Required Listening – Chess

This week Michael Gordon Shapiro writes about One Night in Bangkok from Chess (1984) which has music by Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus and lyrics by Tim Rice and Björn Ulvaeus.

“A showtune featuring a middle-aged British rapper might not sound strange in the Hamilton era, but in the mid-1980s it was a distinct oddity. I first became aware of One Night in Bangkok as an eccentric pop hit on MTV, only later realizing that the song was from a musical and then becoming interested in Chess. (This is probably what the producers had in mind.) 

As a musical, Chess is a struggle between a fabulous score, egregious lyrics, and a story that falls frustratingly short of its potential. The show’s creatives must have sensed the problem, as they made significant rewrites over the years before settling on a compromise book for a concert incarnation. The core issues were never addressed: the most interesting character (Freddie Trumper) is thrown to the sidelines halfway through the first act; key moments of the story happen behind the scenes; and the protagonist, after his fantastic introductory number Where I Want To Be, becomes maudlin and dull as hell. 

I like to remember this song as the act 2 opener of the London version, preceded by a stunning ethno-orchestral prelude from which Richard Rogers could have learned a thing about how to musically introduce Thailand. (If he could time travel.) In contrast to the grandeur of the intro, Bangkok itself is jaunty and streetwise — well, in a mid-80s proto-hip-hop kind of way. Murray Head chants a cynical tourist’s view of the city, exposing the commercial undercurrent beneath the patina of ancient culture. A chorus alternately echoes and questions his disillusionment, then takes center stage for the catchy refrain.

The music follows the eclecticism of the time, mixing New Wave synth riffs with funk bass and rich Abba-esque vocal harmonies. The quasi hip-hop recitative was distinctive for MTV, to say nothing of the West End. Given the present rise of hip hop musical theatre, we might view this tune as foreshadowing trends decades later.

Much like Chess itself, One Night in Bangkok is a guilty pleasure — but heavy on the pleasure part.”

We will be discussing the current English National Opera production of Chess in upcoming episodes of MusicalTalk, so keep checking our podcast feed. 

Required Listening – A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Michael Gordon Shapiro has chosen Comedy Tonight from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962) by Stephen Sondheim

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to the Forum has been a reliable crowd-pleaser for decades, and its opening number – Comedy Tonight – seems to perfectly embody the show’s whimsical mood and self-reflective wit. However, the musical got off to a very rocky start and the opening number was a last-minute addition to the score.

When Forum faltered during its 1962 pre-Broadway run, legendary choreographer Jerome Robbins was consulted for advice. He concluded that audiences weren’t properly oriented at the opening; in particular, that the then-opening number (Love is in the Air) failed to establish the show’s comedic tone. Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim penned the replacement number at the last minute, establishing the show’s humorous intentions in unmistakably direct terms. The show proceeded onto Broadway and became a lasting success.

The song’s catchy melody and clever turns of phrase make Comedy Tonight both effective in context and charmingly likable on its own. But it also represents a lesson about the importance of nimble-footed revision to a show’s development.

P.S. This is an unusual case of Sondheim not consistently using perfect rhyme, instead matching words by their unstressed syllables — for example, the pairing of “familiar” and “peculiar”. But the near-rhymes are chosen so skillfully that we barely notice.”