West End smash but a Broadway flop - revamped Chess hitting road: McAnuff rewriting to clarify storyline, place emphasis on ‘great score of 1980s’

New York

Shows that fail quickly on Broadway rarely get a national tour, but the musical Chess is about to hit the road as a $2-million venture, with a revised book, high-tech production and firm dates into next October.

Although the musical about Soviet-U.S. power politics within the context of the international chess tournament world was a smash hit in London, where it ran almost three years, the Broadway production two seasons ago took a critical drubbing and eked out only 37 performances before folding at a loss of about $6-million.

Such a fast Broadway foldo normally relegates a show to the dustbin of legit history and precludes a costly national tour. But Tom Mallow, the veteran road producer, believes the show – with significant revision – has the quality and mass appeal to warrant another shot.

“There is a real story there, and the score is outstanding,” said Mallow. “But just to take it as it was, without revisions, would be a mistake.”

To that end Mallow recruited Des McAnuff, the director of the Broadway hit Big River and artistic director of the adventurous La Jolla Playhouse. McAnuff, who’s also a playwright, has revised the show’s book (U.S version by Richard Nelson) in collaboration with Robert Coe. McAnuff is now in rehearsals in New York directing the show for a January 10th, 1990 opening at the Theater of the Performing Arts in Miami.

The musical by Tim Rice (lyrics and original book), and Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, alumni of the Euro-pop chartbusting group ABBA, has had a checkered history. Originally to be staged in London by Broadway’s Michael Bennett, who had done considerable conceptual planning on it, the show hit an early snag when Bennett withdrew because he had contracted AIDS, which would prove fatal. The Shubert Organization persuaded Trevor Nunn, stager of Cats and Les Misérables, to take the reigns, and the result was a West End b.o. smash.

The Broadway edition was revised to incorporate even more elaborate scenery by Robin Wagner and a new, more politically explicit book by Richard Nelson. The New York critics liked the score but turned thumbs down on almost everything else.

Noting that “some of the finest minds in the musical theater have worked on this show,” McAnuff believes a solid foundation has been laid. He and Coe have striven “to get the story to fit more comfortably into 1989. The love affair between the Soviet woman and the American is a metaphor that now means more than it did then.”

The structure is being jiggled for a clearer story line, with the angry American chess star’s self-revealing song, Pity The Child, being moved up early in the proceedings.

“Tim Rice had spectacular ideas for songs, and the composers deliver the goods. This could be the great score of the 1980s, and I think it’s healthy to bring in a new team at this point. But directing a big musical is a cross between a moon launch and running a major hotel.”

The material and the talents at the helm have enabled the show to enlist actors who normally don’t tour. The principals will be played by Stephen Bogardus, Carolee Carmello, John Herrera, Barbara Walsh, David Hurst and Ken Ard.

Mallow and McAnnuf have recruited a top design team (David Mitchell for sets, Ken Billington on lighting, Susan Hilferty on costumes) and are aiming for “a very contemporary, lean look without a lot of froufrou.” The show’s believed to be the first legit production to use Pani projectors, 4,000-kilowatt instruments that can create elaborate hi-tech effects. The stage deck has 32 light boxes implanted in it and four winches for rapid flexibility.

Mallow is the sole producer so far, after the withdrawal of Pace Theatricals, which has booked the show throughout its 24-city touring circuit. If Chess succeeds on the road, it might lead to other tours of shows that didn’t achieve long Broadway runs and for that reason alone it’s a significant venture.

Mallow has booked time through next October, and if business warrants he plans to extend it well into 1991. The weekly guarantee is $230,000, well bellow the lofty $325,000 that major hit musicals now command. Transcribed for ABBA World

Variety (New York) · 6 December 1989 (Pages 139 & 148)

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