With the recent release of the Chess in Concert DVD, I find that I am once again thinking about this most problematic of musicals. The main problem with the show (in any of its variations) is that it has a great concept, but this never adequately distills itself into narrative and character, leaving a fair deal of the show as a play of ideas that really isn’t that easy to access. And while cognitive accessibility might be the problem in the first half, at least there’s a fairly good push at narrative there; the second half doesn’t hang together nearly as well, despite having some excellent material.
When the show succeeds in getting past the threshold of ideas into narrative and character, it’s fantastic; I think that’s why sequences like “Nobody’s Side”, “Where I Want To Be”, “Someone Else’s Story”, “One Night in Bangkok”, “I Know Him So Well” and “Pity the Child” have the potential to work so effectively in production, as they did when the musical played in a South African production directed by Paul Warwick Griffin in 2008. This production, which was adapted by the director himself, is far and away the best packaging of the material I’ve come across.
Getting back to the idea of Chess as a concept musical, what the show attempts to do is compare chess with love and the Cold War. Mathematically put, the relationship between the three elements could be described as follows:
- love = chess = cold war; or maybe
- chess! = love x cold war; or possibly
- love ~ chess ~ cold war; or (at a push)
- chess:love → cold war; or even
- chess:love ⇔ cold war.
Ultimately, I suppose any of these is reductive and that’s partly what the problem with the show is in terms of the score and especially it’s book are. The show is full of ideas that never reveal themselves through narrative strategies or storytelling as – it seems – the creators intend; the problem is that the creators (Tim Rice and the boys from ABBA) have committed to the idea but haven’t committed fully to the story they are telling or to the characters whose story they are telling in a manner that would illuminate the ideas that are at the heart of the show.
What ultimately needs to happen to make the piece work is that chess needs to become a central image of the piece without the idea of it’s relationship to love and/or politics being as obvious, much the same way as Fiddler on the Roof uses the Fiddler as a recurrent and extended image throughout the play. It should be a statement that is revelatory rather than one that is given. Fiddler on the Roof balances this brilliantly by establishing the image and then developing it throughout the book and score using a variety of situations, images and motifs.
The production mentioned above managed to achieve this quite effectively in its staging, but the text itself needed adaptation to achieve this. Until the definitive rewriting process required happens, this means that the material has to be very carefully (re)structured; it cannot merely be shuffled around in the way that generally seems to characterize new productions or concerts of the show. But rewriting seems unlikely, so I suppose we’ll always experience Chess as a flawed masterpiece, rather than a true one – which is a pity.