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Richard Jordan: Drop the cynicism, it’s time to embrace the brilliance of the 1980s

Tim Howar in Chess. Photo: BrinkhoffMoogenburg
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It’s so 1980s. That’s a criticism, and one that has been frequently levelled at the recent London revival of Bjorn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Tim Rice’s musical Chess, which ends its run on Saturday.

Have you ever heard a revival of Carousel or Oklahoma! described as being “so 1940s”? Or Jesus Christ Superstar or Pippin as “so 1970s”? Contrast that to the negative sneer aimed at many of the musicals from the penultimate decade of the 20th century.

Chess is a period piece. It takes the framework of the political climate of the time and tells a very personal story. Its problem may lie in the rewrites that accompany every new production.

It is not alone in suffering from tinkering. That was the major issue for 1996 musical Martin Guerre, which went through four reworked productions in the West End. Its multiple rewrites lost the trust of audiences and critics, and the changes failed to lock it into the public consciousness, something that’s needed to make a musical a classic.

‘Chess has become sexless – and that’s bad news for a musical centred around a toxic love triangle’

Chess is often described as a flop because of its failure on Broadway in 1988. This can largely be blamed on the new book by Richard Nelson. This, despite a successful West End premiere in 1986, followed by a three-year run, is frequently forgotten.

Broadway chose not to replicate the original London production over concerns about how US audiences would react to the Cold War subject matter. The changes were not a success and the only welcome addition was the song Someone Else’s Story, which has featured in subsequent productions.

The reworked versions that have followed the Broadway run have often felt clumsy or have tried too hard to be political rather than personal. The result is Chess has become sexless – and that’s bad news for a musical centred around a toxic love triangle.

In contrast, the original London production had carefully built up the tension between the lovers, which was the glue that drove the story forward. Crucially, it also ensured audiences both believed and were invested in its characters and story.

Actor and Chess understudy Cellen Chugg Jones – ‘It was single-handedly the best moment of my life’

Unlike many of its musical contemporaries, which failed on Broadway and have been banished to the vaults, Chess’ legacy was secured in the public’s mind because of a hit concept album that continues to be discovered by new generations.

Success in one place can often lead producers to assume that it will be replicated elsewhere. The Broadway transfers of The Drowsy Chaperone or Spring Awakening, and West End transfer of Aspects of Love, all demonstrate that success is not guaranteed. But at the same time, neither do considerable rewrites guarantee success.

The producers of the 2003 Broadway transfer of Boy George’s musical Taboo felt it necessary to revise and contextualise local London references for a US audience rather than trust the material – which proved disastrous. It’s an important lesson for Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, in any US transfer, to trust its setting and material and not to radically rewrite these for the US market.

There are of course musicals where revisiting the book and score has proved beneficial. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 2010 musical Love Never Dies was far better in its second West End incarnation and new production in Australia.

Chess at the London Coliseum – review round-up

Lloyd Webber is the master of revisiting musicals and has frequently done so throughout his career. Does he, therefore, write with a view to returning for revisions a decade or two after the curtain goes up for the first time (or sometimes sooner)? Equally, if career success subsequently affords this opportunity, will a composer write differently as a result?

Producer Cameron Mackintosh has taken the practice even further by revising or adding new material to a previously successful musical. His 2016 West End revival of the late David Heneker’s 1963 musical Half A Sixpence was given a new book by Julian Fellowes and songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, with some of Heneker’s work cut.

‘We should respect the work in the form it first emerged’

But is that taking things a step too far? Any revision must improve upon the original. Last year’s workshop at London’s Other Palace saw yet another reworked version of Starlight Express, which replaced the role of Poppa with Momma, together with adding in a few Brexit jokes. This felt both token and deliberate rather than adding to the work, prompting the question: are such revisions even necessary?

If Chess trusted its original book more, it would have found an authenticity and powerful relevance today. It’s the same with other politically-motivated musicals such as South Pacific or Of Thee I Sing. It is inconceivable that these would be spiced up or rewritten for today’s audience and are recognised as timeless musical theatre works.

That many of the 1980s commercial musicals became known as ‘blockbusters’ may have done these original works a great disservice and afforded them much less recognition for their actual craft.

Chess’ return to the West End is a reminder that we should respect the work in the form it first emerged. Many of the musicals from this era deserve to be better embraced, rather than undervalued, or have a cynical eyebrow raised towards them.

Back in the game: Chess returns to the West End


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