Musical (1986)

Musique: Benny Andersson • Björn Ulvaeus
Paroles: Tim Rice
Livret: Richard Nelson

The story of Chess (the Musical) is a turbulent one. It is a lesson in how not to produce a hit show. One day I may write a book about it, or even a musical. There is more than enough material: suspense and drama, lashings of tears and heartbreak, a galaxy of sparkling personalities (to put it tactfully) and a bunch of terrific tunes.

For now suffice it to say that all went swimmingly with the original recording and concerts which took place in 1984. The album and two singles were substantial hits around the world and theatrical producers were soon fighting like ferrets in a sack to get hold of the stage rights. This eventually led to a West End production in May 1986, which ran for the best part of three years but was never quite the artistic nor commercial success the enthusiasm for the recordings had indicated it would be. Part of the reason for this was sheer bad luck (our original director had to abandon the show through illness shortly before the first rehearsal) and part was sheer – collective - incompetence. Recouping the then massive £4 million cost of the show in London was nevertheless a reasonable achievement.

It had never been our intention to stage the work exactly as it was on the original album. We made certain additions and alterations for the production at the Prince Edward Theatre, most of which worked. However the enforced uneasy combination of two distinguished directors’ viewpoints made for a slightly muddled version that was still being fixed way beyond opening night. Eventually it was clear that there was little point in endless tinkering with the show, which was just about holding its own – better to start again with a totally new concept for Broadway.

So drastic alterations were made, some for reasons that, at this distance, seem quite bewildering. An American book-writer joined the team (although “team” was soon to prove a less than accurate term), the operatic nature of the work thus eliminated, the storyline was changed substantially and the set was completely redesigned. Characters changed nationalities and even names; there was a different World Chess Champion at the end of the show; Merano, both song and venue, bit the dust; and a slew of new songs were added, many of which had been subtracted by opening night, with the notable exception of a new song for Florence, Someone Else’s Story, which more than held its own with the rest of the score.

Chess lasted a mere eight weeks on Broadway. Normally, that would be that for the long-term future of a humiliated show, but for some reason this one has refused to roll over and die, even in America. The reason was of course the songs, which even our misconceived Broadway escapade had not managed to destroy. Actors and singers still wanted to have a bash at the wonderful melodies, especially in auditions, and directors felt that they could put up with the confusion of the plot (a) because every few minutes another great tune turns up and (b) they could re-write chunks of the story themselves as no-one allegedly in control of the show seemed to know what the official version was anymore.

I certainly didn’t. During the past 20 years I have seen Chess on dozens of occasions in many different countries, and no two versions have been the same. Sometimes Freddie wins, sometimes Anatoly wins. Sometimes the whole show is set in the Tirol, sometimes entirely in Bangkok. One (rather good) version was set in 1960s New York, and another backstage at a Chess concert in which the actors played actors putting on a Chess concert. By far the best and most successful foreign production (not surprisingly) was the Stockholm show in 2002 - 03.

In recent years I have become more and more determined to oversee an English language version of Chess that I would be happy to recommend to all future producers and directors. I doubt whether it will be possible to prevent yet more hybrid treatments surfacing around the globe but if anybody wants to know which version has my official seal of approval then my intention is that the show unveiled at the Royal Albert Hall is it.

I accept that the plot is complex – I prefer intelligent, or sophisticated, but I would say that, wouldn’t I? I know for sure that contrary to the views of some critics way back then, the story is certainly more than plausible. Many in the real world of chess have told me it is not complex enough, as any study of chess and politics over the past 50 years will illustrate – as will a quick look at the life and antics of the late Bobby Fischer.

With the great help and support of Hugh Wooldridge, I have returned to the original album as the basis of what I hope will be the definitive version, both in story and style. There are no more than a few lines of spoken dialogue. Some songs and scenes that were added for the London and even for the Broadway stagings have been retained, and I have tweaked the odd line here and there to make the plot clearer.

The most satisfying performances of Chess any of the authors have seen were the concerts we staged across Europe at the time of the album’s release. While we hope that the work will be staged theatrically, or filmed, on as many occasions as possible, Hugh and I decided that to do full justice to the score for this important new presentation, the demands of the music had to be paramount – but of course with Wooldridge at the helm, visual and dramatic elements will be more than evident.

But in essence, Chess is as it was back in 1984. With the passing of time it is now, to its advantage, more clearly a period piece. To think that the magnificent music of Bjorn and Benny had only been known to the world for ten years when we embarked upon Chess is extraordinary; the world now knows that their music is timeless and lasting. I hope that the work I was fortunate enough to create with them will one day be recognised as a full part of their brilliant legacy.

May 2008

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