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Why didn't Chess work on Broadway? 
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Post Why didn't Chess work on Broadway?
I have yet to see, read or hear the full performance of the Original Broadway Cast of Chess, but I can't understand how it became such a flop. The story seems to be one of the best out there, the actors where fabulous, what happened?

I would also like to read the script of the Broadway version, if anybody has it. I have the London script, which is far from good, I also got the American Tour script which also is a bit weird. The Sydney doesn't really work for me either, and so far the best version I have seen / heard / read in full is the 2003 Swedish production which had nothing to do with Tim Rice whatsoever. So is Chess perhaps a project that should be rewritten by another writer with new lyrics where they are needed?

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Tue Jul 07, 2009 5:58 am
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Well, that's the million-dollar question, isn't it?

First, there are some external factors in the whole thing that were bound up in what happened to the Broadway production of Chess. Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables had opened within the last year or so, and there was a distinct fatigue for British mega-musicals, particularly among the press. Chess was directed by Trevor Nunn, and came out very much in the direct shadow of Phantom - it may sound unbelievable today, but he wanted to beat Hal Prince for the Tony Awards. This caused him to launch the show into an already crowded season, without giving the new book an out-of-town tryout (which was desperately needed). The critics had their knives sharpened. Realistically, it already had two strikes before the curtain went up, it just needed to make a third. Which it certainly did.

A lot of people make the mistake of trying to judge the Broadway version of Chess without actually having seen it. It's hard to get a feel for what it was like from an amateur theatre production, even one that sticks reasonably close to the Broadway staging. The physical set was a revolve (turntable / roundabout, however you like to call it) taking up the bulk of the stage, accompanied by twelve sizeable towers. Six towers reached most of the way up to the proscenium arch, and six were considerably shorter (maybe half that size). These were reconfigured to create walls, elevators, and other scenery as necessary. In the opening scene (set in Budapest, 1956), they formed...a barricade. Remember, it's only been a year or so since Les Mis debuted on Broadway - a Trevor Nunn / John Caird show that was far more successful - and here was Nunn opening a show with a barricade on a turntable. Even if the rest of the show had been sublime, this was a hilariously awful mistake. The rest of the production had some achingly beautiful set decorations, but everything was upstaged by the stupid towers.

It's also hard to get a sense for what the show was like without having seen it because otherwise you can't really grasp how badly Nunn directed the show. I swear there are solos that just pass while characters mostly...sit in chairs. There is no sense of actors in motion. He'd put together a very long show, over three hours, and when it was trimmed so that the actors wouldn't need to be paid overtime, he cut some of the lighter moments ("Merchandisers" goes from three verses to one, and "The Arbiter's Song" disappears), making it ponderous in the extreme. He also put some very talented actors in very awkward positions. Judy Kuhn's Florence was technically performed very, very well, one of the best ever; but the way the script and direction worked out, she came off as a bit annoying. Her characterization could have been more likeable, and she does have three solos and a killer duet to redeem herself, but every directorial choice was made to make Florence less of a passionate and audacious woman and more mousy and insecure. Philip Casnoff's Freddie was an astonishingly good performance of an extremely poorly written role. It was unrelentingly boorish, a caricature of the Ugly American without a shred of redemption. David Carroll and Marcia Mitzman got lucky, in that Anatoly and Svetlana were actually likeable.

So before you get to the script, which does have very real faults, you have to look at the rest of the show. Had the same factors been arrayed against a different version, it would have likely suffered the same fate.

As for the script itself: it's a hard sell. The characterizations are consistent, but poor, as has already been noted. The material has an unfortunate tendency to become turgid or preachy, by turns, and a number of the jokes are duds. ("My advice to the President of the United States is, the only time you should trust an utterance from a Russian is when he farts!") There are a couple of unfortunate song placements, although none quite so bad as the entirely random "One Night in Bangkok." (It adds nothing to the show whatsoever.) There are actually some good moments, and the plot is highly coherent throughout, which you can't say about any other version. But much of it is desperate for an editorial hand, particularly as the whole thing lumbers into the second half of Act II. Which is where things really turn south.

Every bad tendency in the show comes out in Act II. The only light number in the act, "Let's Work Together," becomes ponderous when the actors are simply standing around smoking cigarettes. One scene in a restaurant - the busiest scene in the script - is blissfully relieved by "I Know Him So Well," but the song nearly gets lost in the muddled scene surrounding it. The next song, "Pity," is purely reprehensible; the confrontation between Florence and Freddie that precedes it is done wretchedly, and the song is crudely played off as an on-air breakdown. The scene with "Apukad" is cheap and manipulative once the actual truth about Florence's "father" (who, it is obvious, is the father seen in the prologue) is revealed two scenes later. "Endgame" had been a brilliant conceptual theatre piece in London. On Broadway, it is a joyless match played to Anatoly's humiliation by Freddie - he loses the match. Then the Anatoly / Florence part plays out, with a badly rewritten "You and I - Reprise" finishing it; then you get to the actual ending. It is tedious, preachy, unrelentingly mean-spirited and closes the whole thing on a reprise of "Anthem." Even fans of the show had to admit that the second act was pretty awful. The first act was actually not that bad, even if it was a bit overlong and if the writing wasn't the greatest.

Other directors can do better - have done better. The Sydney script has a lot of wacky decisions ("Where I Want to Be" 35 minutes in, "Anthem" in Act II, "Heaven" closing Act I, "Soviet Machine" and "The Deal" stretched to ridiculous lengths) but Jim Sharman did a visionary production that rose above it all. (London also had a number of moments of greatness, particularly "The Deal" and "Endgame," that transcended its limitations.) Des McAnuff threw together a great-looking production for the American Tour, but unfortunately the script was thrown together in less than 4 weeks and came off as nearly incomprehensible. David H. Bell made a bit of a career in the 1990s of going from city to city producing a modified version of the Broadway book, which one may argue cheated a bit by giving Florence her father back at the end, but won a lot of fans and acclaim, all with relatively small cuts and alterations to the actual script. Stockholm has raging problems in Act II, particularly when it doesn't know quite how to get the plot moving and throws a bunch of solos in to skim over it, but it was one of the best directed and acted versions ever.

There's a lot of blame to go around for Broadway, but at the end of the day, the director has responsibility for his show. This is particularly true for Broadway Chess, where Richard Nelson rewrote the script while working closely with Nunn. And I think that the ultimate blame lies at Nunn's feet. Sure, you can fault Tim Rice for not asserting himself, and for creating the mess of a plot. You can blame Frank Rich and the critics in general for being much harder on Chess than it deserved. But on the whole, everything that was wrong was Nunn's conscious decision, and he deserves the blame.

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Tue Jul 07, 2009 10:18 am
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Young Hoofer
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Post 
Well said (written) Cadriela, I don't have the time to write a long reply and I'd only be saying the same as you (and not so well) so to put it in one sentence (or two) quite frankly the Broadway show was awful! It was dull, boring, over amplified - losing all the beauty of the music and just not worth the money, I didn't even think the cast were that great and although I love Judy on the CD I didn't enjoy her all that much on stage - but I do believe that was due to direction - which probably stands for why I didn't enjoy the other performers either. There is really only one person to blame for why Chess didn't work on Broadway - the director!

I must admit I did like the towers (as a concept) and they would have been amazing if used in a different way. Trevor Nunn later used the same concept, but using screens in his London production of Aspects of Love and they worked really well - though again I think he managed to make a show with a very fluid and colourful set feel quite long and dull!!

No production of Chess was ever going to compete with Phantom - it's such a different kind of show and Phantom was always going to come out on top after the reception it got in London.

Chess would possibly have done much better if it had come into town later than it did, but we will never know.

I like some aspects of the Sydney script, but I thought the production very much made the bad bits worse! It made it tacky and too glitzy in lots of parts, but that's another story.

RJS


Wed Jul 08, 2009 8:06 am
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RJS wrote:
I didn't even think the cast were that great and although I love Judy on the CD I didn't enjoy her all that much on stage - but I do believe that was due to direction - which probably stands for why I didn't enjoy the other performers either.

I've actually seen a lot of amateur performers manage to come off like Kuhn did on Broadway - which is unfortunate, as the concept of the character presented had virtually nil for appeal. I do think Harry Goz was thoroughly enjoyable even as directed, and I actually really wanted poor Philip Casnoff to come off better than he did in his misbegotten part. Ah, well, I guess it beats the head injury he got in Shogun.

RJS wrote:
I must admit I did like the towers (as a concept) and they would have been amazing if used in a different way. Trevor Nunn later used the same concept, but using screens in his London production of Aspects of Love and they worked really well - though again I think he managed to make a show with a very fluid and colourful set feel quite long and dull!!

Yeah, Nunn managed to screw up a Tim Rice show then turn around and screw up an Andrew Lloyd Webber show. (There are even casting overlaps; Kevin Colson was the original London Walter in Chess, and the original George in Aspects, and Ann Crumb was in the cast for Broadway Chess.) At the time, he was obsessed with the idea of "cinematic" theatre, which meant big sets and a ton of unnecessary scene breaks, which makes Broadway Chess hell to do in amateur shows. Both Chess and Aspects (my favorite works by both Rice and ALW after their collaboration) were in need of an intimate, character-focused hand, which Nunn ran roughshod over. For what it's worth, Aspects was basically funded by ALW so it wouldn't go down as a flop; Chess did not have that luxury.

RJS wrote:
Chess would possibly have done much better if it had come into town later than it did, but we will never know.

A year later and it would've won the Tony Award for Best Musical more or less out of lack of competition. Hell, the critics saw Carrie a week or two later and came back shamefaced saying Chess wasn't as bad as all that. The timing was the worst possible moment.

RJS wrote:
I like some aspects of the Sydney script, but I thought the production very much made the bad bits worse! It made it tacky and too glitzy in lots of parts, but that's another story.

I thought it was the only production that actually got the angle that the chess match was a big, tacky, overproduced media spectacle right. Sure, it had excesses (like a 10 minute long "Soviet Machine"), but so would've Michael Bennett's version if that had come to pass. Stockholm has it beat in many ways, but I thought Sydney had a lot going for it.

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Wed Jul 08, 2009 8:57 am
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It's the same old story, every production has had its good bits, it just has never happened yet that one production has been filled with good bits and none or very few bad bits! If only!

I don't think the Chess tournament should be tacky, it can have the media sheen around it, but that doesn't have to be tacky, though it wasn't the tournament elements that made me feel the Sydney show was tacky - it was more the way certain other 'real life' things were done, like the women in their robes during Nobody's Side and even to a degree the men during Where I Want to Be. I also really didn't like the Arbiter very much, probably because he sung like he was a dancer and not a singer and didn't really dance much, so a really good singer would have been better for the part. I don't think the two 'worlds' of Chess and Real Life really convinced at any point for any length of time, because something odd would shake me out of my temporary suspension of disbelief.

There were some aspects of the script (words / lines) that just didn't ring true or natural to me. I don't know if this was maybe to do with and Australian slant on some inflections etc, but so often I just didn't believe what the characters were saying and sometimes doing.

To be honest it's so long now that I really need to sit down and study the production again to remind me what exactly I didn't like - I just know there was lots of little things, though I did like many other bits too.

As for Broadway, it's even longer since I seen that one (21 years!) but I do remember that I liked Molokov much more than Walter, but I didn't like Anatoly and was not really a big fan of Freddie either (I'm talking about the performances slightly more than the way the character was written). Judy was a bit of a shock because of the kind of voice she had and I think during the production she was a bit too shrill for me, but as I said before I grew to love her on the album. I really quite liked the setting for HHMHeart, but hated the one used for Nobody's Side. In fact what year was it set in??? The whole thing felt like it was in a very dark period of Eastern Europe's past, maybe not long after 1956!!!! That was ok for the prologue, but the drabness and oppression never lifted!

One thing I have always thought about Broadway, was that I would have loved to have watched it without the songs!! Their was that element of drama within the script that made me interested to a degree in what was going on, but then a song would come along and I would be almost bored during the songs!! In theory impossible during a Chess song, but that's how I felt!!! There was obviously something very wrong with the balance within the show and it tipped me over to the play side rather than the musical!!

I would soooooooooooooo love to see the video that is in the NY library and will hopefully one day get the chance. I know there is a video out there in fan world somewhere, but I've never managed to find it! :o( It would be so good to see it all again and be reminded how each scene was staged, lit, acted etc...

And finally..... Stockholm, sounded wonderful and had great depth and feeling to a lot of it's scenes, but again there was stuff that I hated - like 'Bedroom - Endgame', 'The Deal' the whole fun park scene and even the trapeze, much as they were brilliant - I just had no interest in watching that during a musical! Also hated the wooden moving 'barn' that was pushed around! Also hated 'Bangkok - Ballroom' and the two new songs, but LOVED the music for Urgern '56, so beautiful and says so much without the need for words OR even a tank on the stage! I also LOVED the new version of 'The Arbiter' I was shocked by the performance at first, but I grew to like it and really liked the way in which the music had been updated.

One day I will write detailed thoughts on each production, but in the meantime it's been fascinating reading what you have had to say. I'd better do it soon though while I can still remember!!! Almost!

RJS


Fri Jul 10, 2009 8:54 am
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It fascinates me how Broadway production of Chess is portrayed by many as a show "killed by the critics". Even Bjorn Ulvaeus himself until this day solely blames Frank Rich for the musical's failure.
I think, it is not true.

I can only judge from the reviews that I amassed a lot, and while many critics thought the show didn't work overall, some loved it unreservedly (Time magazine review, for example).
All critics especially praised three leading performances, and Harry Goz got his only Drama Desk Award nod (or any major award nod in his career, for that matter) for Chess.
Many loved the score and Andersson/Ulvaeus got a Drama Desk Award nomination for it. The Broadway cast recording was also nominated for Grammy Award.
Interestingly, Linda Winer of Newsday wrote in 1992 that she "always thought of Chess more as a near-miss than a flop".

To me, the unfavorable word of mouth was the culprit. As Variety correctly predicted in its review of the Broadway production: "Word of mouth will begin to spread, and the verdict probably won't be good".

Neither Cats nor Phantom on Broadway were universally hailed, and yet those two still became most susccessful theatrical ventures EVER, because the general audience ignored the verdicts like ''The Phantom of the Opera'' is as much a victory of dynamic stagecraft over musical kitsch as it is a triumph of merchandising uber alles" and flocked to see the shows based on a good word of mouth.


Sat Jul 18, 2009 8:55 am
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Post Re:
RJS wrote:
It's the same old story, every production has had its good bits, it just has never happened yet that one production has been filled with good bits and none or very few bad bits! If only!


I know I'm sort of necro-posting here, but the thought occurred to me in reading the quoted text ... why has no one sat down, figured out the good bits from all of the major productions, and tried to put them in one version? (Actor's Fund concert cut-and-paste jobs aside.)

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Post Re: Why didn't Chess work on Broadway?
There was a production with some big names in it (Idina Menzel, Josh Groban, etc.) and I think that was an attempt to make the musical a hit. But that was a "Chess in Concert" kind of thing rather than a proper revival.


Thu Aug 25, 2011 7:55 am
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Post Re: Re:
Brother Marvin Hinten, S. wrote:
RJS wrote:
It's the same old story, every production has had its good bits, it just has never happened yet that one production has been filled with good bits and none or very few bad bits! If only!


I know I'm sort of necro-posting here, but the thought occurred to me in reading the quoted text ... why has no one sat down, figured out the good bits from all of the major productions, and tried to put them in one version? (Actor's Fund concert cut-and-paste jobs aside.)

I think the most recent UK touring production does a rather admirable job in that regard.

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Thu Aug 25, 2011 9:01 am
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Post Re: Re:
Brother Marvin Hinten, S. wrote:
I know I'm sort of necro-posting here, but the thought occurred to me in reading the quoted text ... why has no one sat down, figured out the good bits from all of the major productions, and tried to put them in one version? (Actor's Fund concert cut-and-paste jobs aside.)

Mostly because it's hard, and the good material relies on mutually contradictory assumptions about the plot (particularly in Act II). I've always been convinced that the best solution is to wind up merging London and Sydney - but that's much easier said than done.

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Fri Sep 09, 2011 9:48 am
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Post Re: Why didn't Chess work on Broadway?
You've wrestled with this problem more than I have, but I am the obligatory "fix-all-the-musicals" fan-boy, so my thoughts are as follows, based on the process I've used with previous shows, and keeping in mind your London/Sydney combo: distill the elements that work in both the London and Sydney plots and make a list for each, combine both lists and place them in a rough order to create the start of a synopsis, look at the score elements that work in both the London and Sydney plots in a mutually beneficial manner and create a list, add to the working synopsis, and develop the script from there. It's all about establishing plot parameters. (The post that follows is largely written for those who don't already know how to fix musicals like we do, and a glimpse at our respective thought processes. I'm not trying to talk down to you, just outlining the thoughts that go into it for my intended audience.) For example, here's how I'd do a London/Sydney combo.

Single Match Format
As you've pointed out on your blog, the split-match format is a key weakness of the London version; to quote you directly, "For their flaws (all of them have second-act problems), the later variations have a much greater coherency, which stems from the fact that the single chess match acts as a framing event for the dramatic action. [...] The benefit of a single-match format is that the action is much more cohesive, with the match providing the outline for the drama." So the first key element of the putative show is established: the single match format. There are strengths and weaknesses to this approach, but we're looking for a coherent show.

The structure of a play is like a rose making itself manifest from a flower bud. The first aspects we see (and therefore must solve, in a play's case) are the most peripheral. Consequently the most peripheral aspects have a huge impact on the rest of the show's form. Having made the single match decision, it directly affects other elements of the show as a result: for example, the extensive Sydney rewrite of "The Soviet Machine" (or at least portions thereof) is likely to be a part of this version, because with the single match format, as you well know, "Molokov, rather than trying to stage a match a la Karpov/Korchnoi 1978, is primarily concerned with getting Anatoly home."

Cold War Setting
Again liberally quoting your blog: "The material in the Sydney [..] production [...] inevitably runs into the glasnost and perestroika issues. [...] The most immediate problem of glasnost and perestroika is that they made Anatoly's defection from the Soviet Union almost paradoxical. [...] Without the onerous travel restrictions of a Soviet citizen, the defection is more of a personal than a political statement, and almost certainly loses the intended punch (which was to parallel Anatoly to Viktor Korchnoi, a Soviet grandmaster who left Russia because he was blocked from rising to the top of the Russian chess circuit)." As you put it, "One of the crucial things to understand when dealing with Chess is that it was conceived of as a very timely musical, dealing with east/west tensions and the odd phenomenon of chess celebrity in the West." Why screw with its original conception? To quote you for the third time in a single paragraph, "...it is almost impossible to justify a time setting other than 1986 or a few years before it."

This necessarily sets up a few other elements of plot, and allows for possibilities. As you noted, pushing the Sydney version back to that point makes Florence too young to have been a child of the Prague Spring, and these references would have to be replaced with the traditional Hungarian story line (which was intact in London). This means no lyrics about Prague and Mr. Dubcek; in 1956, Budapest is once again rising, falling, and dying. It also follows that "Commie Newspapers" is a likely inclusion, that "U.S. vs. U.S.S.R." will speak of "very dangerous and difficult times," that the "What a Scene" segment will include remarks about "beating the Red," that the original "Press Conference" from London will likely be largely intact with all its Red-baiting rhetoric, the "Embassy Lament" will revert to its original pre-Sydney lyrics, and so forth. Suddenly, major portions of the first and second act are starting to assume their shape.

The Book
From there, at least as I see it (you're the dramaturge who's worked on it longer, so I bow to you), it's a matter of making the plot elements of the London and Sydney libretti cohere in one story, yanking influences from other versions as necessary to make this confluence of elements work. For example, in this single match format, Freddie's lyrics about only watching (and controlling) the game this time in "One Night in Bangkok" make no sense, presenting one with two options: go with the Sydney lyric that replaces that moment, or give the song to the Arbiter, for whom those lyrics apply and to whom the song has been effectively given in previous Actor's Fund editions. Theoretically, either could work; it takes a rough version of the book and revisions thereof to decide which works better dramatically.

The Score
Similarly, based on the plot parameters established above and the rough book (and following revisions) that develops as a result, the score (and to a larger extent the version of the lyrics used) is dependent on the plot elements and/or contrivances that drive the show. As seen above, it is obvious that "One Night in Bangkok" would be a part of my version, as would the Sydney version of "The Soviet Machine" (maybe shortened a bit for timing reasons), "Commie Newspapers," and any lyrics or material that reflects the Cold War climate rather than the Cold War thaw.

Just my two cents, and a glimpse into my inner editor's thought process.

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