Chess seems to be the musical that will not die. With lyrics by Tim Rice (of Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar fame) and music by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (the male components of the 70s Swedish pop quartet ABBA), Chess first saw the light of day in 1984 as a concept album—the format that worked so well for Rice’s collaborations with Andrew Lloyd Webber—with Elaine Paige, Murray Head, Barbara Dickson, and Dennis Quilley in the leads. It spawned two huge hit singles—“One Night in Bangkok” and “I Know Him So Well”—and seemed poised to conquer the stage, first in London and then in New York. No matter that the plot was kind of thin and the characters uninvolving—ABBA had composed it, Rice had written the lyrics, and it seemed no dumber an idea for a musical than, say, the life of an Argentinian dictator’s trampy wife or the jellicle cats of T. S. Eliot.
But the show’s stage prospects seemed doomed from the start. The original London director, Michael Bennett of A Chorus Line fame, withdrew from the project before its opening due to health problems; these were later revealed to be the result of AIDS, which killed him in 1987. His place was taken by Trevor Nunn (Cats, Les Misérables, and scores of Shakespeare productions at the RSC), and, according to Tim Rice’s liner notes for the DVD release of Chess in Concert, his and Bennett’s styles merged uneasily on the stage of the Prince Edward Theatre. Nevertheless, this production was a modest success, and a tweaked production, under Nunn’s direction, opened in New York shortly thereafter, to disastrous reviews. (Frank Rich scathingly remarked of the show’s political metaphors: “War is hell, and, for […] this audience, Chess sometimes comes remarkably close.”) There were other small productions over the years, with songs added and then taken away, the ending rewritten endlessly. The score is still loved by many, and retains quite a bit of nostalgia for 80s kids like myself, who fondly remember Murray Head in the video for “One Night in Bangkok,” croaking out lyrics such as, “Get Thai’d! You’re talking to a tourist whose every move’s among the purest.” Now, Chess has resurfaced in a concert version at the Royal Albert Hall (which seems to be the venue for such things, since the amazing Les Misérables in Concert fourteen years ago), with an all-star cast. Before the show begins, Tim Rice steps out on stage and says that after twenty-five years and as many revisions, he and his musical collaborators may have finally gotten it right.
Chess in Concert bears some resemblance to Chess on the original concept album. It is 1979, in Merano, Italy, which is hosting the World Chess Championship. The reigning champion is the cocky American Frederick Trumper (Adam Pascal), who has an unfortunate, McEnroe-like habit of saying rude and inappropriate things to the press. His companion, second, dogsbody and lover is the Hungarian-born Florence Vassy (Idina Menzel), who has vivid and unpleasant memories of what the Russians did to Budapest in 1956. Trumper’s challenger is the Russian Anatoly Sergievsky (Josh Groban), a man with issues of his own to work out, namely his insecurity over his performance and the demands of his Russian handlers who feel that a Russian victory will send a powerful message to the world at large about the power of the Soviet Union. (As though the world at large gives a shit about chess.) Through a fairly convoluted (and implausible) series of events, Florence dumps Trumper (or is dumped by him—it’s not entirely clear which) and, in part due to the machinations of the skuzzy Russian Molokov (David Bedella) and the skuzzy American DeCourcy (Clarke Peters) winds up shagging Anatoly and derailing much of her own life in the process—not to mention merrily jettisoning any political convictions she may have harbored. Anatoly defects, Baryshnikov-like, and in Act Two, set the following year at the chess championship in Bangkok, the plot turns on whether or not he will willfully blow the match in order to secure the release of his suddenly on-the-scene wife Svetlana (Kerry Ellis) and the possible release of Florence’s presumed-dead father.
All well and good, and it has the ingredients for a fairly solid drama. That is, it would, if we remotely understood or cared about the characters and their motivations. The female characters come off slightly better than the men: Florence and Svetlana get the show’s most ABBA-esque numbers—“Heaven Help My Heart,” “Someone Else’s Story” and “I Know Him So Well.” “Heaven” is Florence’s attempt to explain to herself and the audience why she’s screwing the enemy, and though the song is gorgeous, she doesn’t come up with an answer, and neither does the audience. Far more effective are Svetlana’s numbers. This character exists solely to complicate the plot, and we never quite believe that she and Anatoly are remotely a couple, or ever were. But “I Know Him So Well” is a stunning ballad, with the two women singing, almost in sympathy, about the man they’re both in love with but realize they must let go of. It’s too bad that none of the other songs in the show really get to this kind of depth of characterization.
Many feel that all characters in musicals are ciphers. I disagree, but it’s certainly true of the men in Chess. Trumper is nothing but a brash American stereotype—it’s almost as though he could have been written by the smarmy Soviet Molokov in the show, so clearly does he conform to Eastern European stereotypes of the Ugly American. There is an attempt to soften him with the number “Pity the Child,” but it’s too little, too late—the song’s placement in the show comes long after we’ve given up trying to like him, and he soon disappears from the proceedings almost altogether. Anatoly’s struggles again seem stereotyped—the idea of what someone on this side of the Iron Curtain thinks must be going on in the head of someone on the other side—and though he gets some of the score’s most stirring songs, he’s ultimately rather flat. It is yet another truism of musical theatre that two characters can sing a love duet and by the end of it, we know that they are in love and always will be. Such an attempt is made with the Florence and Anatoly duet “You and I,” but it again falls rather flat—it’s too rapid, and it sinks under the dead weight of all of the heavy-handed political muddle that has preceded it.
None of the other male characters in the show fare particularly well. Molokov and DeCourcy are cartoon villains, while Marti Pellow’s The Arbiter has nothing to do but sing overlong numbers about how he watches the game, calls the shots, and no one should screw with him. Cabaret’s Emcee (who The Arbiter resembles solely in his slight narrator-position in the show) is a one-note character as well—but what a note! The Arbiter could have been something equally fearsome, but he sounds instead like a windbag, and we can’t wait until his song ends so that we can get back to the uninvolving love story.
This all sounds as though I hated Chess in Concert. Far from it—I actually found myself loving it, but with all of the above reservations at the front of my mind as I watched. My enjoyment was largely due to the superb orchestra and the stellar cast. Josh Groban sings the Act One closer, “Anthem,” probably better than it’s ever been sung before, and he uses his perennial earnestness to excellent effect throughout, filling in some of the holes in Anatoly’s character left by the writers. Adam Pascal (who I saw in Rent over a decade ago) is also in fine voice, playing up the sleaziness of Trumper without camping it up. The lovely Kerry Ellis makes an excellent Svetlana, and David Bedella has a wonderful voice and delivers the delightfully nasty “The Soviet Machine.” The biggest surprise is Idina Menzel as Florence. I’d seen Menzel in Rent as well, and met her at the York Street Tavern in Cincinnati years ago when she was promoting her first solo album. I’d long been a fan of her voice, but wasn’t sure that she could fill the pumps of Elaine Paige. To my astonishment, she might actually be a little better. Her Florence is still a mess—and I still don’t believe that the woman who pines for her lost childhood and her missing father would willingly spread her legs for a Russian, even if he does look and sound like Josh Groban—but she’s a hot mess, and, like Groban, Menzel fills in some of the gaps in her character with her deliciously naughty smile, the slightly kooky twinkle in her eye, and her rattle-the-rafters voice. She sings the hell out of “Nobody’s Side,” and even though “Heaven Help My Heart” answers no questions, Menzel’s face and delivery let the audience know that maybe that’s okay—she’s a mess, but at least she knows it.
Twenty-five years on, Chess is dated in ways which the writers probably didn’t anticipate. The show’s Cold War ethos now seems rather quaint in our current political climate, and the metaphors of war and chess seem rather forced. Chess was long described as a work-in-progress, and I think it still is one. But Chess in Concert is by far the best version of this show we’ve ever seen, and it sure as hell has never sounded this good. It was recently aired on PBS, and is now available on DVD and CD.