The concept album's libretto was complex--perhaps too complex--and it needed the same
kind of theatrical shaping Hal Prince did on Evita. The rock sound needed to be
"Broadway-ized;" the story needed clarification and simplification.
Three Knights, the Shubert Organization and West End producer Robert Fox began to
put together the production. Expectations were incredibly high, particularly financially.
Nothing was too good for Chess. It was sure to be the hit of the decade.
The Prince Edward Theatre - London - May 14, 1986
The hot ticket in London in the early spring of 1986 was Les Miserables, a smash
hit transfer to the West End from the RSC's Barbican Centre. Me and My Girl was a
sentimental hit, but the debut of the high-tech Time in April didn't draw much more
than the bubblegum crowd.
Summer was coming and the tourists weren't. A series of terrorist threats and bombings
was aimed at Americans, who cancelled European vacation plans by the thousands.
Meanwhile, Andrew Lloyd Webber made headlines by taking his company, The Really Useful
Group, public. The reaction in and around the West End ranged from "Who does he think
he is?" to "Fuck art--invest in Andrew Lloyd Webber!" The release of a 12-inch single
of a song from The Phantom of the Opera, Lloyd Webber's next project, barely rippled
the waters and it was withdrawn quickly. Evita was going on the road after a triumphant
seven-year run at the Prince Edward to make way for a major new musical by Tim Rice: Chess.
Tim Rice says, "Everyone viewed Chess as the goose laying golden eggs. It was
so sure to be such a mega-smash that no expenditure was too extravagant, no concept was too
elaborate. We had a ridiculous budget." Bernie Jacobs, head of the Shubert Organization,
had long been a surrogate father to Michael Bennett and brought him in to direct. Bennett
was still riding high on his A Chorus Line fame but had just directed Ballroom,
a New York flop. Top designer Robin Wagner would do the sets and three of the cast members from
the album would play their parts on stage.
Bennett planned to have seamless choreography--including several ballets--and to tell
the story partly through huge banks of TV monitors suspended over the stage. He was fascinated
by the media pressure surrounding an international match. The setting would be starkly
abstract; the props and sets kept to the absolute minimum. But what a set. The stage would be
a giant chessboard with eight sections which would rise and fall on hydraulic stalks.
Bennett already had the vocal strength of Elaine Paige and Tommy Korberg as well as
Murray Head's contemporary rock sound. The fourth concept album artist, Barbara Dickson,
didn't want to do the part on stage, so Bennett added Siobhan McCarthy, the original
"Mistress" from Evita. He assembled 44 talented dancers and strong singers and a May
1986 opening was announced.
Then, as Evita was marching through its final days at the Prince Edward to
clear the way for Chess, Bennett withdrew with "angina." Tim Rice did not know until
the public did--nine months later--that Bennett was dying from AIDS.
In January 1986, sets and costumes were under construction and a cast was in place;
the producers had no option but to find another director--fast--for their $5,560,000 show
(in 1986 dollars). The then-wunderkind of the RSC, Trevor Nunn, was convinced to take over
the reins. Nunn's price was high: he'd do it if Three Knights, Shubert and Fox produced a
reprise of Nunn's Nicholas Nickelby for New York. (They did and it was a financial
Rice was happy with the situation at first, "I don't think Michael and I saw the same
show at all." Nunn was very hot--he had directed the West End hits Cats, Les Miz and
Starlight Express, so his name carried a potent imprimatur. Rice was delighted
because Nunn wanted to emphasize the East/West aspects of the story which had inspired Rice
to write it in the first place.
The first day of rehearsal, director and cast confronted each other uncomfortably. The
majority of the exceptionally large chorus knew Nunn would not have hired them. Most
had previously auditioned--and been rejected--for other Nunn shows. Later, as other
cast members and replacements were hired, most of these originals would refer to themselves
as "HBMBs"--hired by Michael Bennett. If Rice was glad to have Nunn, many in the cast
Nunn had a cast full of dancers and wasn't really able to take advantage of their
skill. Bennett's concept of the Arbiter as an androgynous narrator was kept by Nunn, though
a group of punk assistants was dumped. The actor hired to play the Arbiter was a spectacular
dancer who ended up being underused and he had to create some of the choreography himself.
Nunn cut back on the elaborate set where possible, reducing the stage to a single
large chessboard which rose, tilted and revolved. Still, the end of the rehearsal period
was fraught with technological nightmares as the half-dozen computers ate programming,
the stage refused to move, and the video monitors caused endless problems.
Trevor Nunn must be applauded for bringing the show in and in a comprehensible form.
But not only did he do that, there are many moments of staging that border on brilliance.
"Endgame" remains one of the most elegant, dramatic pieces of theatre ever staged.
Whatever the story lacked in losing Freddie's thread, Nunn more than compensated for by
having Anatoly play his final match against his own demons. He is nearly engulfed by the
crowds, while Florence, Svetlana, Molokov and Walter fling accusations at him and Anatoly
must play as they demand ever more of him. This is drama.
The scene before the press conference at the beginning shows Freddie and Florence
in a rumpled bed reading the papers. It tells us all we need to know about their relationship,
and is further emphasized by Florence pushing Freddie's shoulders as he works out on a rowing
machine--a splendid metaphor for sex. The jumble of reporters who descend on the players
and hurl questions at them is good every time it's used. Anatoly standing on a bare stage
singing "Anthem" is perfection. "Pity the Child" was staged very simply until the end,
when Freddie curled into a fetal position and one hand reached out and clutched the center
of the bedspread. Nunn's cinematic use of the revolving stage in "The Deal" made a montage
out of an empty stage.
Chess was a high-tech multi-media extravaganza. The huge underlit chessboard
filled the stage--orchestra pit to back wall and wing to wing. A grid-like superstructure
overhead bristled with lights and blocks of 64 television monitors hung on each of the side
walls. An additional block of 64 televisions could be lowered from the flies. A gridded
drop was used for rear projections of the Alpine landscape behind the stage, tilted at an
incredible angle and underlit in frosty white to simulate the side of a mountain. On this
stark canvas, there were Trevor's contributions: movable, realistic, warm-hued set pieces:
bedrooms, conference rooms, TV stations and train stations in rich woods and lavish fabrics.
And chairs. Scores of them. So many, the cast began calling the show "Chairs" instead of
Chess. The Production Team got the joke and gave the cast directors chairs with the
logo on the back as opening night gifts.
The video monitors were used at various times to show the international TV coverage
of the championship, though never as extensively as Bennett planned. The upstage bank was
used to project the moves of the chess game as they happened onstage. There were also live
video cameras and their images could be spread to fill all 64 screens for intriguing simul-cast
close-ups of the actors. Each bank of screens could project one, two or 64 different images
at a time.
Despite the cancellation of four previews due to technical problems, the illness of
both the leading man and the only stagehand who could operate the stage's hydraulics, the
show managed to open on time. Incredibly--it worked. It was slow in spots, cumbersome in
others and confusing at times, but as sheer stagecraft, it was dazzling. The characters
were rich, layered, and whenever you wondered what they were thinking, they came downstage
and sang a song which told you. The performances were exceptional and the nearly through-sung
score drove the plot through its bumpy spots. It was a hit.
The second act originally opened with "Golden Ballet," a companion number to the
prologue. It was to set the mood for the shift from Italy to Thailand. However, the
choreographer never finished it (and Nunn didn't care). This incomplete choreography was
exceptionally hazardous. It frequently had to be dropped from the show's running order
because there weren't enough uninjured dancers to perform it. As replacements were hired,
they weren't taught the number and it disappeared completely after about six months.
"One Night in Bangkok" opened the second act for the rest of the run.
The last half of the second act was confusing but incredibly powerful. The cast
was all in black and white--the chorus even wore contrasting blonde and brunette wigs--
and Nunn thrust them around the chessboard stage with ruthless precision. It wasn't
choreography, it was war. When the pressure on Anatoly was the greatest, the stage was
canted toward him (and the audience) and the cast seemed able to engulf him in an avalanche of bodies. The 47-member cast's voices exerted as much thrust as their bodies. Anatoly, the music and the lyrics all met the challenge and emerged victorious. This two-part finale, "Deal/No Deal" and "Endgame," was so complete, so dramatic, so theatrical, it could be presented as a stand-alone piece.
The audience genuinely cheered the show, but the reviews were mixed. One critic said
Chess "turns out to be a fine piece of work that shows the dinosaur mega-musical
evolving into an intelligent form of life." Another called it "elephantine" and said it
made "little dramatic sense." One headline hit it on the nose: "Opening move is nearly a winner."
The music and lyrics were widely admired, especially Andersson and Ulvaeus' score. They
were lauded as bright new stars in musical theatre.
The morning after it opened, Jane Pauley asked Rice on NBC's Today show when
Chess would come to New York. He said in about a year. Pauley also wanted to know if
Elaine would finally get to bring one of her West End hit roles to Broadway (American Equity
had denied her permission to reprise her starring roles in Evita and Cats on
Broadway) and Tim said "if she doesn't, I ain't coming."
Soon, perestroika made the Russia vs. America theme of Chess redundant.
And possibly, the odd hybrid nature of Chess's staging and production contributed to it
not being quite the hit it could have been. Everyone agreed the problems which remained
could be ironed out for the New York version, scheduled for 1987. Tim Rice started on rewrites.
The beauty of the score and Rice's trenchant and often witty lyrics more than made up
for any deficiencies in Chess. The show developed a cult following and ran three years
at the Prince Edward. However, it just barely recouped its initial investment. Not only was
it extraordinarily expensive to begin with, it had serious competition in the West End.
Les Miz was still very hot, Phantom opened in October 1986 and despite the
tepid reception to its first single, immediately became the show everyone had to see.
Scalpers were getting $150-$300 per ticket. Phantom took the best musical honors in
the Olivier Awards that year as did Michael Crawford, but Elaine Paige was nominated for
her portrayal of Florence.
In late 1988 when the box office started to erode, inexplicably there was no additional
advertising or promotional push. When it seemed clear Chess would have to close, the
announcement of "last weeks" was delayed until it had little effect. The timing was bad too,
as the four principals' contracts were up a month before the announced final performance and
understudies were elevated to finish the run, letting the show fade out with second-string
performances. But on closing night, it was still easy to remember the electricity Elaine
Paige, Tommy Korberg and Murray Head had brought to the stage of the Prince Edward.