I saw my first musical when I was five. It wasn’t sweet and simple kiddie fare like Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat or The Wizard of Oz or Annie. It was Chess: A story of Cold War hostility set during an international chess competition — U.S. versus U.S.S.R., of course — and the lovers’ lives who get tangled up and mangled up amid the scheming.
Chess, which premiered in 1986 with music by ABBA songwriters Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson and lyrics by Tim Rice, is something of a cult favorite – and seldom performed. So when my mom smoothed my velour jumper, tied bows on my pigtails, and nudged me into the 99-seat Hudson Theater in Hollywood, scowls and dirty looks clouded the air. This little kid would fidget and whine all through Chess! (And they think New York has all the theater snobs.)
The fans needn’t have worried; I was quiet, attentive, enchanted. I had listened to the album for weeks, knew the story and could sing the songs. One line in particular had stuck in my head: Florence’s declaration that “perfect situations must go wrong,” from “I Know Him So Well.” After the show, I blurted in frustration, “But I don’t get it! Why must perfect situations go wrong?” Eventually I outgrew my literal phase. But I never outgrew the allure of Chess.
Last week, on Mother’s Day, my mom and I saw Chess again. This time, I brought her, and this time, we moseyed just a block from the apartment to East West Players in Little Tokyo.
This incredible theater primarily stages plays about the Asian Pacific American experience, mostly with actors of Asian Pacific descent. Once a year, it selects a musical from the vast English-language canon. Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant – and difficult – shows have often graced its stage; last year I saw A Little Night Music, and before that, Sweeny Todd and A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum.
For Chess, the multicultural cast – Asian American, African American, Native American and Latino, according to director Tim Dang – means this is Chess as you’ve never seen it. The performers are outstanding. During the first few numbers, I scribbled notes, thinking I might write a review. I admired the black costumes adorned with Asian-inspired flourishes in gold thread, the spirited yet precise dancing, the clever props that transformed the ensemble from one set of characters to another, and the Arbiter’s puppeteer-like hand gestures.
But by the time Florence belted, “Maybe I’m on nobody’s side,” my pen stopped. I became quiet, attentive, enchanted. A tear smudged my scribbles. Twenty years after first seeing Chess, I had learned that “perfect situations must go wrong” – and that, often, they inspire glorious theater.