I have two confessions to make. First, and should be most surprising to those who know me best, there was a time in my life when travel wasn’t a high priority. I hadn’t caught that “bug” yet. Yes, until my mid-twenties, I had been to few places and had no strong desire to travel. Then, due to a bad time-off policy in my government job, I decided to go with my then Significant Other (an eighties concept) to Paris and London for 6 nights. Jet lag, middle seat of 5 middle seats in coach on TWA, and a lack of travel knowledge made the first three nights in Paris go by in a blur. The trip didn’t really settle in until London and what really did it was my first foray to the London theatre…to see Chess, the Musical. We had an argument on the way to the show, most likely due to travel exhaustion, but it really didn’t set the tone for a fun night ahead. The music started and suddenly all was fixed and well. I was transfixed. This was really one of my first times at the theatre and I became hooked. Walking out of the theatre, on a balmy summer night in London (I know, who thinks balmy and London but it happened), I fell in love…with travel, being far away from home and its ease and with musicals, theatre and especially Chess. Yes, that’s my second confession: I am a certified Chess-Nut!
I have seen the show many, many times. I am guessing around 17 but, since I am sometimes guilty of hyperbole (another confessional shock to those who know me well), I can certify at least 10 or more times. And, the most recent viewing didn’t let me down! I just saw
Chess done by the brilliant East West Players at their showcase theatre in Little Tokyo (Dowtown Los Angeles–check them out at www.eastwestplayers.org). East West resurrected the very seldom done UK version of Chess–that which first transfixed me decades ago. And they did it ably! 10 days after I am still singing and humming the songs and score. Their version captures the cynicism and darkness that made the show feel so fresh, strong and moving when I first saw it (during the Reagan Cold War era) in London. It isn’t simply a “happy go-lucky” musical but one that makes the audience work a little as there is no clear protagonist and each of the characters has a flaw or two making them ever more real. For me, the music (from the male half off Abba) and lyrics (by Tim Rice), make the show somewhat perfect to the ear. It is music of crescendo and harmonization–the second act would make any fan of harmonizing weak in the knees.
What made the East West staging even better, in addition to performing the rarely done and I think better UK version, is that East West is dedicated to “non-traditional” casting. Chess is set at the height of the Cold War and uses the international chess matches and the hype surrounding the US v. USSR as an allegory to the entire Cold War. Florence, the female lead, in many ways is the torn and riven Europe, caught between lovers who make decisions for her and leave her less than whole. With the lead roles being from the US, USSR and Hungary, East West brings a freshness by using predominantly Asian-American, African-American and Latino-American actors. But, the use of “non-traditional” casting isn’t a gimmick. The performances show that any great actor (and able singer for a musical) can play any role at any time. A good wake up call that Broadway and the London stage could try! No one is left confused by the casting because who the actors are, if they are good and they are in this show, their characters, plain and simple. The show, which even I have to admit is a bit dated, comes alive with this cast and staging.
The musical Chess has had quite a rocky road. It was a smash hit in London’s West End opening in 1986. It’s original Director in the UK was Michael Bennett (who conceived A Chorus Line) but he got sick from that plague that accursed the 1980’s, and Trevor Nunn took up the reigns. Elaine Paige played the original Florence and Murray Head the original Freddie (and his Act Two opening Song “One Night in Bangkok” became a Chart favorite from Chess-the Concert which predated the Musical). Partially, what made the show work was the darkness and cynicism that pulled few punches. Europe was reeling between Reagan and Brezhnev then Andropov and, by its Opening, the more KGB version of Gorbachev. The show critiques each “side” (a key song is “Nobody is on Nobody’s Side) and leaves the audience happy with the music and bittersweet with the book. The staging was unique using a chessboard motif.
But, when it came to Broadway in the US, it was completely redone. The times were changing, Gorbachev was newly re-minted and Reagan was retiring. The air in the US was “We are Number 1” and a show that criticized the US in the Cold War as clearly as did Chess
could not make it. So, the show became one more about US and the US character’s redemption and, other than the music, was really a wholly different piece. It was good but muddled with “happy endings” and the show closed on Broadway after only 3 months.
Since then, the show has been revived and played in small to mid houses nation and world-wide. Often times it is either the US version or some mixed US-UK version and I have enjoyed most all of the performances as the music remains superb. What makes the East West show even so much more special is that it is the full on UK version (which I have not had the pleasure of seeing since that night my eyes were opened to theatre and travel) and they do it well. The show is extended to June 23 and I can’t urge our readers to go see it if you find yourselves in LA. Tickets are available at the website: www.eastwestplayers.org.
As for travel, I have never looked back. What started as a crush walking back out of the Prince Edward Theatre in the West End through the streets of London to the St. James Court hotel near Victoria Station has become a healthy obsession. Thank you to Chess, and London, for a great travel life since.