Why CHESS In Concert? by Tim Rice

Photo courtesy of Onno Conde Nieto
 
Sir Tim spells it out in the programme that was sold at the Royal Albert Hall.
The story of Chess (the Musical) is a turbulent one. At times it has been a lesson in how not to produce a hit show. One day I might 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 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 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 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 to hold 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 opening night, with the notable exception of a new song for Svetlana, 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 being unveiled here 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 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 to do full justice to the score for this important new presentation, the demans of the music had to be paramount – hence the concert format. 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 artistry of Björn 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.

TIM RICE, May 2008

CHESS In Concert Bows
Photo courtesy of Onno Conde Nieto

9 thoughts on “Why CHESS In Concert? by Tim Rice”

  1. Okay – so there are a few inaccuracies – there were certainly more than two singles released from the original album, and Someone Else’s Story was originally (we’ve always been led to believe) written for Judy Kuhn’s character of Florence and even if it wasn’t, it was never given to Svetlana on Broadway) – but the love and pride that Tim has for this show shines through in his every word.

    His unfailing admiration for the melodies of Björn and Benny always touches me and he always mentions their score in the highest possible terms.

    No-one involved creatively with the concerts would have wanted to see or hear that one person was disappointed and this piece from the programme hammers that home.

    Please let’s not use this thread to discuss the Royal Albert Hall shows (there is always that ‘other one’ for that!) but perhaps to reflect on Tim’s and perhaps our own passion for CHESS The Musical.

  2. I’d simply like to say, I absolutely adore this musical – it is a work of genius and sounds as fantastic today, live and otherwise, as it did 24 years ago. Those of us in London this week were privileged to see it brought back to the UK after a very long break and I for one cannot wait for more.

  3. I love CHESS all through and through. Of course I have not seen all versions, but was lucky to see one of the original concerts in 84, the London production, the Stockholm production and now the RAH concert.
    I have accepted that there will never be a final version. Even the RAH version was not the ultimate one. It is like a real Chess game, there are and will be numerous variations. And I think that has a value. It is not like the other Mega-Musicals which allow only one single authorized version. CHESS as a musical allows for own creative ideas of directors, choreographers etc. like classic operas do. Just think how boring operas would be if there was only one authorized version of Wagners ‘Ring’ or Mozart’s ‘Magic Flute’.
    From all the versions of CHESS that I know I love the Swedish one most. I do not understand the langauge. Nevertheless in this version in my opinion the suffering of the characters, their feelings and emotions are ‘explained’ the best.

  4. But I guess it’s accurate to say that only two of the singles from the original album were "substantial hits".

    Someone Else’s Story was given to Svetlana for the original Australian production in 1990, and I think it’s been pretty much her song since then, hasn’t it?

    But they are great words that Tim writes about Chess. Hopefully, this concert will lead to a revival and a definitive version of the show (finally!).

    I’m seeing the current Australian semi-amateur short run production on Saturday night!

  5. It’s a real shame there are so many versions of Chess knocking around becasue it devalues it I think. Personally, like Tim, I prefer the first version (or at least the first stage version + someone else’s story). I watched Chess Pa Svenska agsin the other night and hate it! It’s really grim – like the musical would be if Ingmar Bergman had got hold of it! Don’t get me wrong, I still think Tim needs to rework a few lyrics here and there to explain the story better and something has to be done about creating more sympathy for the main protagonists (at the moment I find them all fairly dislikable) but I think the story is there in the first version. Certainly, the original London production explained itself fairly well and the plot wasn’t that difficult to follow. I really hope a revial is on the cards.

  6. I think that I would use the saying "if it aint broke, dont fix it". The original concept and London production are still by far the best (the three year London run confirms this), and Im glad that it was this version, with albeit some light alterations, that Sir Tim has decided to call definitive.
    The book is by no means weak, its just complex which means that mainstream audiences have to follow the plot and listen to the lyrics rather than let it wash over their heads. Im in the middle of rehearsing Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Company’ and the same applies to that show.
    Roll on Tim’s anticipated revival!!!!!

  7. Ian – I think that sentence about the singles can be read in two ways, I think you read it correctly and I got it wrong!

    Thanks for pointing it out.

  8. Tim once said he was more proud of Chess than anything he had ever done and if the theatre world was too dim or their attention span was too limited to understand the complexities of the plot, then it was their problem, not his.

    On this point I agree. I have every version on CD and/or video I can find, and I can never get enough of it. The complexity is what I love.

  9. I absolutely enjoyed reading Tim Rice’s comments on this history of CHESS. This is by far my favorite musical work, and I attend every production I can make it to (to date, I have seen it 10 or 12 times–I lost count).

    The best production I saw was the first Northwestern University student production (in the early 1990s?). This production was almost shut down, because someone alerted Samuel French that the book was being revised. After a flurry of communication between the producers and Tim Rice, they received Rice’s blessing and the show was able to go on. And what a show it was!

    It was a very spare production, done in the round. The actors were very good. The book closely followed the original album, with additional songs that have appeared in the London and Broadway productions. "Someone Else’s Story" was assigned to Svetlana (which makes me think that Tim Rice was partially correct regarding that song–either it was originally supposed to go to Svetlana but then they gave it to Florence, or (more likely?) it was given to Svetlana during some of the post-Broadway meddling; at any rate, the song works well for either character, and having Svetlana sing it gives her character more depth). Northwestern did the show again some years later, but it was the "standard" Richard Nelson book, alas.

    It’s interesting what Tim Rice says about "no two versions have been the same." That’s one thing I love about CHESS, that I can plan on being surprised by what I see when I go to a new production–for better or worse. And speaking of worse, certainly the worst–or at least the most PAINFUL–production I saw is what I like to call the "kitchen sink" version. I think they tried to incorporate every element from every version that had been done around the world. It was overly long. On top of that, some of the actors lacked the vocal range for their songs, and the conflict between the characters was emphasized so much that Florence regrettably came across as an angry shrew (which was maybe why, during an argument between Florence and Freddie, Freddie threw her so forcefully against the set wall that I was actually fearing she might end up with a broken arm!).

    Oh god, all this thinking about CHESS is making me so eager to finally see the release of the RAH concert DVD!

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