Signature Theatre's Eric Schaeffer mounts new version of musical 'Chess'

The hit Cold War-themed musical, written by Abba's Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, finds a stage at the Arlington theater.
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 26, 2010

If there's another move left in "Chess," the game-changer might just come to light in Shirlington.

A sizable hit in London in the '80s -- and just as big a flop in New York later in that decade -- the musical to this day stirs warm feelings for musical-theater lovers, largely because of its infectious pop music, written by Abba's Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus. Yet despite numerous attempts over the years to fix the show -- a Cold War love story among international chess players -- its reputation in this country has never fully recovered from the shellacking it took on Broadway, where it closed in June 1988 after a mere 68 performances.

Now, though, Signature Theatre and its artistic director, Eric Schaeffer, are taking a crack at "Chess," making significant cuts, reordering songs and shifting some of the focus from the chess match to the love triangle. And the theater world is waiting for the results: The Shubert Organization, which retains the rights to the musical along with London producer Robert Fox, has been closely monitoring the show's progress.

The musical's songwriters, still hungry for vindication (even after the success of a teeny-weeny follow-up piece called "Mamma Mia!"), are eager for a sense of how the new "Chess" is received.

"I'm curious to see what Eric has done with this," Andersson says, by phone from Sweden. "Maybe this is the right version. You never know."

With three strong, Broadway-tested leads -- Euan Morton ("Taboo"), Jeremy Kushnier ("Footloose") and Jill Paice ("The Woman in White") -- Schaeffer's $750,000 revival started performances on Aug. 10 and, unusual for a Washington show, is running almost three weeks of preview performances before inviting critics in to see it this weekend. The reasoning, in part, had to do with the lengths to which Signature is going to try to get the show right; playwright Richard Nelson, who'd been hired more than 20 years ago to rewrite the troublesome book for "Chess" for New York, came to see it last week, to determine whether some refinements were required.

Schaeffer consulted four versions of "Chess" to put together his own. "It's the show that more audience members have come up to me and said, 'You should do it,' " the director explains, adding that while he's always loved the score, he thought the Broadway production "was kind of overdone." Critics agreed. In his dismissive New York Times assessment, Frank Rich characterized the musical as a caustic shouting match: "For over three hours," he wrote, the actors "yell at one another to rock music."

"Chess," created by Andersson, Ulvaeus and lyricist Tim Rice as a concept album, was an effort to merge geopolitics and rock. Dreamed up in an era when contests between chess stars like Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky were international media sensations, the musical was a microcosmic representation of the superpower confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. But there was always something cold and schematic and even clunky about the show, even with memorable songs like "One Night in Bangkok," and a romantic angle: The crude American player's chess second, a sensitive emigre from Warsaw Pact-era Hungary named Florence, falls hard for virile Anatoly, the tale's married Soviet chess master.

Because of severe difficulties with the set while getting the show on its feet for Broadway, Nelson recalls, he and director Trevor Nunn never had a chance to iron out some narrative issues they'd intended to address: "We ran into a huge technical problem, which meant Trevor had to restage the entire show. It meant we postponed our opening and limited our previews and didn't work on anything but the staging. So by the time we opened, we all felt there were still things we would have liked to have done to the show."

In retrospect, Andersson, too, believes the Broadway version was not the best that "Chess" could be. He says he recently had occasion to read Rich's review again. "I could understand all of his objections in hindsight," the songwriter avers. "Maybe he wasn't all that wrong."

Schaeffer had been knocking on the doors of the Shubert Organization for some time for permission to mount a new "Chess." (Gerald Schoenfeld, long the organization's head, sent him an authorizing e-mail shortly before he died in 2008, Schaeffer says.) He also needed a go-ahead from the creators to tinker with the show and, to his surprise, all of them consented: "I thought, 'What if there's a slice of this and a slice of that to make a great new version of it?' "

The challenge with the musical is to more fully highlight the personal stakes for the characters, to make each seem more compelling than merely a piece on a chessboard. "The issue has been that it's a hard story to make clear, and to get the audience emotionally committed to it," observes David Holcenberg, "Chess's" music supervisor and orchestrator.

So the dilemma of Paice's Florence, caught between the egos of -- and her feelings for -- both contestants, has been made more of a focal point. Andersson says, interestingly, that a similar tack was taken with a 2003 version of "Chess" in Swedish that ended up running in Stockholm for two years.

To achieve this more streamlined perspective, Signature has trimmed the piece, condensing scenes and excising some satirical elements tied to the hoopla around the chess matches, which occur in Bangkok and Budapest. (A song for the event's merchandisers, for example, has been cut.) As a result, the show is something like 40 minutes shorter.

With the evaporation of the Cold War -- and a concurrent downtick in chess's newsworthiness -- the conflicts in "Chess" may come across as less relevant today. Schaeffer, however, says his choice was not to avoid "Chess's" connections to events of the time, but to make them inescapably concrete. So on a panel of TV screens on Daniel Conway's modern set, spectators watch sections of President Ronald Reagan's famous "evil empire" speech.

"It's meant to show that that's the world we're living in," Schaeffer says.

What remains to be discovered is whether it's a world that envelops the audience with more dramatic authority. Andersson certainly hopes so. "I think it's a good move," he says, adding that he's contemplating a trip here to see it. "I wish them success."

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