Commentary - The American Tour Version

Even before Chess closed in New York, there was interest from dozens of regional theatres where various producers and directors thought they could make the show work.

The authors and producers of the musical were so demoralized by the New York disaster that they would have agreed to nearly anything. If someone could make it work, let them try. It wouldn't be the usual road company version of a New York show. The physical production wouldn't be duplicated, nor would the direction. Not even the book.

A production of Chess was first announced for the Paper Mill Playhouse in the New York area, but veteran road producer Tom Mallow ended up with the rights. Several co-producers came and went and an opening was set for Miami in January 1990.

Since a full-scale production of Chess--this time with Tim Rice firmly in charge--was set to open in Australia in February, Rice tried to get the tour delayed so it could use the Australian version if it worked.

Producer Tom Mallow wouldn't wait and director Des McAnuff (Big River) hired a friend and colleague, Robert Coe, to write a new book for the show. Unfortunately, the new book was based on Richard Nelson's instead of going back to the original. Coe--like Nelson--is an avant garde political writer, and why he was chosen when Nelson had failed probably was more because of his professional relationship with McAnuff than his suitability to the project.

In any event, Coe began writing just four weeks before rehearsals began. Though he accurately identified the problems, he wasn't able to fix them.

Chess became a play with musical interruptions. There were 21 songs in the London Chess; New York dropped four and added seven. The U.S. Tour had only 16 and most were shortened. The songs became intrusions rather than the fabric of the show. Many of them didn't even make sense any more. It was as though this creative team heard the concept album but had lost the libretto, then decided to write a new show around some of the songs.

Though Freddie became a more sympathetic character than in New York, Florence was less so. Her relationships with the two men were contradictory and her vulnerability nonexistent. Florence's father was no longer her emotional catalyst (he was mentioned as a Hungarian Chess champion who died in the revolution). Without that impetus, her motivations were very thin and hazy. And, her relentless apologies to Freddie were absurd. Though the actors were all vocally excellent, the characters were so badly drawn and diffused, even the actors couldn't seem to make sense of them. The emotional stakes for all the characters were blurred or gone completely. This truly was someone else's story--Tim Rice's was gone, his characters unrecognizable.

Without the jokes from Nelson's book or any of Tim Rice's humorous songs ("Merano," "U.S. vs. U.S.S.R.," "Merchandisers Song," "Embassy Lament," "Let's Work Together" and "Soviet Machine"), the story was even more grim than in New York. The relationships were over-discussed and explained to the point of tedium. The changing political climate of 1990 was flung rather haphazardly into the piece, again with anachronistic scenes surviving from earlier versions.

The audience reception and the reviews were mixed. The lack of any "names" in the cast didn't help advance bookings on a circuit used to seeing big-name stars in star vehicles. With no Broadway heat behind it, the tour management cancelled lengthy bookings in Los Angeles and San Francisco and the American Tour sputtered to an ignominious end with a shortened run in Southern California following a three-week layoff when it had no bookings. New York's failure was compounded: the book still didn't work and now the songs didn't work either. Tim Rice felt very distanced from the show by now.

© 1991, 2019 - Sylvia Stoddard