What’s to be done about Chess?
I mean, of course, the 1980s musical about Cold War chess rivalries, with a score by the ABBA boys, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, and lyrics by Tim Rice. This show simply can’t catch a break. It opened in London in 1986 and ran for three years, but reviewers griped about a book that one called “an inchoate mess.” The show was rewritten and restaged when it came to Broadway in 1988, but got even worse reviews and closed in just two months. It has been revised several times since, apparently to no avail: today it sits largely unmourned, a relic of the pop-opera mega-musical era — an era we’re supposed to be very glad is long gone.
But not all of us.. Chess retains its devoted fan club, of which I consider myself a charter member. (Another was my late, beloved TIME colleague Richard Corliss.) So when I found myself in London for short visit last week, I made sure to catch the new revival by the English National Opera, now playing at the London Coliseum.
That meant ignoring the usual bad reviews. (“No matter how frosty the West’s relations with Russia, is there really any reason to roll Chess out of cold storage?” sniffed Variety, amid a chorus of disapproval). And, as usual, I found myself as stupefied by the clueless critics as I was enthralled by the show. This is a truly glorious production, better than either the original London or Broadway versions, beautifully sung (West End musical star Michael Ball heads the terrific cast) and strikingly staged — really the apotheosis of Chess, the greatest of all pop-rock operas.
Once again, there has been some tinkering, in an effort to streamline the musical’s somewhat lumpy story of a bad-boy American chess star (named — in the original, if you can believe it — Freddie Trumper) and his conflicted Soviet rival, who defects to the U.S. and leaves his wife for Freddie’s ex-girlfriend. The show still has second-act problems, and some of my favorite Tim Rice lyrics have been excised — to no great advantage, from what I could discern.
And yet, Chess has been punished too harshly for its ambitions. For all its flaws, the show is a politically astute and often affecting look at the way Cold War tensions were transferred to the chess board — and reflected in the lives and loves of the people who hovered over it. This new concert-style production, directed by Laurence Connor (who did such a fine job with the recent revival of Miss Saigon), presses the point with video montages that recap highlights from Cold War history — a history that lately has come to seem not so distant after all. (If Chess is dated, then so is The Americans.)
But Chess remains, as always, a demonstration of the power of a great score to enhance, even ennoble, everything it touches. The music is as rich and stirring as anything written for the theater in the past 40 years: from rock anthems to Bach-like fugues, from the lovely, complex ballads (“Someone Else’s Story,” “I Know Him So Well”) to the catchy disco hit “One Night in Bangkok,” culminating in the jabbing, dissonant, minor-key theme that drives the climactic chess match — elevated to symphonic heights by the 60-piece orchestra and marvelous ENO chorus. It left me breathless.