Commentary - Oddities and a (very opinionated) Editorial

Chess players and modern dancers

Tim Rice once wrote a show about a love triangle set in the Cold War with interruptions by an increasingly demanding media. That story was lost years ago. The Cold War is over and the Soviet Union is history. So what do you do with Chess?

As each production was staged, things got worse. As the Berlin Wall came down, things got worse. As the Soviet Union disappeared, things got worse. In trying to keep Chess contemporary, producer after producer and director after director changed this line, that song, another piece of business. A version six months later had to change still more because the world was changing. And Rice was far too accommodating and wrote more and more good scenes for Fort Worth, for Plymouth, for a small theatre in New York. Soon there were two shows worth of good material and the next directors and producers said, "oh, we have to have that's my favorite. Somehow, it was patched and cobbled together into a show. And we got further and further from that love triangle in the Cold War.

By 1992, productions of Chess were composed of nothing but bits and pieces from six other versions and they stopped making sense all together. One Civic Light Opera company bought the sets and costumes from the then-defunct U.S. Tour, used the Broadway book with interpolations from Chicago and Sydney, and added the modern dancers in splotchy unitards from the British Tour. The clashing scenes from so many directors, producers, writers and choreographers resulted in a show that was light years away from the original. Florence was a Czech refugee in one scene, Hungarian in another. Somehow, Freddie became a Hollywood wanna-be. The Arbiter's assistants looked odd in turquoise and white (costumes made for a Thailand-based version) when plunked in brooding Budapest.

Since then, desperate producers, saddled with a failed book, unable to get music scores for the London songs, have gone to even greater excesses in order to put on Chess. Another web page says it best: it's time for someone to take control and pick a version, make it the definitive one, buy out the stranglehold on the show exacted by Trevor Nunn and Richard Nelson's contracts and get this show on its feet again.

Editorial -2001

It is also time for me, the author of this webpage, to step out from behind the editorial "we." I would not have spent the time and money to put this website together if I didn't care a great deal about musical theatre in general and Chess in particular. I take full responsibility for my positions stated here. I mean no disrespect to Mr. Nunn, Mr. Nelson or anyone else. Each of them made decisions and choices which not only seemed right at the time, they seemed to make sense. But what has happened is that we have lost one of the greatest musicals ever. We in North America are not even permitted to see the two successful versions. I find this an absurd state of affairs.

In a perfect world, the London sets (if they still exist) would be shipped over to Broadway and the show recreated there. Screenwriter William Goldman said "Nobody knows anything" about Hollywood and it's just as true about Broadway. Who knows how the show would do? I certainly don't. But I believe in it, and believe it was ahead of its time. Theatre audiences should have a chance to judge this now-legendary production for themselves.

In that same perfect world, the Sydney version would be staged intact in Toronto and then Chess fans could shuttle between them and see which one they liked best. Perhaps they'd love them both. I do. Each has splendid, theatrical moments that give you goosebumps and make you vow to never let live theatre die.

This show underwent another rewrite--this time in Swedish. If it worked, the plan was to re-translate it back into English. Excuse me, but does that make any sense at all? The show barely survived this nonsense. Its story, characters' behavior and even lines of dialogue and songs are locked in the 1980s (think Rubick's Cubes!). And that's where they must stay or there will be more anachronisms and more continuity problems. Does anyone take South Pacific or The Sound of Music out of their World War II periods? You can't, because the way the characters behave is the way people behaved then. Will a revival of Ragtime in 10 years be set in 1916 instead of 1906? Just because Chess was contemporary when it opened doesn't mean it must stay that way. Authors would never do any new work if they had to constantly update the old.

Is it possible (in this same perfect world) for the authors, producers and director to acknowledge the great job they did the first time out--despite the loss of the original director, despite the computer and hydraulic glitches? For all its faults and the understandable temptation to interpolate material from subsequent versions, the London version is true to itself; it was all written and composed at once, and remains the most cohesive version available. Yes, it would be nice to know a bit more about Florence, have the romance between Florence and Anatoly played out more clearly, but too many years have passed to start rewriting. The entire world has changed. Nothing in the London version rings false and some careful staging could fix the minor things wrong with it.

By now, the London production is legendary. People want to see it. Wouldn't giving North Americans that chance make more sense than simply playing it safe with yet another concert version?

There haven't been many, but a few people over the last 50 years, have thought art was more important than money or egos. It only happens rarely but it does happen. If only.....

"...In love of Chess."

Sylvia Stoddard

Postcript - 2018

It is now Spring 2018. I was fortunate to see two of the five performances of a concert version at Kennedy Center, with a new book by Danny Strong and directed by Michael Mayer. Benny, Tim and Bjorn were all involved. Audiences were rapturous.

The English National Opera is staging the first London revival in three decades in April 2018. It was a disaster of directorial missteps.

© 2002, 2018 - Sylvia Stoddard