TCA Tour, Jan. 2009: “Great Performances: ‘Chess’ In Concert”

Remember “One Night in Bangkok”? Good ol’ Murray Head. Everyone thinks of him as a one-hit wonder in the States, but he’s really a two-hit wonder, having scored a top-20 single back in ’71 with “Superstar,” from “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Possibly not coincidentally, both singles featured lyrics from Sir Tim Rice, though a lot of Americans don’t realize that “One Night in Bangkok” is from a musical as well…not that anyone would blame you, given that the show from which it originates – “Chess” – was a gargantuan flop when it made its Broadway debut.

Most would argue, however, that the problem lay not with the musical itself but, rather, with the decision to change “Chess” from its original West End set-up by changing the story, adding different settings, characters, and plot elements, re-ordering the score, and redesigning the set to make it all more cinematic.

Certainly, Sir Tim is less than complimentary when discussing the Broadway production.

“To be honest, it was not good,” he said. “A huge book was added in, and I’m not criticizing the writer of the book particularly, but it was already too long, and to stick in a whole new play on top of it…? It went on. You know, it was a long show: thermos, flask, and a razor. It was just…it was not right. And it flopped on Broadway, but there’s a huge interest in the show, because the songs were…you know, if I may be immodest, the songs were very good. And it kind of went out and every director said, ‘Well, I can improve on this.’ And I’m not sure…well, they probably improved on the Broadway version, but they didn’t really get back to what it was.”

Who better to finally succeed at doing so, then, than Sir Tim himself?

PBS will be airing “”Great Performances: ‘Chess’ In Concert,” and although it will probably still never quite be perfect in the eyes of its creators (Rice wrote the lyrics, Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson – late of ABBA – wrote the music), it’s certainly a lot closer than it used to be.

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