It’s about time on this blog that I talked about my favourite thing ever. Ever since I first listened to it’s lead single, ‘One Night in Bangkok’ at around 5am in July, my life has not been the same. If I haven’t persuaded you by the end of this blog to go and listen to this absolute work of art, I have failed.
For those that haven’t had the pleasure of knowing, ‘Chess’ is a musical that was released in 1984 and was first brought to the West End in London in 1986, with lyrics written by critically acclaimed Tim Rice and music by the two ABBA dudes, Bijorn and Benny. To give a very shortened synopsis, the musical is set in a Chess championship, in the middle of the Cold War. The championship is between two Chess players, one representing the US and the other representing the USSR. The American is named Freddie Trumper, the current world champion who has a ‘bad-boy’ attitude with a big ego and an even bigger temper. The Russian challenger is called Anatoly Sergievsky, a more conflicted individual, who although he’s achieved as a chess player still isn’t happy with his current position. We also have Florence, Freddie’s press secretary/lover, who Freddie treats appallingly and Molokov, Anatoly’s Russian Special Advisor/Spy who is the only character that has an accent suited to his character in the entire musical. Molokov wants to play politics during the championship, but Anatoly is focused entirely on his game of Chess. It has two settings- the first Act is in Merano, Italy and the second Act is in Bangkok, Thailand. Why does it have it’s two settings? That would be spoiling.
How much of the musical is actually about Chess? Not too much, to be honest. Like the real Chess championships of the sixties and seventies, it is a lot more about politics and political power, with the Chess players being treated like pawns in the political world. It is also about the never-ending pressure of the media and press, how it can affect the individual, push events into happening and play its’ part in the political world. In the middle of all of this, there’s love stories, Soviet jigs and one very energetic Arbiter/Narrator who loves a two minute dance break. All soundtracked by a diverse soundtrack ranging from operatic masterpieces, ballads and 80s synthpop bangers. Seriously, what more could you want?
Here’s ten reasons why I love Chess The Musical and why you should definitely go and listen to it after you’ve finished reading:
1.) The Music Videos:
The music videos are utterly bonkers in all their 80s ridiculousness. One Night in Bangkok has some funny 80s animation, with Murray Head (who plays Freddie Trumper in the original soundtrack) float upwards onto a massive Chess board. Among other events a smaller Chessboard magically appears on a table, and there are some questionable camera angles. Another particular highlight is Freddie simply watching two (you assume) Thai boxers conducting a boxing match, which is questionable in its significance. In the music video for ‘The Arbiter’ the original Arbiter Bijorn Skifs seems to live in a mirror dimension and walks around with no shirt, only a blazer, on his top half. There’s also an array of hands reaching out of large squares for seemingly no given reason. It’s awesome. The way in which the Swede Skifs pronounces the name ‘Kasparov’ is worth your view alone, it’s delightful (3:17). The music video for ‘Nobody’s Side’ which is an absolute female power anthem has a segment of Elaine Paige (who plays Florence in the OG soundtrack) carrying out some questionable dance moves. Her hair is sprayed with about ten cans of hairspray in this video too. Finally, you have the music video for ‘Pity The Child’ which is an absolute dramatic ballad and although cheesy in parts, it really does tug at the heart strings. What makes all these music videos brilliant is they are amazingly 80s and are utterly bonkers, and yet they’re so original and great. All the singers are also completely in character during these videos, which makes it even better. All these wonderful gifts to the music industry can be found on YouTube.
2.) The Soundtrack:
As mentioned above, the soundtrack of Chess is extremely diverse. I truly believe there’s something for everyone here, it’s that good. We have dramatic, heart wrenching ballads such as ‘Anthem’ and ‘Pity The Child’ sung by our two chess grandmaster boys, more poppy typical 80s bangers such as ‘One Night in Bangkok’ and ‘I Know Him So Well’, and in the finale two underrated, show-stopping songs named ‘Endgame’ and ‘Epilogue/The Story of Chess’, both over ten minutes long. Somehow, this diversity all blends well together to tell the tale of politics, love, defecting, media, and a little bit of Chess.
3.) The live concerts:
It is argued within the fandom that Chess The Musical works better as a concert than it does as a live stage production. This is what it actually started out as before it reached the West End in London in 1986. ‘Chess Concerts’ toured Europe with most of the original cast performing during 1984. Luckily for us, some of these concerts were recorded, such as the Stockholm concert. This Stockholm performance showcases some of the best ballads from the show with a live orchestra, and it is absolutely beautiful. Although there is less of an emphasis on the plot, the main cast of Murray Head (Freddie) Tommy Korberg (Anatoly) and Elaine Paige (Florence) still power every bit of emotion into their tracks, and the love and hate between the trio is extremely strong, despite it not being on the stage with props. Korberg in particular showcases his live vocal range in the song ‘Endgame’ and whenever I watch it I genuinely gasp out loud at the notes he hits. I wholeheartedly recommend it.
4.) Chess takes itself seriously, but that doesn’t mean you should take it seriously:
Chess is a very dramatic musical. It has a bit of humour here and there, with Freddie’s lack of self awareness over the consequences of being so anti-Communist and both the American and Russian delegations paranoia over the other cheating with ‘communication devices’ and the ‘make of the players chair.’ That’s about as far as the humour goes, though. For the most part, most of the characters are serious-minded people and the situations that they find themselves in, whether that be competing in the championship or being pawns in the world of politics, are serious. However, that doesn’t mean that you, dear reader, should take it as seriously. Chess has its faults, from some characters changing motives every ten minutes to some parts of the plot being quite unrealistic. This however just adds to the beauty of it. It can be a bit of a mess, but it’s a beautiful, dramatic, sometimes ridiculous mess. Some of it also, in the year 2020, is painfully outdated. This leads me to my next point…
5.) Chess has almost become a microcosm of its’ time of release:
Chess, as mentioned, is set at the height of the Cold War. It was also released in the year 1984 (the same year Frankie Goes to Hollywood released the Cold War anthem ‘Two Tribes’), when the Cold War was still a big topical concern. However, shortly after its release, the Cold War came to an end in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. This made most of Chess’ defining themes and significance redundant. As a modern audience, we may find it a little hard to relate to the US-USSR rivalry and relations that dominate the musical. To me, this is what makes it so beautiful. Chess is a defining work of art from its time, that although does not define the times of now, it defines the times of then.
Chess also has some lines which when made would only be Acceptable In The 80s. Characters called The Merchandisers, who advertise the Chess game as the championship is taking place, talk of selling ‘Rubik’s Cubes’ in their past work as sellers. A very decade defining lyric that we cannot picture being in a song now. There’s also some Questionable Lyrics in some songs- One Night in Bangkok in particular has some questionable lines about Thailand’s inhabitants (‘your bars, your temples, your massage parlours…’) that would not be written today.
6.) FREDDIE. TRUMPER.
Okay, okay I got to point 6 without talking about him extensively, and that’s quite an achievement. Freddie Trumper, The American, is my favourite character ever, in anything ever. Okay, he treats his girlfriend Florence with little respect and treats the press journalists even worse, but he has his reasons. Freddie is treated as a political pawn just as much as anyone else in the musical. Among the majority of the fanbase, he’s incredibly misunderstood. Without spoiling anything, he gets manipulated by various sources into committing to behaviour that isn’t his true intentions, and he is driven by money or political power. He also matures heavily throughout the musical, and eventually does make some right decisions about what to do and how to help others. Trumper has the gift of the best number in the entire musical in my opinion also with a ballad called ‘Pity The Child.’ It’s a miracle if I’m not sobbing by the end of that song as the guitar solo comes in. Freddie also produces my favourite line: ‘how can you let mediocrity win?’ which I’ve used countless times to motivate me.
7.) Chess isn’t well known, and that makes the musical even better:
I feel like individual songs from Chess are quite well known- One Night in Bangkok for example. However, not many people know this song actually originates from a musical. Compared to other big musical names such as Hamilton, Billy Elliot and Mamma Mia, Chess is quite obscure and is certainly a cult favourite. The consequence of this is a devoted fanbase who have to hunt down *ahem* content in whatever way they can. There’s not an official live recording of the Chess The Musical London stage production, let’s just say that. If one fan happens to find any bit of *ahem* content however then it is shared among the fanbase to enjoy equally. Finding said content is also so much more special due to the obscurity of the musical.
8.) The commercial performances:
To promote Chess across the world prior to the soundtrack’s release, there were many commercial performances of the songs from Chess by the original cast. This produced some absolute treasures of video recordings. In one performance for German TV, Murray performs One Night in Bangkok completely on character on an underfunded set with 3/4 of ABBA as the BACKING vocals during the performance. There’s also many, many commercial of I know Him So Well with both Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson singing the duet in front of dodgy looking chess board props. One in particular is where Paige is wearing a bright floral shirts and the chess pawns behind are brightly coloured gold. It’s wonderful in its oddness.
9.) The beauty of the low quality Chess The Documentary:
User bobtrouper, thank you for uploading this treasure to YouTube. Split over seven Youtube videos, this documentary details how Chess The Musical was recorded and how the recording process was conducted. There’s footage from every major song of the show during it’s process of being recorded by the original cast. It also has it’s entertaining moments- from Elaine Paige reading a newspaper and then explaining to the camera how her horoscope is wrong to Murray Head talking about how his age is prohibiting his sexual liberation, it’s a wonderful thing to indulge in. It gives a feeling of personality towards the cast, with interviews for each, and a look inside the minds of Tim, Benny and Bijorn as they moved forward with the musical writing and planning. It’s brilliantly good, although sometimes a little blurry and low quality.
10.) The amount of versions are astounding:
In my writing of this blog post, I have focused largely on the original recording of Chess, which was released in 1984 and transcended to the West End stage in 1986. You discover you’re not too particularly fond of that version? Don’t you worry, there’s many more! Those who have directed a Chess The Musical production have not stuck with the original script, soundtrack or plot so every adaption is completely different from the last. The Broadway version’s soundtrack for example, which can be found on Youtube, is completely different and the story is turned on it’s head. It’s an understatement to say that this musical comes in many, many different forms. Some hate particular versions, some love them. That is the beauty of Chess. I’m sure they’ll be even more productions in the future that differ from the version. After all, there is always different variations left to be played.
If you are reading this far, thank you for listening to me speak about my favourite thing ever. Now get on Spotify, Apple Music, Youtube, Souncloud and listen to the Original Soundtrack masterpiece! I promise you’ll not be disappointed in all of its 80s mastery.