Everyone knows Tim Rice. Andrew Lloyd Webber's lyricist, Disney, Elton John, yadda yadda yadda, wrote brilliant lyrics for most of the major theatrical programs of the last twenty years. And to be fair, he's the rare combination of famous and justly so. He writes well. But even he has odd little side projects that you may have never heard of. Chess is one of them, and it's sadly overlooked; people who actually discover this musical tend to be fanatically devoted to it.
Chess is a collaborative work between Tim Rice and Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus of Abba. Yes, I said Abba. Stop twitching. It was originally envisioned in the early eighties. After three years of work, a 'concept album' was recorded in 1984 using the show's music. That's the "Black Chess", the album we're reviewing today. After its London stage debut in 1986, it was optioned to Broadway, where it was butchered, based on the belief that American theatre-goers wouldn't go to a musical where the American was a villain. (There is an American cast recording, the "White Chess" album. Avoid it like you would ebola.) This butchering has continued; there are now six definitive versions of the libretto, and six arrangements of the music, all of which are an attempt to update the musical to the common day.
First question: WHY ? The plot of Chess revolves around an international chess championship between an American and a Russian at the height of the Cold War, and the love triangle that destroys them both. Why update it at all? No one moves South Pacific to the Vietnam War. Because this mismanagement and idiocy has obscured one central fact; the music itself to Chess as recorded on the 1984 CD is utterly and simply beautiful.
The performers are exemplary; Murray Head as The American, Tommy Korberg as The Russian, and Elaine Page as Florence, the central point in the love story. Head and Paige are well known to theatre-goers; Head was Jesus in the original Jesus Christ Superstar, Paige was Grizabella in the original Cats. And the songs...
American audiences were only treated to "One Night In Bangkok", and it's little more than a novelty tune, though it has its moments. The real meat is the powerful rock opera of "Nobody's Side" and "The Deal"; the interwoven, Gilbert and Sullivan-like vocals of "Quartet (A Model Of Decorum And Tranquility)" and "Embassy Lament"; the emotion of "Mountain Duet"; and the simple, arching female voices on "Heaven Help My Heart" and "I Know Him So Well".
The single most powerful moment, though, has to be Murray Head's "Pity The Child" - a song where you can FEEL the anger and bitterness, a song for every child who was every ignored or abused.
There are moments where Chess drags, though they're brief. However, I can close this review in no better way than by echoing the sentiment I saw on several web pages while I was researching dates for this review: Broadway, get it together. Straighten out the contracts, find one version of Chess, and put it on stage. It is a powerful musical that deserves a chance. Meanwhile, go find the soundtrack.