it, now, so you’ll need an experienced Musical Director who can get results. What’s more, the M.D. Must be comfortable with both musical theater and pop styles, with a little rock (sort-of) thrown in. Get a pro for this job. (And make sure the M.D. Can work with synthesizers, as well, or that a player can. You’re likely to need to do some programming.)

The music contains nearly classical Bach-like counterpoints, beautiful and complex. It offers massive choral pieces resembling everything from Beethoven to more modern rock. The more classically-oriented choral work is often no less than stunning, breathtaking, as in the start of the “Endgame” piece. This is a remarkably beautiful and vital score, inherently dramatic and deeply felt, a showcase for the depth and ability of the composers that never ceases to please (in my opinion) and impress. But your ensemble must really sing well, in classical modes. Your orchestra must be clean, really clean in execution! It’s not “square” as far as the compositions go. Rhythms change and the singers must feel their way through the emotions and ideas in each piece. The music tends toward the unexpected and emotional.

The American – Rock tenor, to high C. Terrific voice, strong, big range, decent belt.

The Russian – Lyric baritone up to G# or so. Needs to have a beautiful voice, romantic, clear, good emotional expression. Must sing well with a Russian accent. (He sings “Anthem”, one of the most beautiful numbers written in the past, oh, forty years or so.)

Florence – Strong belt to an E. Compelling performer, emotive.

Molokov – Bass (down to F#). Should sing well, and with a Russian accent.

Svetlana – Strong belt, perhaps a soprano.

The Arbiter – Rock lyric baritone (up to an A), strong, strident, more of a tenor quality.

Ensemble – All must sing and harmonize well. Good high notes, some belt. “Merano”, if used, sounds like choral operetta work. Trained classical voices would be welcome throughout this score.

DIFFICULTY OF DANCE, CHOREOGRAPHIC CONCERNS:

This show is largely a series of small scenes, solos and duets, with a few larger pieces. Not much of this will require actual “choreography.” Movement, sure. But the story and the character development is what generally needs to be served.

There are two numbers in this version of the show used to create a feel for the places where the Chess championships are held, and these will require some dance-oriented movement. They are “Merano”, and “One Night In Bangkok.” And they should be utterly different from each other. The first opens Act I, and is a lampoon of sorts of European operetta. You know, dancing townsfolk with cherry-blossom cheeks, that sort of thing. Only it’s the cold war, and these people are putting on a show for the rest of the world. These chess matches are big business. Perhaps these are “actors” hired to create local color for the cameras? The show tends toward irony and cynicism, and that would fit it well, as be a nice Directorial way to get more out of the number. Show some of the “dancers and singers” on phones to their agents, arguing contracts, hiding modern clothing under rustic costuming, that sort of thing.

Carry this forward into the Merchandizes section of the “Opening Ceremony,” a bold march about using the chess match to market crap to the world and the rubes. This one’s a grand, Sousa-like march, sure, but it shares with “Merano” a cynicism masked by a traditional, old-fashioned kind of music. These are smiling, happy people, more upscale and business-like than in “Merano”, and all about their products. Everyone in this show is, to varying degrees. This number can have some precision movement that will open it up and make it fun. Think Busby Berkeley staging a commercial for some big business, could be fun.

The “Embassy Lament” is one of my favorites, actually, though I may be alone in my admiration for it. The piece makes me laugh, the very idea of it. These low-level diplomats could do a little movement, frustrated, angry, impotent. It’s a good place to install the show with some energy out of the ensemble, so long as the movement serves the characters and story, and does not become a show piece for the Choreographer.

“Bangkok” was a hit song, and needs to feel like the crest of modernity and dissolution…for the cold war period of the 70s-80s. Prostitution and drugs should be on display. The piece is more overtly edgy, street, dirty than anything else in the show. It needs to also blend visual images and movement traditional to Thailand, mixed with the decimation being reeked on that land by modern vices. This number opens Act II, and it should open the act explosively, with a real feel for things accelerating. An opportunity to do some actual choreographic work. This is a kind of crazy, wild, silly number that carries us with some madness into the act – and the only real choral piece in Act II, so make the most of it.

“Endgame” places our characters on the chessboard of life, as the climactic chess game is played. We hear their interior monologues in song. This should be kept simple, but vital, as they move into positions and express themselves. Their feelings always relate to the other characters, and you’ll need to find visual ways to make these relationships clear and alive. And this piece becomes highly choral, so fill that board with pawns. It is a surging, rousing musical piece that will benefit from clear, simple, undistracting movement.

“The Story of Chess”, sometimes placed at the top of the show, is a kind of lovely history lesson, but not particularly dynamic. The music is beautiful, using themes we’ve heard throughout the show. It could be sung perhaps over the curtain call?

Even though back-up singers add to the sound in some solos, don’t allow them to become a part of the visual story-telling, they’ll detract from the story and turn the piece into a concert.

CASTING CONCERNS:

The American (Freddie) – Mid-thirties or so. An American chess champion. Brilliant, neurotic, self-involved, arrogant, temperamental. An artist when playing the game. Can be almost any physical type, and can be cast any race. Cast for voice, acting, type.

The Russian (Anatoly) – Early forties or so. Russian chess champion. Unexpectedly charming, develops into the romantic hero of the piece. Intelligent, passionate man. Cast for voice, acting, type, accent.

Florence – Born in Hungary, but brought up in America. Volatile, vivacious, theatrical, brilliant, feels things deeply. Cosmopolitan, contemporary. Strongly connected to her father and her lost past. The American’s second. Cast for voice, acting, type.

Molokov – In his 50s, a brilliant political operative and chess player. Intelligent, formidable. The Russian’s second, at least politically. Cast for type, accent, acting, voice.

Svetlana – Late 30s, the Russian’s wife (soon to be ex…?) A housewife, domestic and homey. An old-fashioned woman good woman. Cast for voice, accent, type, acting.

The Arbiter – 30s-40s. Smart, but not as smart as he thinks, perhaps. Professional, angry, intolerant. A successful man with a low patience threshold. Cast for voice, acting, type.

Ensemble – Cast for voice, some movement, some smaller roles which may require Russian accents.

SETS:

Almost invariably played on a unit set, a chess board on the floor, or something representing the idea of a chessboard. Often presented with multi-media screened across part of the stage to show history of the times (cold war), and help establish relationships between characters and their current lives with their own history, as well as locations. To avoid too flat a look, try to get a few levels or steps in, and design them directly into the chess board.

A simple set, inexpensive to do, one of the easiest.

COSTUMES:

All cold-war, but the men are often in suits, especially the Russians, dark suits, and that’s easy.

The American wears more “hip” clothing, distinguishing him from the Russians, sunglasses, some bling perhaps.

Florence is dressed up to date for the period, beautifully. She is aware of her impact on men. Svetlana is a contrast to Florence, a Russian housewife (not a silly “Volga Boat Song” stereotype, though), in a dress that is simple but lovely.

The Arbiter could be a wealthy businessman look with just a touch of ostentatious bling.

Townspeople (“Merano”) should look cold war, not 1900.

Not too hard a job. Do remember that the three leads in particular do a lot of singing,. Make sure they can breathe. And get the shoes right for the period, especially the women.

PROPS:

Well, chess boards and pieces, as called for. Flags of the various countries for fans? An onstage mic for the arbiter? Rifles and guns for the Hungarian revolution. A podium. Press cameras, video cameras (perhaps providing a live feed to the multi-media display). Various drinks and meals. This list is likely to change a lot from production to production. Could be quite a large job.

LIGHTING:

This show is helped by multi-media, and that may restrict to some extent how you light the stage. The screens will need to be easily seen.

The moods in this show change dramatically, quickly. So do “locations”, though the set isn’t going to change much at all, with the possible exception of the introduction of a table, chairs, that sort of thing. That means the lighting must help us feel where we are. The “Mountain Duet” should feel airy, as if we’ve somehow escaped outside, into the alps as it were. The quality of the light should change to accommodate this.

The chess matches should be lit under cold, hard light, with edges that drop the rest of the universe into darkness. Only the match matters. This should be a dynamic change from the rest of the show.

Not for a beginner.

MAKE-UP:

Unobtrusive, generally. Perhaps the happy Merano dancers can have overly-rosy cheeks, that sort of thing. Conversely, the Bangkok denizens can be overly made-up, exotic, sexual and dangerous. You might get creative for this number, and you have the entire intermission to prep for it, and time afterwords to change back, for the ensemble. Just get your Director to sign off on your ideas.

Your main characters, however, should be simply made-up, nothing noticeable or distracting. An interesting, but fairly easy assignment.

KEY PERSONNEL (The ones you MUST get right.):

Director, Musical Director, Choreographer, Set Designer, Lighting Designer, The American, The Russian, Florence

MY THOUGHTS:
This show, like Evita, Rice’s other “political” musical, is a bit of a fairy tale, but clever and exciting. It is not like much of anything else. And like Evita, it does not require much in the way of dialogue.

Look, I normally do not like sung-through pieces, because I think the approach flattens out the music. When everything is music, music ceases to be special in and of itself. Songs can easily start to sound alike. And the only way to elevate the intensity of the piece is to move into ever-more bellicose music, since everyone is already singing. What’s more, in sung-through pieces, often characters end up singing this that are embarrassing when sung, and are better left as dialogue. The example I usually use is when someone sings something like “There’s someone at the door,” or “The phone is ringing! I’ll get it!” Why sing everyday drivel like this? It negates the dramatic importance of a human being suddenly doing two unnatural things, singing rather than talking, and dancing rather than walking. And those differences are what define the Musical Theater as opposed to other kinds of theater. In all other ways, the “rules” or conventions of the Musical are no different than “straight”, or non-musical theater pieces.

All of that said, Mr. Rice does seem to have an interesting gift for constructing pieces that can sustain an awful lot of music. There’s no hiding the fact that in his Webber collaborations, and in Chess, some of the music starts to sound the same. But Jesus Christ Superstar, and Evita are, for me at least, effective as musicals. And so is Chess, without a massive or intrusive book. What’s more, my understanding is that the London ran long already, something well over 2 ½ hours. The Broadway with Richard Nelson’s book, previewed at 4 hours (?!?). By opening night it was down to 3 hrs 15 min. That is just too much Musical Theater for me, for one night. It was also too much for the critics (who generally hated it) and the audiences, who supported it for a paltry 68 performances. I think, of all the versions of Chess, that’s one you should not bother with. Unfortunately, that’s the one Samuel French publishes and expects you to use, rendering the show far less viable than it could be.

Chess is potentially wonderful. So many of the songs are memorable, the lyrics fun and clever, if not perfect. The story was originally simple enough that I could sit back, listen to the album and rather easily envision everything. There were some holes in the story as a story on the concept album, sure, but the sort of massive restructure that was done to turn it into a Broadway show strikes me not only as unnecessary, but in this case, destructive.

I know there’s a smart producer and clever director out there, with just the right touch to make this piece a massive success.