By the time Chess had opened in London, though admittedly to mixed reviews, plans were already afoot for transferring the show to Broadway. Chess London had turned out remarkably well considering the rocky road it had travelled to its opening night. Trevor Nunn had managed to pull together various elements of someone else's huge production and make it work. Everybody felt confident that given full control of the Broadway production he would manage to iron out any flaws that still remained and create the definitive stage version of the show.
Chess Broadway was never destined to be a replica of London. To recreate the same sets and technical wizardry would have cost in excess of $15 Million and the budget had been set at under $6 Million. It was obvious that a completely new production design would be required. Trevor Nunn wanted to change not only the sets but the whole feel of the piece. There was to be none of the glitzy, stylized show that Michael Bennet had originally envisaged and none of those elements of his concept that had managed to survive in the London production would make it across the Atlantic. Broadway was destined to be an even more series piece of musical drama.
The producers, the Shuberts, had initially hoped Chess would open out of town for a pre-Broadway tryout, but Trevor Nunn’s schedule meant it would have to open cold on Broadway or be postponed until a later date. Worried by a cold opening, the Shuberts decided to postpone the show. Trevor, however, wanted an earlier opening and after much discussion it was eventually agreed that the show would open cold on Broadway in April 1988.
To help reshape this new version of Chess, Nunn consulted playwright Richard Nelson, who had previously written, with some success, several political plays including Principia Scriptoriae. Although Tim Rice had already provided Trevor with a substantially rewritten version of the show, this was apparently not quite as dramatic as Trevor had been hoping for. Nelson's ideas struck the right cord with Trevor so these were accepted and further developed.
Trevor Nunn: Over eighteen months, Benny Andersson, Bjom Ulvaeus, Tim Rice, our additional collaborator, the American dramatist, Richard Nelson, and myself, have developed an entirely new version of Chess evolved through hundreds of hours of hugely enjoyable discussion, argument, demonstration, trial, error, passion, politics, pride, prejudice and persuasion. During that time we arrived at a collective view of what was the best of the original material and what was dispersible. We reminded ourselves that the initial germ was for a work about the conflict between East and West; and Richard and I began to structure a spoken play in place of the entirely sung recitative narrative of the London version.
When this new script was finally completed, Chess had been changed from a sung through musical to a somewhat old fashioned book musical, with hefty chunks of dialogue between the songs. Even so, it was Trevor Nunn at the helm and if anybody could take on this new incarnation of Tim’s story and new style of presentation, surely it was him.
Tim: Trevor Nunn will, of course, still direct which is good news. I am making some fairly hefty alterations to the storyline (for example the first half of the show now takes place in Bangkok, the second in Budapest) and we aim to include at least two new songs. Very few of the current songs will be booted out - the changes are primarily with the bits in between, which will include a good deal more dialogue. In this way, we hope to make the plot clearer and the character of Freddie, in particular, more rounded. At the moment he fades out in Act 2.
As this rewriting process progressed, it seemed that Tim, Richard and Trevor had developed different ideas of exactly what the story or style of story was that they were trying to tell. Somehow, they began working in different directions and from all accounts they never really managed to find a happy ground on which to finalise the script in complete agreement.
Tim: Those characters mean nothing to me. They aren't the ones I created.
In this new script Florence had become an American, the ‘Hungarian born English woman’ of the London version was no longer. Tim Rice had hoped that the role would be filled by Elaine Paige, who after all, he had written the part for and who had received great reviews for her performance in London.
Trevor Nunn: If you're doing a piece about conflict and the chosen metaphor is East against West - American's attitude toward Russia and Russia's attitude toward America - then in America it seems to be an unnecessary complication if the main point of view through which you perceive it all is a European one. We agreed it would be better if the story had the essential Romeo-and-Juliet ingredient of lovers who come from opposite sides.
Tim: The piece was written for Elaine Paige. It was not made clear to me that the way Trevor Nunn wanted the show to go was to have Florence played by an American. I don't know what his motives were, and I wish I had insisted Florence remain British-Hungarian, instead of American-Hungarian. I let myself be overruled, which I bitterly regret. Trevor had convinced everyone Florence had to be an American.
By changing the nationality of the character it seemed almost impossible that Elaine would get to perform it and so it proved. American Equity were not over enthusiastic about having her appear on Broadway. The producers were probably reluctant to go down the route that Andrew Lloyd Webber had done when Equity were equally unenthusiastic about Sarah Brightman reprising her role of Christine in Phantom of the Opera. Webber had threatened to pull the show unless Sarah was allowed to perform. At the risk of losing a show that had become even more eagerly awaited than Chess, Equity relented and Sarah Brightman opened on Broadway, though to somewhat lukewarm reviews.
Perhaps no threats were made, or Equity were not prepared to be ‘blackmailed’ again, but either way, Elaine’s application to perform on Broadway was withdrawn and the way was left open for an American actress to take on the role. The part eventually went to Judy Kuhn, who had played the originalCosette inLes Miserables.
It was also hoped that Tommy Korberg would be allowed to perform on Broadway, but his application was turned down too. The role of Anatoly was eventually played by David Carroll. The casting of the three leads was completed by Philip Casnoff in the role of Freddie.
The new story for Chess was substantially different to the London production. The political context of the show was greatly heightened and added immensely to the intrigue of the piece. This was perhaps sometimes to the detriment of the basic enjoyment of the score. The story certainly became less difficult to follow, but not necessarily less complicated.
The East-West tensions, which were by now beginning to ease in the real world, left some aspects of the plot feeling slightly dated and possibly less believable. Though, the production did have the feel of an earlier period, it was set in the "encouraging times" of the late 80s so the audience had to accept that it was indeed taking place within the world’s current and constantly changing political contexts.
Possibly the biggest problem with this new version of Chess, was that it was populated by characters that become rather unlikable, with few redeeming features. Freddie was petulant, arrogant and selfish. Anatoly seemed weak and equally selfish, how could he possibly believe that his family in Russia would not suffer because of his actions? Florence, though likable and worthy of sympathy, did not become a heroine to cheer for. Admittedly she did appear to be a genuinely talented chess player, rather than simply a PA as she had been portrayed in London, so this element did make her a more believable second to Freddie and later an obvious ally to Anatoly.
Ultimately, although elements of the political battles blowing up around them were certainly dramatised and explored in somewhat more detail than in London, the characters themselves were not greatly improved by the substantially more rounded development they had been given. They didn’t grab our attention any more and possibly less than in London.
Losing the music which had accompanied practically every word in London seemed to lose some of the slickness of the entire piece. It was the music and the sheer beauty and energy of it that had propelled the story in London. While the songs were every bit as good when exposed as standalone songs, some of them did appear stark and even ugly without the orchestral buffering they had originally enjoyed. Perhaps the contrast in spoken dialogue levels and amplified sung sections also overemphasised the loudness of the music, especially the more rocky numbers, making them come across as harsh and less tuneful at times. A strange phenomenon given that the score had previously been praised both on album and stage for its beauty. Perhaps with the songs having been conceived as part of a sung-through score, they simply lost some of their impact and momentum when robbed of their recitative accompaniment.
Trevor Nunn: By picking up again the form of the musical play as opposed to the through composed semi operatic form of many of the most daring of recent shows in one sense we are turning the clock back. But we are also reaching forward to discover a style which can be cinematic, contemporary and naturalistic, a play capable of expanding into musical expression.
Bjorn: When we opened on Broadway we changed the show so drastically we just wrecked it, which was a pity. Even the score suffered – because it is a very operatic score, which doesn't need interrupting too much.
The orchestrations were modified, but still created by the same Anders Eljas who had put together a ravishingly beautiful score for the London production. No doubt, given the smaller orchestra and the demands of the more serious piece, many of the more glitzy and shimmering elements had been toned down, somewhat to the detriment of the show.
Several new versions of music and new songs were added. Most notably and most successfully was the inclusion of Someone Else’s Story, which beautifully highlighted the feelings of Florence as she began to question her apparently empty and loveless relationship with Freddie. Earlier she and Freddie had taken part in a reworked Argument which, with new lyrics became, How Many Women.
Molokov lost his Soviet Machine, a song which simply would not have sat well with this version of the show, given the heavy and sombre feel in opposition to the frivolous and joyful feel to this number. In return he got a duet with Walter, Let’s Work Together in which they discussed the merits of pooling resources to both their benefit. The music was a very enjoyable reworked version of the One Night in Bangkok melody, turned into a jovial tango.
Other pieces of music were also reworked, such as the rousing Champions from Endgame, which was used for a prologue that flashed back to the Hungarian uprising of 1956.
The show had really no true dancing in it. Chess had never been an obvious dance based show and in this version choreography was strictly limited to ‘movement’ rather than anything that could be truly described as dance. There were very few dancers in the cast and they were really only put to proper use during One Night in Bangkok and briefly in Merchandisers.
As for the set on which this new Chess would be performed, it was going to be a completely different playing area to that used in London. Trevor Nunn and Robin Wagner began from scratch and developed new ideas of how to portray the world required for the new script. The Broadway design needed to provide many more locations than had been required in London and with a much more realistic atmosphere.
Robin Wagner: When we got to the new script the only visual idea that emerged very strongly from me was the idea of the wall that lies between East and West. When I discussed that with Trevor, he also felt very strongly that that was a very specific image. We also talked about the idea of people who are literally blocked in by walls and have to move in and out of labyrinth types of structures because of the nature of their lives and their politics. I initially envisioned wall-towers - large objects that stop you from being free. These units soon turned into periaktoi, the reason they came out as three sided is because it was geometrically the simplest form.
Thus the basic concept of moving walls and enclosed spaces was created, using 12 huge moving periaktoe (triangular) towers - six 21’ tall and six 11’6” tall with 7' sides. Each of the tall towers weighed 550 pound. These were to be mechanically moved around on a stage which would include a large 28' central revolve.
The towers were made from drilled out aluminium (to make it lighter) covered in foam board and flame proof material. The facade of the towers were given a poured concrete finish, which gave them the effect of being a huge wall that constantly reformed itself to become buildings, interiors, arenas or parts of the city, creating around 47 different locations.
Robin Wagner: This did not want to be a statement about classical Siamese dancing or the Budapest String Quartet. No one was interested in that. We wanted to tell a story of espionage and people being torn apart by politics. And a love story which had nothing to do with architecture whatsoever. The use of multiple periaktoi proved to be the best way to define 47 different locations without turning the show into a spectacle.
The pallet of the new design was to be predominately neutral, with the grey concrete of the towers being only occasionally relieved by colour or brighter hues. Within two sides of each tower were six small periaktoi, these could be revolved to change the texture or colour of the tower side. One side - the Bangkok panels - had what Robin Wagner called a sort of Trump Tower look - with brass facings. These could turn again to show the Budapest panels - a kind of old world panelling. The panels on the third side of the small towers had images of various product logos for use during The Merchandisers.
Robin Wagner: We realised that the best way to move these things around would be to put a human inside of each one. Instead of machines imitating human capabilities, these are men imitating machines. The operators have become part of the set. They have been directed and rehearsed like an ensemble. It is like dance.
On the whole this new method did work, but it was not the high precision process originally imagined. With the towers being required to pass by within inches of each other, occasionally they did have minor collisions. Many hours of rehearsal were required to make the scene changes as smooth as possible, not to mention safe for tower operator and cast. By the time the show opened, the towers had become an extremely intricate and effective part of the performance. The swift cinematic style scene changes were endlessly fascinating to watch and lent the production a slick elegant style that aimed to keep the pace of the show at the right level. Although the set was quite dull in colour, the towers were enthralling to watch, providing a fascinating backdrop to the substantially interesting story that was being told in front of them.
Robin Wagner: The set could not exist without the director. If Trevor Nunn hadn't directed the moves, it couldn't work. It has needed directing as much as the actors have; indeed, the twelve towers that comprise its basic structure have been in rehearsal with the rest of the company from day one. [BW Brochure Notes]
Lighting was an important element of this production, creating atmosphere and intrigue in numerous scenes. Due to having to light a constantly moving set. The lighting designer, David Hersey, who had also lit London, was faced with various problems with how to get the lights into the right position to light the characters and not cast numerous shadows caused by the towers. Most stage lighting is hung above the stage, with some additional lights and spotlights located in front of the proscenium arch. This simply wasn’t going to provide enough options in this case and so a series of moving trusses were created which were located at various depths along the sides of the stage. These could be raised up and down or even pushed onto the stage (blocked from view by the towers) and used to light the most difficult nook or cranny on the set. Most scenes were bathed in cool to deep blues and every scene was given quite subdued levels of lighting, with many dark shadows around every corner. This and the stark surroundings of the towers helped to create some wonderfully atmospheric moments.
David Hersey: This project has been absolutely unique - it is completely unlike anything I've ever been challenged with in my entire life. You have these very large towers in the set, which are constantly in motion. The whole question of movement is such that it's as if we were making a film, so the lighting rig has had to reflect this problem. I worked together with the set designer fairly early on, and when the basic concept of the towers was established, it became clear straight away that we would need lights that could move. We've employed a lot of computer controlled lamps which pan and tilt - not to show off in a rock and roll way, but in order to get the light in the right place at the right time. Very often there's only one lamp in the correct position, so it has to be the right colour, and consequently too we've had to use a lot of colour changes. [BW Brochure Notes]
The sound design had many realistic elements to it. Traffic noise, elevator bells, car doors, screeching car tires etc. which created a truly natural sound for the show.
Andrew Bruce: Trevor's idea is to make the flow of the piece somewhat similar to a film, so we have scene change music with big orchestral swells that take you from one scene to another, and when that dies away, there's a soundtrack tape of wherever they happen to be.So, for example, outside the window of the Bangkok hotel suite you hear the sound of traffic. There's an ambiance tape running under almost every scene, in which we’ve created a picture of sounds. To accomplish this we’ve been working in a sound effects studio for about five weeks. [BW Brochure Notes]
It seemed like Chess would be forever plagued by technical problems, but in the end the New York production had its first preview on 11th April and although the interval was considerably longer than anybody would have wished (apparently 50 minutes or more) a fairly complete show was presented to the audience that night. Somewhat more complete than future performances, as sections were quickly cut and thus began the frantic attempt at getting the show into shape for its premier on April 28th.
A song was created for the later part of act one, called East/West and sung by two CIA agents. It reflected on the relative merits of both the east and west coasts of America. It was apparently only performed during the first preview then abruptly cut.
When the reviews were published, if anybody truly believed they would be good, they were in for deep disappointment. Almost unanimously the show was slated. Needless to say all eyes were peeled to see what Frank Rich of the New York Times, had to say, the 'butcher of Broadway' as he was known, so called because of his often scathing reviews and frighteningly powerful ability to close a show overnight. Rich more or less hated everything about the show, with the exception of some of the cast.
Frank Rich - New York Times: For over three hours, the characters onstage at the Imperial yell at one another to rock music. The show is a suite of temper tantrums, all amplified to a piercing pitch that would not be out of place in a musical about one of chess's somewhat noisier fellow sports, like stock-car racing.
USA Today: With a Herculean effort, the catchy rock score, clever, though not spectacular production and excellent performances sometimes redeem the show.
William A Henry III: Nunn's trademark cinematic staging, three superb leading performances by actors willing to be complex and unlikable and one of the best rock scores ever produced in the theater. This is an angry, difficult, demanding and rewarding show, one that pushes the boundaries of the form.
Rich was not alone in his distaste for the piece. Nearly every reviewer had bad things to say about it. With poor reviews the show was now on shaky ground. The advance was reasonable, but some people did cancel after reading the reviews and many others who might have gone on to book obviously didn’t.
Benny: Bjorn and I had been totally green about being in the theatre. In London Trevor Nunn was running the show with Robert Fox, the producer. We were around simply to see if they wanted to take anything out or change something. By the time Chess went to Broadway we knew a little more. We stayed in New York for some months and were more involved. It was a better show, I think, on Broadway, but it still didn't work. And the critic Frank Rich didn't help.
The show was now up and running on Broadway, but it was running at a very long three hours and costing a small fortune in overtime payments to the crew and theatre staff. There was no option but to make cuts wherever possible. The Arbiter song was an obvious choice for cutting, as was the Chess Hymn, both were songs that could be removed without any real effect on the plot. Near the end of the run, even the much loved Someone Else’s Story was also cut. Still, Chess struggled on and audience reaction and word of mouth continued to be good.
The next blow came when the show was completely ignored by the Tony Awards, with only Judy Kuhn and David Carroll being nominated.With the lack of a Tony and the exposure such an award could bring, the advance began to fall off. Although the show was breaking even by the end of May, this didn’t continue and by the end of June it was losing money and so the Shuberts decided to cut their losses and gave notice to close. The show closed after just 68 performances, losing its entire investment which had risen to $6 million.
Bjorn: Frank Rich killed Chess dead! Of course we didn't have the reputation that Les Mis or Phantom had brought from London when they came to Broadway. He couldn't kill those shows off, although he would have wanted to, I'm sure, because I think he thought Broadway was for the American musical, not these bloody European things. So with Chess he rubbed his hands and thought, 'Oh good, here comes one I can kill!' (From Mamma Mia - How Can I Resist You)
Trevor Nunn: My view was that we had made enormous strides with the show. That it was tremendously improved. I was very, very proud of it and very proud of the cast. I thought as an exploration of singing, acting and acting songs, it had pushed the frontier to some extent. I thought new things were happening.
A cast album had always been planned, but with the closure of the show, its recording fell into doubt. Eventually Bjorn and Benny stepped in and paid for the recording. Produced by them, but on a much thriftier budget than the concept album. The new recording lacked some of the orchestral lushness heard on the original album, but was a good representation of what had been staged at the Imperial. The subsequent release was of a single CD with a few
songs not included, such as Let’s Work
Together and The Arbiter which
were sad exclusions.
Trevor Nunn: They were very hurt, Benny and Bjorn, by the reaction in New York and therefore hurt by the notion that a recording of the latest version of the show wouldn’t necessarily follow and they insisted that it should happen and that they would pay for it themselves. Judy Kuhn has some wonderful stuff on that recording like Someone Else’s Story, which is just so delicate and human and special. It was very, very shocking that on the basis of that Frank Rich review, the score wasn’t even nominated for a Tony award.
With such a disastrous ending to its Broadway life, nobody was too sure what would be next for Chess. Would this be the end or would a new game be played somewhere else in the world?