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.
“About two years ago, I said, ‘I really want to do a concert of “Chess” and get the best possible singers and just do it as if it’s an opera,’ and that was what we did,” said Sir Tim. “And we managed to get a great cast who, ironically, turned out to be almost entirely American, which is great. They were the best people available at the time, because most of the British people that we might have gone for were working in shows, and we were just doing two nights in London. But Josh Groban, Idina Menzel and Adam Pasqall were just three outstanding people who we were very lucky to get. And this version is now the version I would like to tell people, ‘Please do this version. Trust the music. It’s an opera. The story is actually there if you concentrate.'”
And, actually, concentration really isn’t a necessity with this version. Not if you exercise your option to use subtitles.
“The song ‘Merano,’ at the beginning, which you never hear a word of on stage normally because it’s a choir sung by a huge choir, when we did it in the Albert Hall, we put subtitles up and people laughed and enjoyed the song and they understood it,” said Rice. “And I think a lot of the problem with ‘Chess’ and many musicals…I went to see “Wicked” and I didn’t know the score very well, and it was clearly a great show, but I couldn’t hear a word because I didn’t know it. When I went the second time and I’d learned the words, I enjoyed it much more. And I think so many people with big choral shows and shows that have huge forces don’t get it because they don’t hear the words.”
By the way, I must admit that I wasn’t familiar with Idina Menzel before the panel began, but as a treat for the TCA members in attendance, she took the stage and performed a brief show consisting of songs from “Chess,” “Wicked,” and “Rent,” plus a few other numbers. And I’m not gonna tell you that I’m a huge fan of musicals, but, boy howdy, after she performed “Defying Gravity,” from “Wicked,” I was straight off to iTunes to download the original version of the track. Vocally, she’s really a force to be reckoned with, and I’m in no way surprised to learn that she won the Tony Award for Best Actress for her performance as Elphaba.
In closing, I have to offer up Sir Tim’s comments on “One Night in Bangkok” only making it to #3 in America:
“I was so annoyed it didn’t quite get to number one. Simple Minds and Phil Collins kept us off. I can’t stand Simple Minds. No, actually, I love Phil. He’s a lovely bloke. Of course, he worked for Disney and won an Oscar for ‘Tarzan.’ No, it was quite funny because I see Phil Collins occasionally, and I occasionally have a go. He also kept me off number one in England once. Bastard.”
“Great Performances: ‘Chess’ In Concert” will air later in 2009, with the exact date still TBD.