In a week when Moscow and Washington squabbled over arms treaties and Europe imposed fresh sanctions on the Kremlin, Russia has offered a further throwback to the cold war era: its first staging of the 1980s Abba and Tim Rice musical Chess.
The story, inspired by real events, tells of the professional and romantic rivalry between two chess grandmasters, one Soviet and one American. It spawned the hits I Know Him So Well and One Night in Bangkok, and was performed in the West End and on Broadway.
Given the musical’s chorus of villainous Soviet spooks and a hero who is threatened by the KGB after his defection, the show might seem an unlikely draw for Moscow audiences.
But producers have made a number of changes, including “humanising” the hero’s KGB handler and removing the role of an American spy.
“In our interpretation, there are no heroes and no villains,” said Dmitry Bogachev, who produced the show, which opens on Saturday at the Moscow Palace of Youth. “All of them are lifelike and complicated. There’s a lot of good and bad in all of them.”
He pointed to the role of the Soviet chess delegation head, Molokov, who also works for the country’s spy agency and bugs his top player’s room. “You probably consider that he is the villain. But he is a man who is just carrying out his work.”
The new staging presents events from the point of view of the Russian player Anatoly Sergievsky, loosely based on the chess grandmaster Viktor Korchnoi, who fled the Soviet Union in 1976. A scene in Moscow has been added while the role of Walter, Molokov’s American counterpart, has been cut to prevent the musical becoming “a story about politics”, Bogachev said, adding that all changes had been approved by Rice. The lyricist visited Moscow in February, along with Abba’s Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, who wrote the music.
Bogachev said the aim was not just to adapt the musical for a Russian audience, but to reflect the realities of the new cold war.
“It seems to me that in the 1970s and 80s, things were clearer. There were two systems, there were ideologies, there were socialist and capitalist values. Now the fight has stopped being ideological. It’s a geopolitical and economic struggle. And in this sense everything’s become much more complicated. There aren’t two sides like in chess.”
The high-octane, hi-tech production has earned standing ovations in previews, though it does not expect to perform to full houses: the theatre will be capped at 65% of capacity under Moscow’s coronavirus measures, which also require the audience to wear masks throughout and undergo temperature checks on entry.
Chess opened in London in 1986 to good reviews but bombed when it transferred to New York two years later, following significant rewrites. Rice – who also wrote the lyrics for Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, and The Lion King – once said Chess was “as good as anything” he had ever done but that “maybe it costs too much brainpower for the average person to follow it”.