Wayward Musings

CHESS the Musical

A Retrospective and a Review of the Atlanta Production

By Kim F. Holec

Chess Once upon a time (all *good* fairy tales start like this) Ben Bova published a rather sad story, "The Time Traveller" by Spider Robinson, in ANALOG. Spider's story wasn't your run-of-the-mill SF story, far from it, but rather a tale of a man who had been trapped in solitary in a Central American prison from around 1962 to 1972, give or take a few years. In that brief time, the world turned up side down, and this poor soul, who had had no contact with the outside world for all that time, was lost in the current time, as lost as any mythical time traveller. One subscriber wrote in to tell Bova to cancel his subscription since the magazine was no longer publishing SF. Bova wrote back to inform the reader that he knew he (the subscriber) was a long-time reader of ANALOG, and couldn't understand why one supposedly non-SF story had distressed him, and wouldn't he (the reader) re-consider his decision to end his subscription. The reader kept his sub. I offer you, gentle reader, this story to explain why I am writing a column about a cult rock opera.

The musical writing team of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber could do no wrong in the 1970's with their hit musicals, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR and EVITA, but by the 1980's each seemed to be headed in a different direction. Lloyd Webber went on to score such famous shows as STARLIGHT EXPRESS and PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Rice had this idea for a musical about the Cold War as shown through the metaphor of chess, and wanted his old partner to work with him on it, but Lloyd Webber was already involved with CATS. By the grace of a mutual friend, Rice met up with the songwriters from the group ABBA, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, who were ready to do something beyond pop songs. Rice gave them the chance to show their rock and operatic talents, and CHESS was born.

The basic story of CHESS is thus: the 1979 World Chess Championship is taking place, with an American, Freddie Trumper, and a Russian, Anatoly Sergievsky, to play each other. Anatoly's second is Molokov, who is really a KGB agent. Freddie's second is Florence Vassy, who was a refugee from Hungary as a child . Anatoly is disgusted with the Soviet system and the constant pressure on him to win. Freddie, on the other hand, is interested only in winning, and playing for money, desires urged on by Walter, his business manager. In turn, Florence is disgusted with Freddie's attitude towards her and everything else, treating everyone like crap. In the first match, Freddie and Anatoly stop the play with an argument over a bowl of yogurt, and both leave the arena, determined not to play. The Arbiter, the person appointed by the World Chess Federation to oversee these championships, causes the seconds, Florence and Molokov, to arrange a private meeting between their players to discuss and straighten out matters. Freddie has problems with the idea of the meeting; he wants an apology from the Russian. Florence meets Anatoly at the arranged restaurant and it soon become clear that they are attracted to each other, as they have something in common beyond chess: they both have a desire to escape their current situations. When Freddie finds them in an embrace, he naturally feels betrayed, but will continue to play, because of fame and money. Florence leaves Freddie, who starts losing. Anatoly, knowing that he wants Florence and she could not go back to Russia with him (besides, he has an estranged wife there) and the Soviet system will tie him down even more, defects to the West. This is Act One. The stage is thus set for tragedy and loss. Act Two is rather different between the British version and the American version; and how that came about is a very pretty tale; I direct you to The Story of Chess for all the gory details.

For the American version, which is the only one that can be produced in the USA or Canada at this time, there actually seems to be a few different variations. The version that I have seen is that directed by David A. Bell, who has over the last decade, directed CHESS in Chicago at the Marriott Lincolnshire Theatre in 1990, at the Long Beach Civic Light Opera in late 1990, and at the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera. He, Kary Walker, Dyanne Earley and Peter Grigsby rewrote the Broadway book (written by the avant-garde political playwright Richard Nelson, hired by Trevor Nunn when he came to Broadway to direct CHESS) because they knew it had not worked. (CHESS only ran on B'way for a few months.)

Their Act Two opens with Florence and Anatoly in Budapest (Act One in American versions is set in Bangkok), where Anatoly will play the other set of matches with Freddie, and where also a summit conference is taking place between the two great powers, the USSR and the USA. Walter, Freddie's business manager, was revealed to be an American CIA agent, who helped Anatoly defect. But he is playing his own game, and is still working with Freddie, and later is shown to be in cahoots with Molokov, the Russian agent. Yes, indeed, Molokov has also traveled to Budapest, because The Powers That Be want Anatoly back. Molokov has two secret weapons: he has brought Svetlana Sergievsky, Anatoly's wife, to Budapest, and he supposedly can give Florence her father back. All this puts pressure on Anatoly, who finds it difficult to play chess or deal with Florence. Meanwhile, Freddie starts winning, even though he is still hurt and angry over Florence leaving him to be with a "Communist"!

So when Florence asks him for a few days' postponement of the matches, he is unsympathetic to Anatoly's plight, and then finally realizing that he won't get Florence back, he decides that, horrible childhood and Florence's not returning all aside, he will keep playing chess. In the end, (there be spoilers ahead), Anatoly loses to Freddie (even Freddie can see that Anatoly deliberately lost), and returns to the USSR so that Florence can have her father back, and his family will no longer be threaten by the Soviet government with loss of livelihood and living space. The agents think they have scored a coup, as it were, as Molokov gets Anatoly back, and Walter receives some American agent in return. But, as it turns out, Anatoly has been working with another Russian agent, and does return Gregor Vassy to his daughter. Freddie wins the World Championship, but at great cost; no one likes to know that they were allowed to win; and even though Florence won't have Anatoly, she will never return to Freddie.

In August and September 1999, I was privileged to see CHESS at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Ga. Directed by David A. Bell, this great production had many Broadway vets in the principal roles:

Kim Huber (Belle in the National Touring company of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST) as Florence Vassy, Brian d'Arcy James (originated Barrett the stoker in TITANIC on Broadway) as Anatoly Sergievsky, Sean McDermott (Chris in MISS SAIGON, Danny Zucko in the recent revival of GREASE on Broadway) as Freddie Trumper, Charles Pistone (Joey in THE MOST HAPPY FELLA on Broadway) as Molokov, and Laparee Young as Walter (who also was in the role for the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera's CHESS).

Here is the list of the musical numbers as performed in the Alliance production:

PROLOGUE 1956 - Budapest, Hungary

"The Story of Chess" (only thru "they thus invented chess.") (Florence's father, Gregor)
"Father's Lullaby (Apukad Eros Kezen)" (ditto with chorus)

ACT I 1979 - Bangkok, Thailand

"Freddie's Entrance" (basically the SRO bit from "Merano" ; aka "What a Scene" in B'way)
"Press Conference" (Florence and chorus)
"Where I Want to Be" (Anatoly)
"How Many Women" (Florence)
"Arbiter's Song"/"US vs. USSR" (the Arbiter and chorus)
"Quartet" (the Arbiter, Florence, Anatoly, and Molokov)
"The American and Florence" ( "You Want to Lose Your Only Friend" and "Someone Else's Story" back to back)
"Terrace Duet" (Florence and Anatoly)
"One Night in Bangkok" (Freddie and chorus)
"So You Got What You Want"/"Nobody's Side" (Freddie and Florence/Florence)
"Anthem" (Anatoly)

ACT II 1979 - Budapest, Hungary

"Heaven Help My Heart" (Florence)
"Winning" (this is "No Contest") (Freddie and Walter)
"You and I" (Anatoly and Florence)
"Freddie Goes Metal" ( this is the press conference scene from B'way)
{Sean does jump off and on tables and chairs in this, so maybe it really is Freddie going metal, instead of we originally thought, which was Freddie goes Mental)(LOL) (Freddie and chorus)
"Let's Work Together" (Walter and Molokov)
"I Know Him So Well" (Florence and Svetlana)
"Pity the Child" (Freddie)
"Endgame" (the B'way version) (everyone at some point)
"You and I (reprise)" (Anatoly and Florence)
"Finale" (the last few lines of "Anthem") (Florence and chorus)

These were my thoughts after the first preview night, when everything was still a little rough around the edges:

Why every production after the West End seems to insist on putting "Nobody's Side" after the Duet, ruining the musical reference in the later back to the former, is beyond my understanding.

The men's costumes are okay, but really only lip service--the odd turtleneck and gold chain is now kind of timeless; but weren't people still wearing wide leg pants in 1979? The pants are not narrow, though. And don't get me started on the women's costumes and hair--almost totally out of 1999.I liked the colour schemes, though. Anatoly is seen throughout in shades of brown, how '70's; Florence starts out in all white, but as she falls for Anatoly, black is mixed into the wardrobe; when she leaves Bangkok and arrives in Budapest she's all in burgundy (not red, mind you!), and then goes back to white for the rest of the production. Freddie's suit jacket and pants are generally a shade of light to medium blue, with white short-sleeved shirts, or black tees. The Arbiter in Act One wears red and white, but changes to black for Act Two; I liked the contrast of the red against the checkerboard stage.

Set design, on the other hand, is nice and simple, and works beautifully. Having helped build a set or two, though, I like simple and elegant. The floor is in a checkerboard design that allows for changing colors and hiding the lines where the pieces move that hold the furniture; rather clever and visually appealing; it was lit from underneath, and allowed for some great effects, as when the stage visually hems Florence in during "Nobody's Side", and when the black squares turned red briefly during Freddie's "Pity the Child".

As for the direction, Bell created the dumb show of the moving chess pieces that sometimes follow the principals around in the chess arena scenes, and are, of course, totally ignored by everyone on stage. They looked nice, if rather underdressed, but I wouldn't have missed them at all. I can grasp subtlety quite well, thank you, and don't need it pointed out to me.The White King follows Freddie, the Black Knight follows Molokov, etc. Otherwise, the chess pieces gave some visual interest to a rather bare stage in the arena scenes, but they did not move like real chess pieces, i.e., the bishops did not move on the diagonal.

The chorus sang strongly, but hopefully the dancing will improve over the first preview night. As much I adored Fosse, so many choreographers try to imitate him, which just leads to suicide. (Warning: donning the asbestos suit now.) The Pas de Deux in the middle of the Duet was not smooth at all; obviously the pair had not had sufficient time to practice. Please note that I studied classical ballet for a few years, and have studied other dance forms, so I was not happy with what should have appeared to the audience as effortless; I was terribly afraid the Black King would drop the White Queen, or fail to support her. But I am sure with time, that will be better danced. [Note: the dancing improved in each production we saw.] Otherwise a nice homage to Anges de Mille's Pas de Deux in OKLAHOMA.

The actors: a mixed review. The Arbiter was trying to be strong, and does well when speaking, but even miked, the voice just wasn't right for the part. Florence and Anatoly are well played; Kim Huber sings "Nobody's" as a rising note thru-out; I prefer Elaine Page's softer voiced verses, but that is probably harder to accomplish on the stage. Brian d'Arcy James' "Anthem" got a standing ovation; it's very well done--I had tears in my eyes after that. Walter and Molokov sound and act too stereotypical in the 1st act; in the 2nd act the actors seemed to have relaxed more into their parts. Freddie--what can I say--the B'way book's idea of Freddie has him just not as a non-social chess geek, but also as a jerk. Florence stayed with this guy for seven years-unbelievable! The ego should be there, but not so florid. By the time "Pity the Child" comes up, since we have seen very little vulnerability or a hiding of shyness and scared-to-death behind the loud-mouth facade, it is very hard to feel any sympathy for the character. Having said that, I must admit that Sean McDermott played this version of Freddie very well. My only other criticism in this area would be that "Bangkok" is no longer played as a detached character viewing with cool sardonicism on the foolishness he sees spread before him, but as a sarcastic, tongue-in-check piece, with Freddie totally involved in the drunken craziness. But this interpretation seems to go back to the B'way rewrites--*sigh*. I try (that is so not the right word, but I will let it pass for now) to enjoy any entertainment while I am watching it, and then I expect to become critical only afterwards. And remember that there is a difference between constructive criticism and deconstructive. My constructive criticism on what I saw on this first preview night, for example, was practice those dances, kids; but it's too late to change the costumes, so that can only be deconstructive.

As for the interpretation of Freddie, I see this as more the director's fault than the actor's, I would think. Why from the B'way rewrite on, does the American (now playing in American theatres, mind you) have to be so obnoxious? I think this says something about either the writer of the Broadway book, Richard Nelson, or something about his rather warped views on how Americans see themselves. Okay, we all know that lots of otherwise perfectly intelligent women are attracted to "bad boys", and this Freddie is the baddest of the bad, flaunting his selfishness in a much more florid way than, say, the Murray Head American on the concept album who just doesn't understand why people shouldn't see him as a "god" of chess. The original concept and the London production has Freddie losing to Anatoly, and then playing an interesting game, so to speak, in the second act, as the TV interviewer who seems to still be into chess, but isn't playing anymore; perhaps he might even possibly be learning to not be so selfish, but is still obsessed with the game of chess. On the other hand, in the B'way rewrite and other American productions which have to use the B'way book as a basis, we have a Freddie who wins in the end, is pretty clueless throughout, thinks he is cooler than sliced bread, and acts like a total jerk. The American is now totally flawed, and still wins the game, while the Russian is practically perfect in every way, and loses everything. I am suddenly reminded of that horrible WALL STREET movie where Michael Douglas' character goes on about "Greed is good"; or conversely, the rabbi's book about why bad things happen to good people. But in this production the Russian is too noble, and the American too bad, to be perhaps that believable. Perhaps this was easier to deal with in the waning days of the Cold War. (CHESS was in the West End in London in 1986, and on Broadway in 1988.)

All I can say at this point, is that the actors were good enough in the roles while I was viewing them on the first preview night to be believable. I liked the Russian from the start, and disliked the American; by the time "Pity the Child" came around it was too late for one to feel any sympathy for him--so, he loses Florence to the Russian; so what? It doesn't seem to bother him that much in "Endgame"; he is puzzled by Anatoly's seeming coolness while he is sweating, so to speak, but wins anyhow.

On more reflection, after having see the show a few more times: this Anatoly is just too noble; no flaws, except those of self-doubt as expressed in all his songs. And as for Anatoly and Florence "falling in love", it happens too quick, especially after she is seen a little earlier rolling around on the bed with Freddie. I mean, I'm sure that they are nice people and everything. But I just have to explain this sort of happening as "love at first sight" and just let it go.

Now as for the happy ending of the Bell version, since Florence *does* get her father back at the end, as opposed to all the other versions where she does not, I happen to like "happy ever after" endings, so to speak. The real world is bad enough already, so when I see/read/hear entertainment, that is just what I want, to be entertained. I would rather cry tears of joy, and not of sadness. Tolkien wrote about this in his essay "On Fairy-Tales".

Besides, even in this Atlanta David Bell production, not everyone is happy at the end. Anatoly goes back to the USSR, having sacrificed his and Florence's life together to insure that his family (including Svetlana) will be taken care of, and that Florence will have her father. As much as he loves Florence, I don't think he would try to go back to her because of the family situation in Russia--they would be at risk again. Svetlana gets her man back, so to speak, but she will have his respect (maybe) but not his love--two lonely people in a little apt. would make for some interesting situations; but since I think that they would both be living in the past, especially Anatoly; I can't see them reconciling.

Florence has her father back, but the man is a stranger to her who doesn't even speak her language. The re-building of any kind of relationship will be a long process, and considering that Gregor Vassy is now in his 60's and has probably been in the gulag or some other prison for many years, his health is probably not very good, so he and Florence may not have a long time together. (Just a thought: how did Anatoly and Nikolai the other Russian agent get Gregor out of Russia and into Hungary?!) Florence, too, will be living in the past, dreaming of Anatoly.

As for Freddie, it's almost a case of "What will I do? Where will I go?" Oh, Walter will see him home, and he will be surrounded by sycophants and hanger-ons of the worse kind for a while, until the next big thing comes along in the chess world. He will be that saddest of all people, a lonely person in a crowd. Florence may have been his lover, but more importantly to Freddie, she was a mother surrogate and took great care of him. To suddenly be bereft of your best friend who has always been *there* could certainly cause anyone to act in a different fashion than usual, and probably not for the best, which goes a long way to explaining Freddie's behavior in Act Two, and from the Duet on in Act One.

David Bell's direction of Sean McDermott in the role of Freddie at the Alliance really brought this out. Freddie is lost without Florence; and although he tries to act like he doesn't care, that he can get along just *fine* without her, thank you very much, her loss is really eating at him. His comments about "the Commies in heat" shows that he is jealous, before the "No Contest" song. His anger at Florence in Act One after he discovers her with Anatoly causes him to get in some nasty trouble (the fight after ONIB) when he would not have been out on the town under normal circumstances; after all, he is asked by the press corps at the beginning of the show if he will sample the local night life, and he replies, no, that he is in training. When Florence comes to his suite to ask him for a few days respite from the match for Anatoly's peace of mind in Act Two, and he looks despairing away from her and then tries to explain that he now understands, he realizes that she isn't really listening, so he tries to kiss her to show that he still cares. When she pushes him away, and tells him that he is really "gone", and maybe always was, he laughs-why? Because in most public social situations, it is not okay to cry, no matter how upset you are, and Freddie is male, which makes that social restriction even stronger. After this comes "Pity the Child" which Sean started out very softly and built to a dramatic high point. The song really explains his horrible childhood and how the cocky Freddie of Act One could be like that, as long as he had the support of his mother-substitute in Florence. When she betrays him as his mother did, and that is how he sees it, he is lost.

And yet he wins the championship in the end, but even Freddie is smart enough to realize that Anatoly has lost, and that Anatoly has let him win. No one likes to know that they won by default. Freddie didn't beat Anatoly, Anatoly beat himself. Again, the direction of Bell and the expressive acting of McDermott brought this point across quite clearly for anyone who was watching. The Arbiter places the medal around Freddie's neck, as Anatoly stumbles away in despair. And, Florence, who had been standing on Anatoly's side of the stage. quickly moves downstage and across the front and then back upstage and exits stage left, not looking at anyone. Freddie, who has been watching her during the match, whenever he is not making a move, stares at her as she moves around the stage to exit. The look in his eyes matches that of the defeated Anatoly; he knows he will never see her again. Only after she leaves does he realize that people are cheering for him; and Freddie seizes his hollow moment of victory, but his heart is not in it.

Is this what you call a happy ending? On second thought, I think not. But I still prefer this to all the other endings, where Florence is left holding the bag of no father (American versions), or Freddie has some news for her (British version)--and we all know it is not good news.

Ending the show with the last two lines of "Anthem" shows that there is hope after all.

Back to the actors: Everyone improved over the course of the production, as I went to each show, this was easy to see. *sigh* Wish there could have been a recording of the Alliance production. Brian d'Arcy James has a glorious voice, just perfect for Anatoly's songs--if there was a dry eye in the theatre after his "Anthem" then I would say that person also had a heart of stone. Brian can be heard on the B'way TITANIC as Barrett the stoker. Check out his web page for more info on recordings of his.

Kim Huber was fantastic as Florence. She had great chemistry with Brian's Anatoly. Kim's voice is a pure soprano, and perhaps she was more subtle in the acting than some would have liked, but more expressive in her delivery. The only recording I could find for her was the musical GOOD NEWS.

And what can I can about Sean McDermott? He threw himself heart and soul and body into the role of Freddie. One started out disliking Freddie, and yet by the end of the show, one felt very sorry for him. The only piece he sang I didn't care for was "ONIB", and that's partly because it is no longer sardonic; not the actor' fault, mind you. And what a wonderful tenor voice! Sean does have two recordings of his own. Check out the web page for more information.

I would like to see Bell's production as a revival on Broadway, with at least Brian d'Arcy James and Kim Huber repeating as Anatoly and Florence, and of course would like to have Sean McDermott back as Freddie. Yes, there would be a few changes I would like to see, like ditching the chess pieces (they are just too surreal), switching two songs, so that "Nobody's Side" comes right after the argument between Florence and Freddie, and place "Someone Else's Story" as Florence's leaving song, just before "Anthem"; and giving Florence a little more reason to panic and think Anatoly is leaving her in Act Two. Other than those things (a few quibbles with lighting and costumes aside), I enjoyed the Alliance production; I must have, because we saw it four times! And I know that there were others in Atlanta who saw the show more than once. The audiences that we saw the show with really enjoyed themselves. And that's what counts in the end.

© 1999 Kim F. Holec

Kim F. Holec is too many things to count. She was born under the sign of the Twins, so you figure it out. Even while she is at work, she is a part-time writer, editor and poet. She is owned by four cats, and some say she is herself a cat in disguise. She thinks of herself as a renaissance woman, because she is interested in many things, thus the changeable nature and topics of her writings.
Read more by Kim F. Holec

Aphelion Letter Column A place for your opinions.

Return to the Aphelion main page.