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Chess: A Musical
September 17, 2012 6:36 PM   Subscribe

CHESS MOVES [27m14s] was a 1985 VHS release hosted by Sir Tim Rice comprising of the five music videos made to promote the 1984 album Chess. The individual videos are One Night In Bangkok (Murray Head), Nobody's Side (Elaine Paige), The Arbiter (Björn Skifs), I Know Him So Well (Elaine Paige & Barbara Dickson), and Pity The Child (Murray Head).

Chess was originally released as a double concept album as part of development of a musical, much like Jesus Christ Superstar or Evita. Created by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (the songwriting team behind ABBA) and Tim Rice (Andrew Lloyd Webber's former creative partner), it laid out a Cold War story of human relationships and political maneuvering surrounding two world chess championship matches. The album spawned hit songs -- One Night In Bangkok and I Know Him So Well (which was the highest selling single in the UK in 1984) -- and was a global smash which set the stage for a London West End theater run.

Chess, featuring Murray Head, Elaine Paige, Tommy Körberg, Barbara Dickson, Denis Quilley, Björn Skifs, the London Symphony Orchestra, and The Ambrosian Singers [some tracks may be blocked in some countries]:
Merano
The Russian And Molokov / Where I Want To Be
Opening Ceremony
Quartet (A Model Of Decorum And Tranquility)
The American And Florence / Nobody's Side
Chess
Mountain Duet
Florence Quits
Embassy Lament
Anthem
Bangkok / One Night In Bangkok
Heaven Help My Heart
Argument
I Know Him So Well
The Deal (No Deal)
Pity The Child
Endgame
Epilogue: You And I / The Story Of Chess / You And I (Reprise)
A documentary was made about the recording of the album. Available online in 9 parts [low video quality, subtitles may be difficult to read] 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

The album was taken on tour across Europe in 1984 with the original cast and musicians. Some glimpses from that tour:
Nobody's Side
Mountain Duet
Anthem
Endgame (with chorus member Karen Glenmark suddenly stepping in for an ill Barbara Dickson)
Elaine Page and Barbara Dickson perform I Know Him So Well on German TV, 1984

Benny, Björn, and Tim did publicity for the album and upcoming show, appearing on The Wogan Show in the UK, on Belgium TV, and American TV.

The transition to the stage was rocky, with director Michael Bennett having started the production and shaped its design and look and then dropped out due to AIDS-related health problems. (He died in early 1987.) Trevor Nunn was brought in to finish the show, and he helped create the final shape of the book using Bennett's already complete sets and costumes. A lot of lyrical changes and additional songs were required to flesh out the show, including additional songs such as Commie Newspapers and The Soviet Machine. The show opened in 1986 with a cast including Murray Head, Elaine Paige, and Tommy Körberg.

Shortly before opening the West End production, Tim and Björn did some publicity on BBC morning television.

Chess ran for 3 years in London. The production was never officially filmed and there is no cast album. Some small glimpses do exist, however:
Anthem [from opening night]
I Know Him So Well
Endgame (audio only)
Finale / You And I
In making the leap to Broadway in 1988, Trevor Nunn decided that the book needed to be completely rewritten to cast The American (now named Freddie Trumper) in a light more acceptable to American audiences. The rewrite involved major rewrites to the characters and plot, and the addition of one stunning song for Florence, Someone Else's Story.

Broadway cast album:
Prologue
The Story Of Chess
Where I Want To Be
How Many Women
Chess Hymn
Quartet (A Model Of Decorum And Tranquility)
Want To Lose Your Only Friend
One Night In Bangkok
Someone Else's Story
Terrace Duet
Nobody's Side
Anthem
Hungarian Folk Song
Heaven Help My Heart
No Contest
You And I
I Know Him So Well
Pity The Child
Lullaby
Endgame
You And I (Reprise)
The Broadway rewrite was a failure, and the production closed after only 3 months.

Over the years, Chess continued to evolve. An Australian production in 1990 (overseen by Tim Rice, directed by Jim Sharman) completely rewrote the story and book once again. No cast album or filming of this production exists. Other productions and tours in various countries saw further changes, none of them particularly successful.

2001 saw the staging of a Danish production which followed the West End book fairly closely, with the main addition of Someone Else's Story, now given to Svetlana. The cast album is the first recording of the full score (basically) as performed in London.
Chess Complete Act 1 [1h20m]
Chess Complete Act 2 [60m]
In 2002, Benny and Björn rewrote the entire musical in Swedish, changed the story significantly, and launched a huge hit with the new production. Chess På Svenska is largely available for online listening, but here is the Swedish Florence, Helen Sjöholm singing Someone Else's Story (perhaps the best rendition of this song).

In 2008, Chess was performed in concert at Royal Albert Hall with a cast that includes Adam Pascal, Idina Menzel, and Josh Groban. Like the Danish production, this followed the original West End production fairly closely, with the same few additions. Tim Rice has said this is the 'official version' of the musical after 25 years of changes. It is available to watch in 16 parts: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16. Also in a convenient playlist. [Bonus: Josh Groban interview about Chess In Concert]

Chess continues to have new productions and tours, including a 2010 actor-musician tour of the UK which emphasized the 1980s time setting. With this ongoing interest, it is likely that it will receive a full revival either in London or New York sometime soon.

Some curiosities:
John Barrowman (Torchwood) and Daniel Boys sing I Know Him So Well
Barbra Streisand sings I Know Him So Well
French & Saunders do I Know Him So WellM
posted by hippybear (48 comments total) 72 users marked this as a favorite

 
This post was brewing for quite a while, but was inspired to be completed by maryr's comment: Well, yeah, One Night In Bangkok makes a lot less sense when you don't realize it takes place in the middle of a goddamn musical about chess.
posted by hippybear at 6:37 PM on September 17, 2012 [5 favorites]


One of the unspoken points in our theater company's mission statement - as conceived by my friend who founded it - was that we would NOT do musicals.

That is -- we would not ever do any other musical except for Chess.

Granted, we don't have the musical chops to produce anything anyway. Chess is the only show he's ever liked, and once did the bass line of the Quartet (and still sometimes breaks it out at odd moments: "We wish, no must/make our disgust/at this abuse perfectly clear...."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:42 PM on September 17, 2012


I like the album but always found the story utterly incomprehensible.

(And I love Nobody's Side, but the big-sweater-flappy-arms bit at ~1:15 is rather distracting...)
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 6:50 PM on September 17, 2012


Oh the eighties, what a glorious shiny mess you are, I'm so glad to have spent my formative years in your grip. I GET MY KICKS ABOVE THE WAISTLINE, SUNSHINE!!
posted by not_on_display at 6:57 PM on September 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


I listened to this album (The Broadway version, I guess) so much in high school. Great stuff.
posted by statolith at 7:13 PM on September 17, 2012


Oh yes, eighties dancers, how I've missed you.

Well, yeah, One Night In Bangkok makes a lot less sense when you don't realize it takes place in the middle of a goddamn musical about chess.

Um, how could you not? Seriously, the rest of the book confused me, but I totally got that one even though it was sandwiched between Big Black and the Butthole Surfers on college radio.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 7:14 PM on September 17, 2012


I can't favorite this enough times. SO MANY LINKS. I may never work again...
posted by blurker at 7:53 PM on September 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I actually liked the vague world-weary vibe of "One Night In Bangkok" without any further context. It fit in with all of the other Indiana Jones era videos and commercials where a westerner at the end of his rope passes some gems or money or papers or chess pieces across a cafe table in a bazaar in some undefined hot country.
posted by SharkParty at 7:58 PM on September 17, 2012 [4 favorites]


Jesus Christ, hippybear. Amazing post.
posted by mintcake! at 7:59 PM on September 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Next MeMu challenge: Jesus Christ Hippybear
posted by mintcake! at 8:00 PM on September 17, 2012 [5 favorites]


I love the hell out of Chess and would live to see an actual production of it one day. Of course at the moment I'd settle for being able to see those damn YouTube videos from above the fold. Damn you YouTube.
posted by MrBobaFett at 8:17 PM on September 17, 2012


I'd like to thank hippybear for not linking Robey's cover of "One Night In Bangkok"—possibly the most soul-deadening track of 1985. (Which is saying something for a year that gave the world "We Built This City.")
posted by Lazlo at 8:18 PM on September 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I saw Chess on broadway w/ Judy Kuhn (I think it was) when I was around a sophomore in high school. What I took away was On Nobody's Side as the anthem of my alienated, you-all-suck, I'm-gonna-be-a-snarling-late-teenage-asshole stage, as well as a smug sense of "See... everyone gets screwed over in the end, there's no justification for being a nice guy or playing fair" from the musical over-all.

So yes, musical theater was what I used to celebrate, revel in, and extol the glories of growling misanthropy and low expectations for humanity as a callow youth threatened with nuclear annihilation.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:25 PM on September 17, 2012


I'd like to thank hippybear for not linking Robey's cover of "One Night In Bangkok"

The wealth of Chess material online could have made this easily a post 3x longer or more. I had to rein myself in and stick to material which was actually associated with major productions.

I nearly did link that Robey track. And then I realized that sabotaging one's own post is a bad idea.

Seriously, people. Don't even search for it. A kitten dies a painful death every time a search engine returns a result for that song.
posted by hippybear at 8:34 PM on September 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Lea Salonga did a really nice version of Someone's Else's Story. I might think Lea Salonga is really awesome in general.

Since everyone must be curious, Robey's version of One Night in Bangkok. It is, wow.
posted by jeather at 8:41 PM on September 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Since everyone must be curious

Flagged as offensive.
posted by hippybear at 8:51 PM on September 17, 2012


Flagged as offensive.

You were totally teasing us. And now there was only one search result kitten who had to die, everyone else can just use my link.
posted by jeather at 8:55 PM on September 17, 2012


When I was in college at Northwestern, one of the student theater groups put on a production of Chess - but, instead of the Broadway script, as I recall they either went back to the London version, or made their own alterations. The rights licensing company got wind of this somehow, and threatened to shut them down. But the kids hit the phones, and managed to actually get in contact with either Benny Andersson or Björn Ulvaeus (I forget now which it was) and managed to get his personal blessing, so the show was allowed to go on.

(I'm paraphrasing from memory... I wasn't directly involved in the show so I don't really know full details. This would have been around 1990-91 or so, if there are any other alums out there wanting to elaborate...)

For reasons I don't recall, I didn't see that production, and in fact never heard or saw the show until the 2008 concert on PBS. I must say, I understand the difficulties now. The book is kind of messy - I don't feel like act two quite delivers on the concept. But there are many really, really awesome songs in it. (And, say what you like about Josh Groban's generally schmaltzy oeuvre, his performance of "Anthem" is spine-tinglingly gorgeous.)
posted by dnash at 9:00 PM on September 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


John Barrowman (Torchwood) and Daniel Boys sing I Know Him So Well

Daniel Boys, for those not addicted to years-old BBC competitive reality shows starring Andrew Lloyd Webber, finished 7th in 2007's Any Dream Will Do; the winner played Joseph in a revival of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Barrowman was one of the show's judges, and later invited Boys to join his concert tour, in which their main duet is I Know Him So Well.
posted by catlet at 9:04 PM on September 17, 2012


I warned you people! I warned you!
posted by Lazlo at 9:10 PM on September 17, 2012


Oh my, thank you.

I'd listened many times to the album, but never knew about the promo videos except for One Night in Bangkok, so I don't think I'd ever seen the singers / actors playing Florence and the Arbiter. Suffice to say, they do not match my mental images.
posted by tyllwin at 9:17 PM on September 17, 2012


Wow, thank you so much for this. Off into the rabbit hole...
posted by Wordwoman at 9:30 PM on September 17, 2012


(and by the way here is Helen Sjöholm's version of Someone Else's Story in Swedish)
posted by Wordwoman at 9:35 PM on September 17, 2012


I love the hell out of Chess and would live to see an actual production of it one day.

Oh, MrBobaFett, you say that NOW. I once believed as you do, but my naivete was destroyed.

Once, as a young(ish) returning-to-university undergraduate-again, myself and the at-that-time Mr. Rednikki went to a student production of Chess. The book was a mishmash of the UK and American versions, apparently taking the worst from each. It's an all-singing, all-dancing show, and the three leads could sing, dance and act, in that one could sing, one could dance, and one could act.

It's been about eight years now, and the scars have healed. I can finally listen to "Nobody's Side" without cringing. But I can't bring myself to watch the videos.
posted by rednikki at 9:48 PM on September 17, 2012


In college, my girlfriend and I listened to this obsessively. We would sing the songs together, and take the parts in the duets. She was a hell of a lot of fun, a brilliant mind, and I loved her. It would not have evolved into a healthy relationship, and she was far too eccentric for my conservative family who have always - needlessly - acted like aristocratic WASPs.

She liked to fight, too, and we would needle each other relentlessly. She stayed late in my design studio one night as I worked on a project, and the next day everyone asked if we were okay after our big fight. I had no idea what they were talking about. We would play hangman - she was mercilessly competitive, top of the engineering honor society, and my slacker self took great joy in sometimes stumping her. Nobody could beat her but me, and it fed her fiery passion.

We dated for two years. She is better off without me, I am sure of it, but I sometimes still miss her sharp intellect and her haughty pretense. Chess brings it all back.
posted by Xoebe at 9:59 PM on September 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


I loved the hell out of One Night in Bangkok the first time I heard it/saw the video on MuchMusic (the Canadian MTV). I had no clue it was part of a musical about Chess for a long time, but still danced to it every time it came on.

It still finds its way onto my ipod...from time to time...
posted by never used baby shoes at 10:15 PM on September 17, 2012


WOW, hippybear, terrific work!

Chess has always been one of my least favorite musical properties. The only time I've ever contracted to direct something and then backed out was on this show - we were bound contractually to use the Broadway version and it was close enough to New York that fiddling with it was not an option. I lasted just a couple of weeks of prep, working with a close friend who's a designer doing scenery and costumes. There was just NO way in to that mess of a book short of just staging it like a rock show and collecting the paycheck... (I used to have PRINCIPLES, dontcha know!)

There ARE some great songs, and I enjoyed the PBS concert version musically, but the book is still an abomination.

(dnash, I was no longer at NU by that time, but remained close to a number of faculty and staff there; my hazy recollection is that it was actually Tim Rice the students were able to get on the phone, because someone - Dominic Misimi or Frank Galati, presumably - knew him or had worked with him or something...)
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 10:50 PM on September 17, 2012


I dunno. That's kind of the way I imagined ABBA. Like they go to Bangkok and the most interesting thing they do is play chess.
posted by twoleftfeet at 11:41 PM on September 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


I love that Anthony Stewart Head and Murray Head are brothers.
posted by roger ackroyd at 12:46 AM on September 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is an epic post, but it is incomplete without a link to Sylvia Stoddard's Chess Onstage. Sylvia (who also documented Evita on squareone.org) followed the show from when the concept album came out up until the 2002 Swedish version, when she got sick of the whole enterprise and stopped updating her site. Since then I've tried to take up the part of an "expert" on this show.

I got into the show late, around 2000, and it was a combination of Sylvia's site, a couple of fortuitous cast album releases, and a foray into the world of musical theatre bootlegs that led me to study the hell out of the production history of the show - which is even more complicated than hippybear's post implies. There was an American tour with Carolee Carmello directed by Des McAnuff that stripped the music down further from Broadway but didn't manage to fix the show and ended with "Someone Else's Story"; there was Jim Sharman's surreal Sydney production which had a 4-level stage, a revolve, working elevators, and actually moved the main platform on and off the stage for effect; there was David H. Bell's inspired reworking in Chicago (later reproduced in a handful of places across the country) that made the turgid Broadway script "work," there was Tim Rice's disastrous off-Broadway rewrite that trimmed the cast and orchestra down to a minimum and tried to combine most of the material that had been written to that point; there was a UK tour that ended with "Nobody's Side"...it was never the same show twice. That history, and the project of chasing down all its variations, captivated me for about three years, and was one of the main things I did in my last 2 years of college and then afterward.

The problem with Chess is that the second act doesn't work. London got through that by hurtling through it at top speed; its production of "The Deal" was a Michael Bennett conceived masterpiece, where about 5 scenes happen in 10 minutes using a rotating, underlit chessboard stage. And its "Endgame" is a masterwork of psychological pressure as the underlt stage and the whole cast close in on Anatoly. Unfortunately those are the main Michael Bennett scenes that survived into the London show; the rest is tedious cinematic realism directed by Trevor Nunn. But the problem in London is that Anatoly wins the second match knowing it will hurt Florence, and then it all turns out to be a double-cross anyway, and we don't really care about him beating the guy in the second match. Broadway fixed all that, making it so that the match was always between Anatoly and Freddie, and Anatoly returns to the Soviet Union to get Florence's father back, but it's still a double cross even though they brought the father onstage in a wheelchair back five scenes earlier and he sung a lullabye in Hungarian. It was so cynical that people hated it, and everyone's tried to fix it since. People have done shows that work for various reasons but nobody's actually fixed it.

The Stockholm show was initially a disappointment to me, because it threw out so much of that history. But I struggled through the Swedish lyrics with a fan translation, learning a bit of the language in the process, and I came to like it once I got to see it in video. (My favorite moment is probably Vem Kunde Ana, when a drunk Freddie interrupts a date between Anatoly and Florence, followed by the dance-club version of Nobody's Side / Lämna inga dörrar på glänt.) It took some major missteps, mainly in the second act when for a while it just throws a couple of character songs out there in lieu of advancing the plot, but was an interesting and compelling show. Then something weird happened: the 2003 Actors Fund of America concert with Josh Groban, Adam Pascal and Julia Murney created a mini-revival mania. All of a sudden I was talking with directors in LA, Baltimore and Long Island and helping them rework the show. Baltimore was the most conservative rewrite of the Broadway book, but it had the best cast and we did a kick-ass production. (I was also able to drive down there every week to attend production meetings or rehearsals, crash at the director's house and be at work the next morning.) That dried up after 2004 and the interest hasn't been the same since, even with the 2008 concert.

The problem with Chess as an amateur piece is that it's very demanding, musically, on the leads and the ensemble. Anatoly is easy - if you can belt your way through "Anthem" and "Endgame" and you have a bit of charisma, you're golden. He's likeable and charming. Likewise, as long as Svetlana can pull off her side of "I Know Him So Well" they will blow the roof off the house; that song is a pitch that is just begging to be knocked out of the park, and is the high point of even the very worst productions. Freddie is hard; you need somebody who can nail the high "C" at the end of "Pity the Child" and play a jerk in a lovable way. Florence is nearly impossible; you need somebody tough but with a vulnerable streak but not coming off as overbearing, able to play a convincing romantic lead, and able to carry the show on her shoulders both musically and in acting terms. The ensemble is actually really hard; they need to be beautifully attuned and have great ranges or the whole show sounds like a sloppy mess. This is why concert versions are so often disastrous: when an actress decides to go all diva over "Nobody's Side" she actually wrecks all of the complex harmonies going on in the song. "Endgame" is like hard mode for the ensemble, because it sounds simple but it's actually got the sopranos just sort of shrieking at points to make the overall sound effect. So it's very hard to get an amateur cast together that will make it all work. I've seen beautiful productions and disasters, and everything in between.

Anywho. Still my favorite show, and it's wonderful to see a post like this. I am happy to answer questions about productions or storylines or anything else that people may have.
posted by graymouser at 3:26 AM on September 18, 2012 [7 favorites]


(dnash, I was no longer at NU by that time, but remained close to a number of faculty and staff there; my hazy recollection is that it was actually Tim Rice the students were able to get on the phone, because someone - Dominic Misimi or Frank Galati, presumably - knew him or had worked with him or something...)

Ah yes, now that you say it that does sound right. Still I was impressed they managed to get the OK.
posted by dnash at 4:57 AM on September 18, 2012


I saw the New England premiere of Chess at North Shore Music Theatre, with Jodi Benson (yes, the Little Mermaid herself) as Florence. Had no idea of its history prior to this production, though I remembered "One Night in Bangkok" from its brief period as an MTV hit. This was probably the American version. I loved it.

Here's a review from that production (which toured at a few different regional theatres); you can hear some demos of Benson on Tumblr if that's your steez. Also, Rembert.
posted by pxe2000 at 5:46 AM on September 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Chess had always been my favorite musical - even though I had never actually seen it. I only had the original concept album, but the staged version of it I had in my mind was fucking fantastic. Many years later I saw a college production of it. Meh. I'll keep the epic show from my head as the official staged production.

Also, One Night In Bangkok has been declared to be the song that defines who I am by multiple people. I don't know how to feel about that.
posted by charred husk at 5:55 AM on September 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


I saw the New England premiere of Chess at North Shore Music Theatre, with Jodi Benson (yes, the Little Mermaid herself) as Florence.

That was David H. Bell's revision of the Broadway book, which was first done in Chicago. I believe the Jodi Benson version started off in Sacramento and went to a number of places, using the odd choice of buying the American Tour sets and some of the costumes. Bell made very small but focused changes to the Broadway version, shuffled the song order slightly, but his main feat was fixing the characterizations from Broadway. A version also played in Atlanta in the late '90s. It's probably most famous as the "Florence gets her father back" version because of the ending, but Bell managed to really fix the pacing and make the characters likeable. I've used a number of key concepts from Chicago in most of the productions I've worked with; most notably how we handled the scene with Florence and Freddie before "Pity the Child." On Broadway, Freddie insults Florence, chases her off, and then sings "Pity the Child" as an on-air breakdown in a televised interview, which makes the song feel crass and physically uncomfortable to watch. Bell re-set it so that Freddie attempts a reconciliation with Florence, kisses her, and is rejected; he sings "Pity" alone. It totally changes the characters, and Bell only actually needed to cut out a few lines and add a couple of stage directions.

It's amazing how Bell managed to completely change the show by re-staging a few scenes and cutting a few lines of dialogue here and there. To me, that is a testament to the power of theatre.
posted by graymouser at 5:58 AM on September 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


I saw the production that toured the UK last year, although I had been a fan of the Danish recording beforehand. It struck me immediately on seeing it that Anatoly is a massive snooze of a protagonist, and I'd much rather more focus on Florence, a way more interesting character. (Also for a sung-through musical with not that many characters, I found it surprisingly difficult to figure out the actual plot just by listening to the album).
posted by rollick at 6:18 AM on September 18, 2012


It struck me immediately on seeing it that Anatoly is a massive snooze of a protagonist, and I'd much rather more focus on Florence, a way more interesting character.

Part of the problem with Chess is that Florence, who is not the protagonist, is in fact its main character. So things happen to her and around her, and she's the most interesting person in the show, but she doesn't actually get to control anything. It's Anatoly who defects, and Anatoly who wins or loses and goes back to the Soviet Union at the end. But Florence has the most musical numbers, gets top billing, and the actress who plays her always has the final bow.

Anatoly just wasn't developed well. I think he was originally something of a stand-in for Tim Rice, and he's a better protagonist when he's a little bit of a bastard - as in "Argument" from the original concept album. I think the London "You and I" makes him too nice. He's more interesting in the Broadway script, but unfortunately that's not a terribly good script.
posted by graymouser at 7:12 AM on September 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


I actually liked the vague world-weary vibe of "One Night In Bangkok" without any further context.

I kinda hated the song just b/c how popular it became on Top 40 radio. It's also certainly an outlier compared to the rest of the musical.

I love that Anthony Stewart Head and Murray Head are brothers.

Also worth noting that Murray Head (whom I maligned for years b/c of the aforementioned prejudice against Bangkok (which really isn't that a bad of a song and it's not his fault it became a hit)) was the lead (Judas, with Ian Gillan as Jesus) in the original concept album for Jesus Christ Superstar (wonderful promo video; most excellently censored Heaven on their Minds promo single).

And Chess, oh Chess! I got to see it with Ann Crumb in San Jose and another very good lead as the American, but it's the women's songs (gee, like maybe for Agnetha or Anni-Frid?) that make it anyway: Heaven, You and I, I Know Him So Well. (Fucking Arbiter stole the show tho.)

Barbara Dickson is great, but Elaine Paige really takes the cake: bonus version of Heaven Help My Heart.

+1000. Thanks, hippybear. Land o' links.
posted by mrgrimm at 8:42 AM on September 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


you can hear some demos of Benson on Tumblr if that's your steez.

She doesn't pull it off, imo. She has a very sweet voice, but you gotta have a bigger voice to bring it like that. She gets a little lost in the orchestra.
posted by mrgrimm at 8:45 AM on September 18, 2012


Chess had always been my favorite musical - even though I had never actually seen it. I only had the original concept album, but the staged version of it I had in my mind was fucking fantastic. Many years later I saw a college production of it. Meh. I'll keep the epic show from my head as the official staged production.

I kind of agree. The concept album is fantastic. Compare Nobody's Side or Argument.
posted by mrgrimm at 8:48 AM on September 18, 2012


Broadway fixed all that, making it so that the match was always between Anatoly and Freddie, and Anatoly returns to the Soviet Union to get Florence's father back, but it's still a double cross even though they brought the father onstage in a wheelchair back five scenes earlier and he sung a lullabye in Hungarian. It was so cynical that people hated it, and everyone's tried to fix it since.

Wait... there's a Florence-gets-her-dad-back version?

Was I the only guy who saw everyone getting screwed over as the only choice that felt right & realistic? I mean, this was the Cold War 80s. Were people looking for the Kumbaya ending? Really? These must have been the type of theatergoer otherwise polluting the world with day-glo and guitar-less synth-pop.

Re: Florence as protagonist, in the game of Chess the Queen (the only identifiably female piece) has the most freedom of movement and is the most powerful. And yet the broadway production I remember played her both as the Queen (as main character, and an axis around which other characters make their decisions) but also as a pawn to other agendas whose happiness gets sacrificed to the needs of the bigger game.

Which is why the not-your-real-dad version feels so right; The Queen/pawn dichotomy, that moment at the end when she's lost Anatoly, lost Freddie, and the promise of her father is a lie...

At that moment Florence has fought her way all the way to the far back row of the game board, but traded a Queen for a pawn, rather than the other way around. Lost everything, outplayed, and discarded. And we could still all die in a nuclear inferno.

Was I the only one who looked around me in '85 and said "Yeah, that's about right"?
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 9:17 AM on September 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey:
"Was I the only one who looked around me in '85 and said "Yeah, that's about right"?"
The story I had in my head was kind of like this, yeah. Definitely full of Cold War era ratfucking.
posted by charred husk at 9:26 AM on September 18, 2012


As I mentioned in the other thread I saw Chess in London and I remember absolutely nothing about it, except that I didn't like it. I'll have to go through some of these links after work (great job Hippybear!) to see if it jogs my memory. It's strange how completely I've forgotten it. Did they hypnotize the audience or something?

It has also become sort of a running joke. A friend of mine picked Chess as our play to see on a trip to London and neither of us liked it. So now whenever I try to convince her to go see some sort of avant garde or odd sounding play she says "well it couldn't be any worse than that time I made you go see Chess."
posted by interplanetjanet at 9:37 AM on September 18, 2012


Thanks a million for the post, hippybear. Have kept the tab open all day, and keep coming back to it and clicking things and having moments of intense nostalgia and happy bopping along with the music. And the songs make so much more sense now that I'm fluent in English, let me tell you.
posted by harujion at 1:28 PM on September 18, 2012


So, my own obsession with Chess started in high school with a classmate in PE told me there was this new song out by the guys from ABBA, from an album all about chess. Now, I've been an ABBA fan since I was about 8 years old, and had been more than a bit heartbroken when they broke up after the release of The Visitors and the final two singles The Day Before You Came and Under Attack. So this news was pretty exciting to me, and I recall going to the store that same week to find out what on earth he was talking about. (I hadn't heard of the song or the project.) I'm pretty sure I bought the 45 of One Night In Bangkok that week and maybe the 12" extended mix, and then had to wait a bit for the actual double album to be released.

I still remember how thrilling it was to listen to back in the early days of my exposure to it. I studied classical piano for many years, and had played bass in orchestra, and had a smattering of experience on a zillion other instruments, so to hear such a blending of classical, european folk, rock, pop, and show tune styles all in one giant blob was one of the most amazing things to me. The production on the original concept album was amazing. Whether artificially created or actually recorded that way, I could hear and feel the size of the room which Endgame was recorded in, especially through headphones in a darkened room. That sense of space, that attention to presenting sound, it still is something which gives me goosebumps when I really sit down and listen.

Of course, I couldn't make heads or tails of the story from the concept album. Nobody could, really, because the story really hadn't been finished yet. There was a bit of a love triangle, I think, and some multi-layered betrayals coming from multiple directions... And The American was a real shit. I think that was the first bit of shattering of the carefully constructed and reinforced self image of the US which people who live in the US and have no real experience outside its borders carry. The fractures in that delusion were certainly magnified to the implosion point when a couple of years later I ended up in (West) Germany as an exchange student. How I might have handled that if I hadn't first gotten some clues about the disparity of image from Chess, I have no idea.

Thoroughly obsessed with this album (and I had one or two other friends who were similarly smitten, and we would have album playing sing-a-long session where we'd each take a part and attempt to do the harmonies and act things out), I went through high school and then landed in Germany. Living in the Hannover area, I would regularly listen to the British Forces Broadcasting Service, and the morning show team one day in the Autumn of 1986 spent a good 10-15 minutes talking about Chess, how they'd seen it and how amazing it was and how the stage was ultra-high-tech and on and on and on... I actually spent more than a bit of time trying to figure out how I could possibly get to London to see the show, but it was too expensive and would have violated the terms of my student exchange and blah blah blah...

When I heard Chess was moving to Broadway, I was ultra excited. And then I heard the Broadway cast album, and read about the production, and my hopes completely fell apart. How could they not just transplant the ultra-successful London production? (It never occurred to me that US audiences may not want to see a show in which the American character was a self-serving egotistical bastard who was willing to manipulate any situation and anyone for his own ends...) I did fall in love with Someone Else's Story, which is a fantastic song that should live for generations even if it weren't associated with this show. But the Broadway thing... kind of just killed my interest and hopes in ever seeing the show.

A few years later, when I was doing a lot of musical director work for the local community theater, I looked into Chess as a possibility. But since the London show was basically barred from being staged in the US, I pretty much let that go. I wasn't interested in doing that version.

Fast forward another few years, and I found this site online which had full bootlegs of the London production. I pulled down a track or two and was blown away by all the recitative and how much further fleshed out the show was from the concept album. I remember thinking, well, I need to download all this... But then I forgot and when I remembered a year or two later and went looking for it, it had all been taken down for copyright violations. (And this was years before such things were commonplace online.)

Across the decades, I kept hearing of new productions which took on various forms, some of them based on London, some of them based on Broadway, none of them ever really taking flight. And I kept meeting people in various settings who knew Chess and were as obsessed with it as I was. It was always a point of immediate bonding, and it wouldn't be long before we'd end up listening to the concept album together and singing along and debating how to stage it or what it all meant.

The Danish Cast album was the real eye-opener for me. I'd never truly heard the full score before, and the expanded music and storyline both thrilled and confused me. I was so used to the original lyrics, every change felt like a slap in the face. But to have an actual full story being presented, and so well sung and played, it was a real banquet for me, full of an odd mix of nostalgia and discovery.

While the concept album is still very much a go-to album for me, I find myself drawn more and more to the Danish album. The lyrics aren't such a shock to me anymore, and having the full story makes such a difference to me that I find I miss all the fleshy bits when I listen to the concept album. I don't think it's recorded nearly as well as the concept album, but I haven't encountered many albums which are, actually.

As far as the problems with the show go, the first act is definitely much more well constructed than the second. All the manipulations and double-crosses in the second act really do end up being a bit too much, with motivations not always being entirely clear. Anatoly and Florence come out being the most clearly drawn, but even the way their romance shapes by the end of the act feels trite to me. It's possible that good actors in a well-staged production could make it all feel believable, but even (especially?) in the 2008 concert performance, after a point it feels like people performing their lines with no real connection to any emotional truth, even if the music is attempting to provide that.

I have the Swedish version, but haven't listened to it much. Perhaps I need to find a quality source for a translation someplace, because (as with Kristina), I love the music but have NO idea what is going on.

I do admit to spending some time daydreaming about whether there is any way to take Chess and reform it for today, keeping all the fantastic music without too much revision but setting it outside the Cold War and making it less of a period piece. Keeping the complex, adult plot and emotions, but removing much of the now hopelessly dated (perhaps even unrelatable in this day and age) political stuff. Maybe that's impossible. It may well be.

I hold out hope for a quality revival of the "official" version which does justice to the material and makes it all make sense somehow.
posted by hippybear at 6:12 PM on September 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


How could they not just transplant the ultra-successful London production?

At the time, the London production cost around the equivalent of $15 million - a lavish budget for a musical then. The Broadway production was closer to $6 million. London was a financial success by a short amount, in that it recouped its investment, but not much more than that.

But (forgive me if you know this) Trevor Nunn was the reason why they couldn't do it. Nunn was not the director when the London Chess started, but he was the guy to finish it. Part of his terms in his contract were that he'd get to do it his way on Broadway. Tim Rice, who has never been all that much of a librettist, turned in a script - it may have been the basis of the extensive Sydney revision in 1990 - but it was rejected. Nunn convinced Rice, Anderson and Ulvaeus to write some new songs for the Broadway show, and brought in political playwright Richard Nelson to write the book. Rice had wanted Elaine Paige to play Florence; Nunn blocked this by making Florence an American, and casting Judy Kuhn. After that, Rice really didn't have much to do with the Broadway show. Nunn rewrote the lyrics to "Endgame," which is something I've always thought was a low blow.

What Nunn and Nelson put together was not the worst show ever. It was coherent, but the characters were really unappealing and the plot did include some really nasty ratfucking. But Nunn's direction is really what brought the Broadway show down. Trevor Nunn (who at the time was on the high of Cats and Les Miz) had a realistic, cinematic vision that he wanted to bring to the show, using a revolve to do lightning-quick scene changes. And he had the strangest vision of towers, giant towers that upstaged the cast and moved around to make scenery. The sets were lush but the characters were in front of giant remote-controlled towers. Upstaged. And then - in 1988, one year after opening Les Miz on Broadway - the new Trevor Nunn musical opened with a barricade, on a turn table. That alone was a death blow to a new British show. Then there was Phantom. It was clear to everyone that Chess needed an out-of-town tryout for Nelson to at least try to fix the book. But Nunn deep-sixed the idea, and rushed Chess into production with a long preview period, cutting about an hour from the first night. More was cut after opening night because the show, which was not running at capacity, couldn't afford overtime at over 3 hours running.

And why did he do it? He did it to beat Phantom. That's right, Trevor Nunn rushed Chess onto Broadway and had his first major flop just so that he could try to beat Hal Prince and Phantom of the Opera in the Tony Awards. Chess garnered a measly 2 nominations and no awards, and closed ignominiously. The next year they couldn't even find anything to nominate, the critics hadn't just had Phantom's mega-success foisted upon them, and they had seen Carrie, which opened a week after Chess and set the benchmark for bad musicals. If he had waited 6 months to a year, it would have swept the Tonys purely by lack of competition.

Nunn's direction was heavy-handed and boring. In addition to upstaging the characters, he had no sense of motion - for instance "Someone Else's Story" is sung by Florence while sitting in a chair. "Where I Want to Be" is sung by Anatoly in a chair. "Endgame" is just like the other chess matches except at the start the chorus is backlit and then Anatoly and Freddie sit and sing about the game they're playing. He made Anatoly bland, Florence shrill and Freddie the stereotype of the "ugly American" - despite having one of the most talented trios ever to tackle the parts together. Having watched the official video at the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts, and seen amateur casts pull the script off, I can honestly say it was Nunn who killed the show.

(It never occurred to me that US audiences may not want to see a show in which the American character was a self-serving egotistical bastard who was willing to manipulate any situation and anyone for his own ends...)

Freddie was a bit more naive but much more one-dimensional in Broadway. That wasn't the reason for the rewrite. 'twas all about Trevor Nunn's ego.

I do admit to spending some time daydreaming about whether there is any way to take Chess and reform it for today, keeping all the fantastic music without too much revision but setting it outside the Cold War and making it less of a period piece.

Nah, it's a period piece through and through. The whole plot and characters don't make sense without it - people don't defect from Russia today.

I hold out hope for a quality revival of the "official" version which does justice to the material and makes it all make sense somehow.

Tim Rice called the London 2008 concert an "official" version, but that was just his saying so. There was speculation for a while after the Stockholm show of a translated / revised version of that production coming over but it didn't materialize. Personally I like the limbo, because I love tinkering with the script. An "official" version would end the rich and lush history, put a cap on it and mean that there are no more wonderful variations left to be played. Other shows simply don't have the fluidity to become what you want them to be; they are what they are. Chess is a show with possibility.

Besides, you're never going to fix the act II problems that exist in every script. You just find ways for your production to live with them and make them as minor as possible.
posted by graymouser at 7:32 PM on September 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


So, in the second act, if Freddie and Molokov are the players, Anatoly and Florence are... what? The two opposing kings? King and queen on the same side? Svetlana is merely a pawn, or is she some other piece? Rook, perhaps.

I've felt for years that the solution to making the second act work is to figure out what the chess game is behind all the moves, and use that as a springboard toward coherency.

Perhaps this has already been done and I'm unaware of it.
posted by hippybear at 9:23 PM on September 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


On further reflection, I think it's Walter and Molokov who are the players, Freddie is a king, as is Anatoly. That makes Florence Anatoly's queen... I still think Svetlana is a rook.
posted by hippybear at 7:10 PM on September 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


I watched Chess at some college production in Stockton, California in the nineties, and was too young to be critical of it. It was neat! Some bits I probably didn't get! But ooh shiny and neat songs!

Of course the song "One Night in Bangkok" stuck in my head. Years later, some guy whose blog I read, and whom I'd met once, put up a silly poll on his site, asking whether one night, ten nights, a hundred nights, or a thousand nights in Bangkok were necessary to make a man humble. I wrote to him:
I note that all the possible values in your crummy.com poll are >1. What if one night in Bangkok makes 10, 100, or 1000 MEN humble?
He restarted the poll, reporting, "By the way, consensus on the old (invalid) poll was that 104.76 nights in Bangkok make a proud man humble. If I discard the two outliers, that goes way down to 5.26 nights in Bangkok." (Later that year we started dating and five years later we got married.)

Everyone in this thread has a practiced qualitative eye and can discourse learnedly about Chess from that perspective so I guess I can offer a quantitative POV? ;-)
posted by brainwane at 7:36 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


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