Chess – The Musical (Again)

Having sat through the first half of “Chess” last night at Sydney’s Theatre Royal, I found myself repeating myself. “Chess”, the musical written by Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Tim Rice in the post-ABBA years, has been staged many times since the debut CD in 1984. The London Production had a good long run, and the Australian run went okay, but it totally bombed on Broadway.

Every time it’s been staged, it’s been slightly different. They’ve often re-ordered songs, added dialogue, and sometimes they’ve had different characters singing songs previously sung by others. Last night, for example, the song “Nobody’s Side” was at the show’s conclusion, rather than being a dramatic mid-show number. Last night I confided to my friends attending, I felt like I was attending “Chess – The IPod Shuffle Mix”, as it differed so dramatically from the original, and much-loved debut CD. Chess fan Angus, however, reassured me last nights was a “fairly standard modern production of Chess”.

Chess at Theatre Royal, Sydney

And that’s when I began repeating myself. Two and a half years ago, when I made a trip to West Ryde to see an amateur production of “Chess”, at the time concluding…

It occured to me the reason why “Chess” has had only limited success is that it spends too much time early in the piece talking about the game, the history, the politics, when actually it’s the love story and the personal motivations that are the most interesting. If I was doing a production I’d chop out most of the first half and begin with “1956 Budapest Is Rising” as it’s from then onwards that you understand so many of the motivations – both personal and political – that govern the action of the characters.

And to be honest I still think that’s the case.

I really hated the first half last night. It all started early in the piece during the song “Merano” (set in Italy) as the audience noticed the backdrop was actually the Paris skyline. I was also totally confused by what was happening, as the songs and scenes jumped around. The one saving grace was the performance of “Anthem” by the actor/singer who played Anatoly. He was excellent.

The second half, however, was much better. There was a more consistent plotline, and the cast sang well, even if the choreography was a little dodgy. The actor/singer who played Svetlana was very, very good, and we were all impressed upon discovering it was her stage musical debut.

Fundamentally, though, “Chess” needs another re-work. At the moment, it’s still far too inaccessible, with too many “b-sides” and superfluous content that distracts from the main story and the great songs contained therein. From what I’ve read, the most recent Swedish version (released 2002) probably comes closest to achieving that balance.

I really love “Chess” and I hope one day they finally get it right.

6 Replies to “Chess – The Musical (Again)”

  1. the music is so beautiful.

    the storyline needs to be completely rewritten for sure. i reckon u could stick frida’s true-life story in – just change all the words.

  2. Since we saw Chess on Saturday night, I dug out the (unauthorised) Danish cast recording, which is essentially the same show that we saw on Saturday night (except that Nobody’s Side was where it should have been, and Someone Else’s Story was in act 2). Like you, I was more familiar with the 1984 “concept” album, and seeing the show on Saturday was quite confusing, with songs that we know in different places, and other unfamiliar songs inserted into the show.

    Had I listened to the Danish CD, I probably would have better followed what was happening on stage.

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