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24th-29th March 2003
Title
 

Show handbillMusic by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Based on an idea by Tim Rice

This highly acclaimed musical develops the ancient and distinguished game of chess into a metaphor for romantic rivalries and East-West political intrigue. The principal pawns form a love triangle: the loutish American Grandmaster, the earnest Russian champion, and the Hungarian-American female chess second, who arrives at the international championships with the American but falls for the Russian. From Tyrol to Thailand the players, lovers, politicians, CIA and KGB make their moves to the pulse of this monumental rock score. Several numbers, including "One Night in Bangkok" and "I Know Him So Well", are international hits.

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Song List

Act One

Merano
The Russians and Molokov
Where I Want To Be
Opening Ceremony
A Model of Decorum and Tranquillity (Quartet)
The American and Florence
Nobody's Side
Chess
Mountain Duet
Florence Quits
Embassy Lament
Anthem

Act Two

Bangkok; One Night in Bangkok
Heaven Help My Heart
Argument
I Know Him So Well
The Deal (No Deal)
Pity the Child
Endgame
Epilogue (You and I; The Story of Chess)


Synopsis

Act One

The World Chess Championship is about to take place in Merano, a Tirolean town in north Italy. The champion (The American, in his mid-thirties) is defending his title against a new challenger (The Russian, in his early forties). The People of Merano are by and large very enthusiastic about the great event that is taking place in their small community. The American is enthusiastic about the potential financial rewards of the match and about his own skill at bringing what has hitherto been a minority interest sport to the frenzied attention of the world media (Merano).

The American gives a press conference at his hotel at which he behaves petulantly and aggressively, denouncing his opponent, every other Soviet and the press with equal vigour. His performance is watched on television by the Russian and his KGB-employed second, Molokov, in their hotel. Molokov is inclined to dismiss the American as a nut. The Russian concedes that his opponent is eccentric but realises that every outrageous move made by the American is a calculated one. The Russian reflects upon his own rise to the top. (The Russian and Molokov/Where I Want To Be)

The Opening Ceremony is a hugely colourful event. Merano has pulled out all the stops. The Arbiter of the match points out with great gusto that his word is final during the series of games while Merchandisers, Press, Politicians, Businessmen and Diplomats all struggle to get everything they can from the excitement building up to fever pitch around the contest. (The Opening Ceremony)

The American stages an effective and insulting walkout during the Arbiter's lengthy recap of the match regulations immediately after the Opening Ceremony. None are more insulted than his own second, Florence Vassy, who is left to defend her players indefensible behaviour to a sneering and pompously protesting Molokov. During this exchange she meets the Russian player for the first time. The Russian shows some sympathy for her situation. The Arbiter continues to prattle on about the rules. (Quartet - A Model of Decorum and Tranquility)

Florence confronts the American back at their hotel, telling him that she can not tolerate his treatment of her for much longer. We learn that she was born in Hungary, left that country when only two with her mother in 1956 during the uprising and is now a naturalised British Citizen.. She has never discovered what happened to her father who 'disappeared' when the Hungarian uprising was crushed. She is determined to find out. She has worked for the American for seven years, since meeting him during a chess tournament in England. We suspect their relationship is almost like a mother and child, although both are around the same age. Their argument reinforces her belief that the only person she ever really rely on is herself. (The American and Florence / Nobody's Side)

The first game of the contest begins with an atmosphere of mutual loathing hanging over the proceedings as the two players make their first moves. Tension builds as much offboard as on with both men resorting to underhand tactics to distract or enrage the other. Suddenly, high drama as the two players fling the board up in to the air. They walk out after nearly coming to blows. Consternation everywhere. (Chess)

Florence and Molokov have an unofficial meeting to discuss the collapse of the match, which no one really wants to abandon. After some spirited insult trading, Florence takes the initiative and tells Molokov where and when he is to deliver his player for a secret, off the record, meeting between the two contestants, in order that the match can resume without either party losing face. Molokov attempts to rattle Florence at one stage by implying that he knows some Hungarian history she might want to learn about.

At a private room in a restaurant halfway up a Merano Mountain, Florence and the American arrive for the secret meeting. The Russian is late and the American leaves the restaurant in mock disgust. Almost at once the Russian and a junior member of his back up team arrive to find no opponent waiting for them, only his opponent's Second. During the conversation that follows, the Russian and Florence are quickly attracted to each other, the almost romantic mood rudely interrupted when the American returns. (Mountain Duets)

The American and Russian argue, trade insults and jokes but thanks largely to Florence's delicate touch, they both agree on a press statement sharing the blame for the breakdown and to resume playing. Some days later, the American and Florence are discussing the progress of the match. Things are going badly for the American who is unpleasantly agitated. The cause is all but totally lost. He blames Florence for his failure and as they hurl abuse at each other, she tells him that she is going to leave him after the match, even if by some miracle he won it. The American is devastated and alternates between fury and pleading with her to stay. His paranoia about the Reds surfaces - he is convinced that the Soviets have something to do with both his loss of form and Florence's desertion. The finish of their argument is a "squalid little ending" to their relationship. Even after Florence has left, the American continues to justify his actions to himself. (Florence Quits) At an unidentified Western embassy some days later, the Russian, the newly crowned World chess champion, asks for political asylum, although he has problems winning the instant support and interest of the civil servants in the embassy. (Embassy Lament) Eventually he gets the form and freedom he wants. Certainly he has made the right decision, he is equally certain of what he will never be able to leave. (Anthem)

Act Two

One year has passed. The Russian is to defend his title against a new challenger from the Soviet Union in Bangkok, Thailand. The American and some locals discuss the unusual venue for the Championship. (Bangkok / One Night in Bangkok)

Florence and the Russian who have been lovers since his defection, are in the Oriental Hotel, Bangkok. They discuss his new opponent and wonder why the American is in town, as he has played no serious chess since his defeat in Merano. They also talk about the refusal of the Soviet authorities to let his wife out of the U.S.S.R. The Russian leaves to discuss tactics with seconds; Florence, alone, speculates about their future together. (Heaven Help My Heart)

Molokov and his team are confident that this time around they have a player who is totally trustworthy and can be relied upon (a) to win and (b) to stay in Russia. Their new champion is a rather weird introvert who only seems to be able to function at full steam when talking or playing chess.

The Russian is interviewed on Thai TV. To his amazement he discovers that his interviewer is the American who proceeds to ask him about his personal life, about Florence and about his politics - never about chess. The American finally tells him (on the air) that arrangements have been made to fly his wife into Bangkok in time for the match. Enraged, the Russian storms out.

The Russian and Florence watch his wife (Svetlana) on television arriving in Bangkok. The event brings the tension between them to a climax. (Argument) The Russian says he must leave Florence for the duration of the competition. Florence is left alone with the TV still showing Svetlana's image. She recalls how well she knows the lover who has just left her. Svetlana recalls how well she knows her husband. (I Know Him So Well)

The American forces his way into the Russian's quarters to offer him a deal. Despite the personal pressures already weighing heavily on the Russian, he has begun the match in great style, winning the first two games. The American now says that if his winning streak should suddenly come to an end then Florence will not be given information he claims to have received from the Soviets about her father. This information is extremely unpleasant, revealing her father to have been a traitor to his people, not a hero, responsible for a score of deaths. The Russian does not know whether to believe him or not, but throws him out. The American then approaches Florence, suggesting that if she would only return to him, not only would they be once again the best chess team ever witnessed, he also would be able to provide her with news (he does not say whether it is good or bad) she has always wanted to know about her past. She too rejects his offer. (The Deal)

His frustration and rejection by Florence cause the American to explode in a fury of self-pity and anger. (Pity the Child)

The deciding game in the match begins. Memories of former champions are evoked. Molokov and the American have a conversation which reveals them to have been in league against the Russian, albeit for very different reasons. Florence, watching the match, although not knowing that her lover been put under pressure to lose, sees his obsession with victory destroying his ability to care for her.

The Russian, defying everyone, plays like a dream and annihilates his opponent. He finds himself amused and delighted by the fact that his various enemies have so misjudged his will to win. He may have failed in his efforts to sort out his private life but he has succeeded in his professional, public life and he now knows that this is the only success he really wants. He rejoices in his victory, but even as the crowds acclaim him and as his wife vainly attempts to make some kind of contact with him, he almost immediately feels a sense of hollow anti-climax. He despises himself for the narrow selfish ambitions and desires that satisfy him. So does Svetlana; any chance of reconciliation between them is gone. They both acknowledge, she with bitterness, he with resignation, that henceforth their "one true obligation" is to themselves. (Endgame)

Whereas the Russian for the first time has been able to put his career before everything else, the change has gone the other way for the American. He hardly thinks of Chess now; only that his machinations have failed to alleviate his personal despair - Florence will not return to him even if her relationship with the Russion has foundered. He plans his revenge on both Florence and the Russian, while Molokov, apprehensive about his own future, prepares suitable treatment for his failed protege.

Epilogue

But has that relationship foundered? Florence and the Russian reflect simultaneously but separately, on their story that they thought was a very happy one; like the game of chess the game of love can be played in an almost limitless number of variations. Perhaps this was just one of many games that end in stalemate. "Yet we go on pretending, stories like ours have happy endings." (You and I / The Story of Chess) As they finish, the American is seen approaching Florence. He has some news for her...


Trivia

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