Sunday, April 28, 2013

broadway birthday CHESS opened on Broadway 25 years ago today on April 28, 1988

Almost fifteen years before Abba front men Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus had a smash hit Broadway show that was based on their Abba hits, Mamma Mia, they tried unsuccessfully with an original musical Chess that unfortunately only managed a run of two months on Broadway.  Chess is yet another show that found success in London but when moved to the U.S. failed miserably.  Even with a successful and still running production of the show in London, the creative team decided to make drastic changes to the show for Broadway.  The changes included adding dialogue to what was previously an almost entirely sung through show, reordering the song order, changing one of the main characters to now be an American and completely re-designing the show's set.  The changes were either unnecessary or detracted from the show, all of which is a shame as the score of Chess includes some excellent songs.

Focusing on two chess players, a Russian and an American and a love triangle with the woman who manages one of them, Chess began in 1984 like most UK musicals at that time as a concept album.  With music by Andersson and Ulvaeus and lyrics by Time Rice, the recording featured Murray Head as Freddie the American player, Tommy Körberg as Anatoly the Russian and Elaine Paige as Florence, the manager and girlfriend of Freddie who falls in love with Anatoly.  Barbara Dickson played the part of Anatoly's wife Sveltana.  The album was extremely successful which even included one hit song from the show "One Night in Bangkok" reaching number 3 on the US Billboard charts in May of 1985.

Judy Kuhn and David Caroll
The London production of the show premiered in May of 1986 with Head, Körberg and Paige all reprising their roles from the concept album.  Dickson wasn't available so her part was played by Siobhán McCarthy.  Trevor Nunn who was just coming off of directing the smash hit Les Misérables was chosen to direct after original director Michael Bennett was no longer able to continue due to his poor health.  While the show was a success, it also happened to open in the same season as The Phantom of the Opera, which would go on to sweep all of the major awards for that year, leaving Chess basically empty handed.

For Broadway, besides the many changes I mentioned above, playwright Richard Nelson (who's latest, and excellent, play Nikolai and the Others is about to open at Lincoln Center) was asked to write a new book for the show.  The Broadway cast included David Carroll as Anatoly, Philip Casnoff as Freddie and Judy Kuhn as Florence.  The three leads couldn't have been better suited for their roles but even with all of the changes it was actually the rock music of the show that received most of the criticism and the show closed on June 25th.

The Original Broadway Cast did receive a cast recording from RCA Records and I believe due to that recording, the star making performances of the three leads, and a lot of the more Broadway style songs, the show has had continued interest.  Many revisions of the show have happened, combining elements of both the original London production and the Broadway version, but none seem to have been able to crack the issues at hand in order to make Chess into the masterpiece many people believe it should be. 

Several concert productions of the show have happened as well including a star studded one at Royal Albert Hall in 2008 that featured Adam Pascal as Freddie, Josh Groban as Anatoly and Idina Menzel as Florence.  Pascal and Groban had played those same parts in an Actor's Fund Benefit in New York in 2003.

I believe this is yet another show like Merrily We Roll Along that have superb scores and books that don't quite live up to them.  And while I don't believe the score of Chess is on par with Merrily, I do believe there are some great songs in the Chess score including "Nobody's Side," "Where I Want to Be," "I Know Him So Well," "Pity the Child," and "Anthem."   And while "One Night in Bangkok" was a commercial pop success I find it to be too pop heavy for the rest of the score.

Will Chess every be the successful musical that many people believe it will be?  I don't know the answer to that, but with an excellent score, I think people will continue trying to attempt it.

David Carroll sings "Anthem":

Judy Kuhn sings "Someone Else's Story" from a concert she gave:

Idina Menzel sings "Nobody's Side" from the Royal Albert Hall concert:

Elaine Paige and Tommy Körberg sing 'You and I":

Adam Pascal sings "Pity the Child":

"One Night in Bangkok"- music video from 1984:


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