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Sunday, October 5, 2014

Benny Anderson & Björn Ulvaeus: Chess


1) Merano; 2) The Russian And Molokov/Where I Want To Be; 3) The Opening Ceremony; 4) Quartet (A Model Of Decorum And Tranquility); 5) The American And Florence/Nobody's Side; 6) Chess; 7) Mountain Duet; 8) Florence Quits; 9) Embassy Lament/Anthem; 10) Bangkok/One Night In Bangkok; 11) Heaven Help My Heart; 12) Argument / I Know Him So Well; 13) The Deal (No Deal)/Pity The Child; 14) Endgame; 15) Epilogue: You And I/The Story Of Chess.

In all honesty, I am quite fidgety about the musical as a form of art, and would make a fairly predictable and wretched musical reviewer («thumbs down» being the default and rarely over­turned decision). However, I am also all for overcoming the natural illness of «genrism», since a «musical», after all, need not necessarily be strapped down by conventions, such as having to be a heavily diluted, cheapened, saccharinized, and flashified cousin of classical opera. A musical can be anything you want it to be, and Chess is an excellent example of stretching the concept out to include just about anything.

First, the concept, libretto, and structure of the musical are quite daring for their time: too daring, in fact, to please the critics, who'd never waste the occasion to rip the boys an extra hole for the befuddling plotline, soap opera flavor, and shallow characterization — all of it justified, but mainly because lyricist Tim Rice (of Andrew Lloyd Webber fame!) took on the task of creating a story that would cover all the important bases, from political to personal. Formally, the musical is about Russian/American tensions in the Cold War as seen through the prism of chess competition (inspired by the Fischer/Spassky match of 1972), but it is just as much, or maybe even more, about personal issues — vanity, greed, obsession, jealousy, depression, loyalty, whatever. This does not leave too much time to explore every possible (or necessary) nook, but what it does is provide the composers, Benny and Björn, with a variety of twists that perfectly suit their own variegated tastes in music, and turn Chess into an almost bizarre musical mish-mash, whose in­fluences vary from baroque composers to the most modern strains of electropop.

I could not describe Chess as a collection of great individual songs or musical pieces (the review applies to the «Original Cast» recording from 1984, produced well before the actual show in order to help raise money for the staging, but I imagine the same judgement would probably apply to the later recordings as well, including the heavily revised Broadway version of 1988). Its biggest song in the UK was the compassionate duet ʽI Know Him So Wellʼ, sung with feeling by Elaine Page and Barbara Dickson, but, as a ballad, not even coming close to the perfectly engi­neered (in heart-tugging terms) hooks of classic ABBA ballads. In the US, the largest impact was made by ʽOne Night In Bangkokʼ, which could probably be best described as a cross between the electrofunk of Prince and the embarrassing electronic-prog of mid-Eighties Jethro Tull (or maybe it's just the addition of the flute that triggers this association): too serious for mindless dancing, too rhythm-driven for serious emotions.

But, as it sometimes happens (and should, in fact, happen) with concept albums, the sum of the parts of Chess is greater than its whole — or, to use a more appropriate analogy, it is no big deal to sacrifice a few pawns or even a couple of rooks to assure a guaranteed checkmate. Much more important is the feeling of dynamics, as the music switches between intimate, chamber-style pieces to ballroom grandeur to post-disco coolness in a smooth, nicely integrated manner (usually because subtle «modern» elements are always included in the more classical passages, and vice versa), with little risk of ever boring the listener.

As is usual with Benny and Björn, they thrive on soaking up classical influences and converting them into «easy-listening» mode, yet somehow still retaining a sense of taste by not limiting themselves to hollow pathos. The title track, a «grandiose» instrumental that reiterates several of the musical's themes, underture-style, begins like a lite requiem, goes on to become a grand quasi-Tchaikovsky ballroom piece, then tries to go for an almost Wagnerian crescendo — and ultimately succeeds as a whole, even if I have no idea why.

I couldn't even say that the singers of the original Chess have a serious hand in its success. The main male leads are Murray Head (ʽThe Americanʼ), whom I have never managed to see as a great vocalist (he was not a great Judas Iscariot, unlike Carl Anderson) and Tommy Körberg (ʽThe Russianʼ), who is not much known outside of this role and who comes across as a compe­tent, but not particularly unique musical singer. The title lead of Florence is given to Elaine Page, who sang ʽMemoryʼ in Cats — she actually gets into this complex character (well, you'd have to be pretty complex to be dating both the American and the Russian champion) very convincingly, but she doesn't get too many memorable parts.

So I guess that any cast will do, really, as long as the complexity and fullness of the score are retained — the real heroes of Chess are its librettist and its composers. Frankly, the record is puzzling and intriguing rather than an indisputable work of genius, but when we're talking musi­cals, puzzle and intrigue work better for me than genius, because anything to shake up and crack the formula is always welcome. As far as I'm concerned, Benny and Björn's first attempt at a mini-musical (ʽThe Girl With The Golden Hairʼ, a four-song cycle off ABBA's The Album) will always be their best (some of its musical moves, funny enough, seem to still echo throughout the themes of Chess as well), but Chess is where they'd really allowed themselves to run wild with the form, and it's fun to see them run.

I would have, of course, liked to see the whole thing in a more «pop» light — as long as Benny and Björn are indulging their chamber / symphonic appetites, no problem, but the sometimes way too overlong romantic duets (ʽYou And Iʼ, etc.) still tend to devolve into schmaltz, which is where I really miss the silly gut punch of ʽLay All Your Love On Meʼ. Still, all the flaws aside, this really is one musical that fully deserves a thumbs up — at the very least, it totally trumps Phantom Of The Opera, meaning that Tim Rice made the right decision, parting ways with the Londoner to team up with the Swedes.

Unfortunately, it was simply too dense for the audiences, used to associate the idea of the musical with a simple, easily summarized story rather than this Dostoyevsky-proportions psychological maze. So these days, as far as musicals are concerned, you are more likely to know all about Mamma Mia, the most putrid thing ever that could have happened to ABBA's legacy, and so, naturally, far more popular than Chess could ever hope to be. Of course, Mamma Mia has the seductive grace of con­sisting of original ABBA songs — but that's really cheating, you know.


  1. "In all honesty, I am quite fidgety about the musical as a form of art, and would make a fairly predictable and wretched musical reviewer («thumbs down» being the default and rarely over­turned decision)."

    It's kinda funny to me that you'd say this, seeing how, from the likes of the Agony Booth and AVGN onwards, most people expect their Internet critics to be all-negative all-the-time. So you'd fit in.

    ...Boy that's a disturbing thought.

  2. "Unfortunately, it was simply too dense for the audiences,"

    I always thought it was a stupid move to put the album "cart" before the musical "horse" and not have the musical staging being attempted at the very least. One thing these guys could have really used was a strong editor there is just too much schmaltz and fluff that could have been dumped. Not to mention let's be honest the sung dialog was never a good idea and dragged although the short traditional pop song interludes were good..

    1. But that was a non-unheard of move - Tim Rice himself had done it with both Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, and those turned out quite well.

    2. Right and they are all also double albums... but is it a great idea to follow Tim Rice down that particular rabbit hole? If anything he is known for a brilliant single song from the musical in question not the whole thing and you cannot see his staging.

      There were some great moments here since I have listened to this album several times on CD but so much of it I ended up skipping because it felt like filler simply there to make up four sides of a double album. There are many other double albums people love I could say the same thing about though. Quadrophenia being one such example.

  3. Out of curiosity, George, have you ever heard of the musical Assassins? If you find yourself liking Chess because it's willing to play with dynamics and experiment with musical genres. It's also a "Dostoevsky-proportions psychological maze" about gun culture and celebrity and the American Dream and all that shit, but you can not care about the meaning behind the songs and still profusely enjoy it. It's also decidedly unsentimental (which is kind of mandatory, given the subject matter), and it never feels overly synthesized or stuffy (which is kind of mandatory, given that we're dealing with Sondheim and not the boys from ABBA).

    It's a personal favorite of mine, and I'd encourage you to check it out if you're interested in trying to find musical theater you can tolerate.