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Theatre: Chess

"The game is greater than its players."

Make him wanna change his name!
We don't want the whole world saying
'They can't even win a game!'
We have never reckoned on coming second;
There's no use in losing!"

A Rock Opera with music by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA and with book and lyrics by Tim Rice. Widely considered to be the latter's magnum opus. It was originally produced as a successful Concept Album in 1984, then became a West End production, and eventually reached Broadway. Each version of the show underwent changes in story and music; Rice considers the most recent version, performed in concert at Royal Albert Hall in 2008, to be the official one.

The plot of each version has about this much in common: it concerns the World Chess Championships set against the backdrop of the Cold War. There's the brash American champion Freddie Trumper, the reserved Russian challenger Anatoly Sergievsky, the American's second Florence Vassy who switches her affections to the Russian, the Russian's wife Svetlana, KGB and CIA agents (Alexander/Ivan Molokov and Walter de Courcey, respectively) working behind the scenes, and an Arbiter presiding over the tournaments.


This show contains examples of:

  • Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder: Sort of. Freddie shows up in Bangkok after a year without any contact with Florence. Anatoly suspects he's in town because of this trope, but it turns he's working for Walter.
  • Album Title Drop: Subverted in the Concept Album when the only number that's specifically called Chess doesn't have any lyrics.
  • Alternate Character Interpretation: The Musical. Every iteration of Chess seems to have a new take on the characters and even the story.invoked
  • Batman Gambit: "The Deal (No Deal)" — Walter and Molokov fail since Anatoly goes on to win anyway.
  • Berserk Button: Florence tries her best to get along with anyone and everyone...as long as they don't bring up Hungary or her father.
  • Big Bad Duumvirate: Walter and Molokov become one in Act II, joining forces to cause as much hell for everyone else as they possibly can.
  • Big "NEVER!": Sung by Anatoly during "Endgame."
  • Breakaway Pop Hit: "One Night in Bangkok" and "I Know Him So Well".
    • "One Night In Bangkok", as performed by Murray Head, is the last show-tune ever to chart on the Top 40 in the United States. Its then-contemporary new wave sound probably had something to do with it.
  • Breakup Song: "Florence Quits".
  • Broadway Bonus Song: "Someone Else's Story"' is an interesting case. It was added for the Broadway run and given to Florence, but in later productions it goes to Svetlana or even both of them. Some don't bother with it at all.
  • Broken Bird: Florence and Svetlana, the latter a bit more so in post-London versions.
  • BSOD Song: "Pity the Child", which owes a lot to "Judas' Death" in Jesus Christ Superstar.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: "Pity the Child".
  • Captain Obvious: In "The Story of Chess" we have this:
    Chorus Member: For no one really likes their offspring fighting to the death.
  • The Chessmaster: Molokov and Walter. Ironically, both of the literal chessmasters are just, well, pawns.
  • Cold War: While the musical is called Chess, the Cold War and all the ploys and posturing of the US and USSR dominate much of the plot. Interestingly, they mostly do away with the whole "West good, East bad" bit that characterizes most Western stories set during the time period. Both sides have some pretty despicable people working for them and will go to any lengths to get what they want, even if it means cooperating with the other side to screw over Anatoly.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: In the Royal Albert Hall version. America is coded as white, and the USSR as black. Freddie wears solid white, Anatoly wears a black jacket and a white shirt (and is the only chess-player to switch sides during the play), and Viigand wears solid black. Fits for some of the other characters too — Svetlana, the Russian, wears black; Molokov, a Russian who collaborates with the Americans, wears a gray-ish suit; Florence starts off wearing black (just before and during when she's dissatisfied with Freddie) but then switches to white after the act break (just before and during when she becomes dissatisfied with Anatoly); and Walter wears dark clothes in the first act (when he helps Anatoly defect) but white in the second (when his concerns are mostly with recovering American spies).
  • Concept Album: Did rather well in that it produced two hits and that garnered press attention for the show.
  • Crazy People Play Chess: And how. Freddie's obviously nuts, and Anatoly may not be far behind by the end.
  • Cut Song: The Broadway version, which was famously being rewritten as the season went on, has these a plenty. "Let's Work Together", the Villain Song, was cut early on. But even before that, "East and West" seems to have been cut before opening night; it was only shown during previews. (For the interested, it took the place of "Embassy Lament" and featured two CIA guys trying to convince Anatoly to move to New York City or LA, respectively).
  • Dark Reprise: Being a Rock Opera, there are plenty of these.
  • Dirty Communists: Freddie's perception of them.
    Reporter: Does your opponent deserve such abuse?
    Freddie: All Soviets deserve abuse.
    • Also Florence's perception of them, although she has changed her tune since arriving at the competition and meeting Anatoly.
  • Disappeared Dad: Florence, hers is occasionally used as a plot device, and Freddie to a lesser extent.
  • Distant Duet: "You and I" was done this way in the Concept Album, but this version of staging it never really stuck for any of the productions.
    • "I Know Him So Well" is often done as one.
  • Drunken Song: "Der Kleine Franz" and sometimes "The Soviet Machine".
    • The Deal in the Swedish version, at least for Freddie.
  • Duet Bonding: The entire purpose of "Mountain Duet" was to establish the relationship between Florence and Anatoly.
  • Dysfunction Junction: World chess championships apparently attract emotionally crippled Jerkass manchildren, women with abandonment issues, and self-absorbed adulterers. As Svetlana characterizes them: "Esoterics, paranoids, hysterics."
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: The Chicago version, which does end with Florence's father being rescued from the gulags and reunited with his daughter.
  • Europop: The Concept Album definitely falls into this trope, although it's been progressively toned down over years. There's only so much you can do with a thirty piece orchestra.
  • Everyone Calls Him Barkeep: The Arbiter. It makes sense that he doesn't have a name since he doesn't really care about everyone else's problems unless they're interrupting the game, making him pretty one-dimensional.
    • In the Broadway version he was explicitly named Constantine Stannos, and was a Greek businessman. In Sweden he was a Frenchman named Jean Jacques Van Boren. The US Tour made him a Nigerian named Kobe Obe. But again — none of these names has actually stuck. Also see No Name Given below.
  • Evil Sounds Deep: Molokov
    • Walter's part is also pretty low.
      • Depending on the production, the 2008 concert took Walter's vocal range down an octave to match Clarke Peters. The 2001 Danish touring cast and the original Broadway production had Walter's part as a tenor, possibly to contrast Molokov.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: Subverted. Sure, there's chess in it, but it's the least of everyone's worries.
  • Executive Meddling: Trevor Nunn.
  • Fading into the Next Song: Done a lot on the Concept Album, but not so much on stage since they usually have a one or two lines of dialogue to cram in before the next cue.
  • Final Love Duet: Subverted with "You and I (Reprise)"
  • Freudian Excuse: Most characters get a song or two that is just this; which characters get which songs depend mostly on the director of the iteration in question.
  • Greed: Walter in the US Tour rewrite (the one by Richard Coe). He ruins Anatoly's life and gets him sent back to the Soviet Union not to rescue an American spy, but so that the Soviets will let him do some chess merchendising in Russia.
  • Grey and Grey Morality: An adulterer and his mistress versus two pragmatic spooks doing what they sincerely believe is in their countries' best interest.
  • I'm a Doctor, Not a Placeholder:
    Anatoly: I'm a chess player, Mr. Molokov. You go and play these other..."games".
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Florence and Svetlana both say this about Anatoly in "I Know Him So Well." Later subverted when Anatoly has a song in which he says that he alone, and not either of the women that in the past he said he loved, is his one true obligation. Essentially "Screw my beloved, I want to be happy."
  • Irrelevant Act Opener: "The Story of Chess" has nothing to do with the actual plot of the show. "Merano" and "One Night in Bangkok" have very little to do, either, only describing the locations.
  • "I Want" Song: "Where I Want to Be" is a subversion, as it's Anatoly's reflection on getting what he always wanted and how hard it sucks.
  • Jerkass: Freddie Trumper, though given the source material this is unsurprising. (If anything he's less of one than the guy he's based on.)
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Freddie is correct in his assertions that his reputation as the bad boy of chess has helped to renew public interest in the game. He later helps Anatoly realize that winning the championship is his only chance to redeem himself.
  • Kent Brockman News: Walter is ostensibly the reporter covering the match, but that takes a back seat to his trying to influence it and mess with the players through his coverage (and other actions). This extends to him arranging for a video of Anatoly's (abandoned) family to play during an interview of Anatoly, who reacts as expected.
  • Large Ham: The roles of Freddie and Molokov call for it.
  • Lonely at the Top: Freddie and Anatoly express this sentiment in different ways.
  • Lost Forever: The Sidney rewrite was never recorded on a studio album, and the Broadway rewrite's album had several songs redacted. As such, the only way to hear the music exclusive to those renditions was to go to the concert while they were still in theatres. Once the run ended, the music was lost in the ether.
    • Averted somewhat with the Broadway version now; it is occasionally performed by theatre troupes in America, allowing people a chance to hear the music. Still no studio recording, though.
      • However, one song, "East and West", was cut from the Broadway show after the opening night, and seems to have been completely erased — there are no extant recordings or even scores of this piece. The lyrics alone are known. (For those wondering, this scene took the place of Embassy Lament, and featured a New York and a San Francisco resident each arguing to Anatoly that he should live in their city once he goes to America).
    • And the Sidney version — which featured several exclusive songs, as well as longer versions of 'Deal (No Deal)', 'One Night in Bangkok', and 'Soviet Machine', does seem to be gone forever.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Molokov.
  • Mind Screw: It's not clear how much of "Endgame" takes place inside Anatoly's head.
  • Money Song: "The Merchandisers".
  • My Country, Right or Wrong: Anatoly, in an unusual way.
  • No Accounting for Taste: Florence and Freddie. Word of God confirmed this at the album stage, however by the time the production rolled round, the need for Adaptation Expansion means that Florence says she loves him. Also implied for Anatoly and Svetlana.
  • No Name Given: Anatoly and Freddie are simply "The Russian" and "The American" in the original Concept Album. Also, The Arbiter only has a name in a few versions (Jean Jacques van Boren, Constantine Stannos, Kobe Obe), though nobody calls him that anyway.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Josh Groban, singing the part of Anatoly in the 2008 concert. His performance arguably better for it. Averted by Molokov.
    • Also, Tommy Körberg in the original album, the original London cast, and Chess på Svenska, which is understandable because, well, "på Svenska."
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: "Embassy Lament". The song is so dryly witty that it turns into Anti Villain Song, if it was ever a Villain Song to begin with.
  • Only Friend: Florence is Freddie's (or at least says she is — given his behavior, it's not hard to believe), although by the end of the first act even she gets fed up and leaves him.
  • Opening Ballet: "The Golden Bangkok"
  • Precision F-Strike: In the Concert version of "Talking Chess". Missing from the soundtrack.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: Anatoly considers his entire chess career thus far to have been one big one. He suffers another one at the end, winning the chess championship so as to prove to himself that he's free from Molokov's manipulations - but then returning to the Soviet Union anyway because he lost everything he had in the process.
    Now I'm
    Where I want to be and who I want to be
    And doing what I always said I would and yet
    I feel I haven't won at all!
  • Pretty in Mink: On occasion, but they're fake since this is an unnecessary expense even in a professional production where a faux would do.
  • Rage Quit: Freddie does this in the first game we see him play.
  • Revised Ending: The many variations of the show's plot have also produced a variety of endings. Here's a fairly comprehensive list of endings appearing in productions:
    • Anatoly plays Viigand in the final match. Anatoly wins . Florence does not get reunited with her father. (First used in the original 1986 London production, now canon once again as of the 2008 Royal Albert Hall concert according to Tim Rice.)
    • Anatoly plays Freddie in the final match. Anatoly loses. Florence does not get reunited with her father. (First used in the 1988 Broadway production. Common in American productions.)
    • Anatoly plays Freddie in the final match. Anatoly loses. Florence actually gets reunited with her father. (First used in the 1990 Chicago production. Appears here and there in American productions.)
    • Anatoly plays Freddie in the final match. Anatoly wins . Florence does not get reunited with her father. (First used in the 1991 Sydney production. Doesn't seem to be used anymore.)
    • Anatoly plays Viigand in the final match. Anatoly wins . Florence actually gets reunited with her father. (Seen in a 2011 German production.)
  • Sanity Slippage Song: A variation in the Concept Album, when at the end of "The Deal", everyone else comments on Freddie's descent into his own crapulence:
    Let him spill out his hate till he knows he's deserted.
    There's no point wasting time preaching to the perverted.
  • Scenery Porn: The first London production with the bank of TV screens. Since then staging, even in professional productions, has been pretty basic.
  • Self Plagiarism: Some of the music borrows from previous compositions written by Andersson and Ulvaeus for ABBA. In particular, the chorus of "I Know Him So Well" was based on the chorus of "I Am An A" and the chorus of "Anthem" used the chord structures from the guitar solo from "Our Last Summer".
  • Serious Business: What the Arbiter describes as "a simple board game" ends up being very serious business for all the parties involved. In "Difficult and Dangerous Times" the US and the USSR both make it very clear early on that it's much more than a game to them.
    Chorus: We don't want the whole world saying "They can't even win a game."
  • Sex Is Boring: During "One Night in Bangkok," Freddie shows no interest in the ladies — or gents — and says, "I get my kicks above the waistline, Sunshine!"
  • Shout-Out: Tim Rice named Florence after his gran.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Puts the "sliding" in the sliding scale. It starts out a touch on the idealistic side, then takes a hard right into cynicismville. "Nobody's Side" is a bit cynical, but Anatoly's decision that he is his one true obligation takes the cake.
  • Smug Straight Edge: The Arbiter can come across this way, with his insistence that he (and, by implication, he alone) cannot be bribed by anything from women to drugs, or in any other way swayed from his loyalty to the rules of chess.
  • The Stoic: Viigand, whose most notable scene is calmly practicing chess as the entire Soviet delegation breaks into raucous song and dance around him. Molokov even calls him a "chess-playing machine."
  • Triang Relations: Depends on the adaptation, but version 4 features in most of them in at least some manner. One possible combination has Svetlana as A, Anatoly as B, and Florence as C. Alternately it can work with Freddie as A, Florence as B, and Anatoly as C.
  • Unintentional Period Piece: Reading up on Reagan-era political intrigue is helpful for modern audiences.
  • Unwanted Spouse: Poor Svetlana.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Sort of. The story has some elements that mirror real life, such as Freddie (in reality Bobby Fischer) being an ass who concedes after losing five games against Anatoly (Anatoly Karpov). Even the 5:1 to 5:5 come back between Anatoly (now mirroring Viktor Korchnoi, particularly in his defection) and Viigand (Anatoly Karpov) is pretty close to what actually happened, only reversed in who was doing the coming back. The retcon takes two forms, the first being of course the love triangle. The second is the switching around of who exactly Anatoly is representing at any given moment. He starts out as Karpov when he beats Bobby Fischer, becomes Korchnoi when he defects, then goes back to being Karpov by winning after his opponent had made a comeback.
  • Villain Song: "The Soviet Machine," where Molokov relates to his compatriots exactly how dirty they will be playing in order to ensure Anatoly loses.
    • In the Broadway version, there was also "Let's Work Together", which features Walter and Molokov deciding to team up to take down Anatoly, and "No Contest," where Walter prevails on Freddie to crush his opponent.
  • What Could Have Been: Tim Rice, Benny Andersson, and Björn Ulvaeus originally sought out Russian music star Alla Pugacheva to sing the role of Svetlana in the original concept album, but in the case of Art Imitates Life, the Soviet authorities would have none of it, so the Scottish singer Barbara Dickson was cast instead.
  • Worthy Opponent: Whilst initially dismissing him, by the time of "Talking Chess" Freddie sees Anatoly as this and urges him to give up his politics and win the game.


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