Review: Chess in Concert

In 1995, to celebrate its tenth anniversary, the producers of the phenomenally successful musical Les Misérables brought together an all-star international cast for a celebratory concert. The event took place at London’s Royal Albert Hall. I remember watching on PBS wholly enrapt, frustrated only by the annoying “membership week” breaks. The cast was in costume but sang from microphones on the stage. Among many notable performances were Colm Wilkinson as Jean Valjean and Lea Salonga as Eponine.

Chess was another musical that appeared about the same time as Les Misérables. It ran for three years in London’s West End. However, it crashed and burned on Broadway, lasting a mere eight weeks. In trying to make it appealing to American audiences, Chess lost much of its vitality. Most Chess enthusiasts readily agree that the London version was much better than the Broadway version. For many years, its producers stubbornly refused to allow any changes to what it saw as the “official” Broadway version. Regional and community theaters started to stage the work. I saw it at a local community theater. While I found the music wonderful, the arrangement of the Broadway version was very disappointing. Over the twenty plus years since the musical was first produced, many “illegal” versions of Chess have surfaced, keeping most of the tunes but often rearranging plots and lyrics, and many favoring the London West End version.

The lyricist Tim Rice eventually decided that the musical needed a new “revised” version, which meant that it mostly needed to return to its successful roots. Last year in the same Royal Albert Hall venue where Les Misérables was staged, Chess enthusiasts watched a concert version of Chess, based on the successful London version. If you knew about it, a few months ago you could have caught it on “Great Performances” on your local PBS station.

I was blissfully unaware of this new concert version until I recently learned about it online. Naturally, I ordered the DVD and sat down this weekend to watch it. Wow! Here was the Chess I always wanted to see but had never seen staged. Even if this was just a concert version, it was delightful!

Chess is definitely not your ordinary musical. The powerhouse behind the phenomenal ABBA pop group (Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus) first scored it in the early 1980s. While not quite a rock opera like Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, it is an amalgamation of rock, pop and orchestration. Like most of ABBA’s songs, the tunes in Chess are very infectious.

If you take the time to listen to a recording of the musical, you be tapping your toes, and not just to the tune of One Night in Bangkok, the only song from the musical to get any radio play. Tim Rice has written many lyrics in his long career, but he may well have reached the top of his form with Chess. You should also appreciate its complex plot. Chess is not unlike Evita (another musical with lyrics by Tim Rice) in that it is only tangentially about the game of chess, and much more about politics, intrigue, romance and revenge. In short, it is a human story wrapped up around the frame of chess. So Chess may be something of an egghead’s musical, which may explain my own fascination with it these last twenty years.

In retrospect, it is clear why Chess did not get more visibility. First, it was written during the dying days of The Cold War, and by then Cold War intrigue had lost much of its power. Nearly a quarter century later, many have no memory of it because they were born into a post-Cold War age. If Chess had been released in the mid 1970s instead of the mid 1980s, it likely would have done much better. Then there is the topic itself, the game of chess, which is too cerebral for most folks.

The musical was clearly inspired by the infamous 1972 chess championship between American Bobby Fischer and Russian Boris Spassky, which at that time became another way to wage Cold War between East and West. In Chess, Freddy Trumper plays an American who is very much like the late Bobby Fischer. Fischer was renown for his temperament. Trumper likes to use theatrics to both undermine his opponent as well as to draw in larger audiences so he can enrich himself. One cannot really draw a similar comparison between Spassky and the musical’s Soviet chess master Anatoly Sergievsky. Nor did Bobby Fischer happen to have a comely female second named Florence Vassey. (Florence is also his lover as well as a refugee from the 1956 Soviet Union invasion of Hungary.) Florence provides a critical female character as well as a mutual love interest that the musical needs to succeed. Doesn’t there have to be a love story somewhere in a successful musical? Poor Florence finds herself drawn toward Sergievsky, but also discovers that she can never be first in their hearts. Chess must always be their true love.

Just as Les Miserables in Concert drew top tier talent, Chess in Concert got some of the best voices in the musical theater world. Adam Pascal, who many of us know as Roger from Rent is delicious as the flawed and often odious Freddy Trumper. In case you are unfamiliar with Idina Menzel, who plays Florence, she too appeared in Rent (both in Broadway and in the movie) in the role of Joanne. Younger people will probably know Menzel better as Elphaba in the musical Wicked. Josh Groban plays the Russian Sergievsky. Groban is somewhat new to musicals in general (he is only 28) but a phenomenal and powerful singer, who in addition to being very talented is clearly handsome in a thin and swarthy way.

Unlike the concert version of Les Misérables, this concert version of Chess is partially performed. There is actually a fair amount of dancing and acting. There are also some new songs to enjoy. This updated version of Chess gives us more music and less talking, yet does it in a consistent way that improves on the original musical first staged in 1986. In addition, some of the loveliest songs of the musical, such as “Merano” are now fully restored. Some songs have been rearranged. “The Story of Chess” is at the beginning, where it should have been all along. Some lyrics have also been updated. This concert version is likely to greatly please Chess aficionados, as it certainly pleased me. In addition, the DVD gives you an intimacy into the performance impossible to get unless you have front row center seats.

If you are a fan of musical theater, and have not heard or seen Chess performed, you are doing yourself a disfavor, as it is one of the best musicals of the 1980s. Both the CD and the DVD of this concert version are available, and you may want to own both.

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