Sunday, October 02, 2011

Chess, the Cold War and Musical Theatre

So... I know this blog is supposed to be about things political and historical in nature, but allow me a brief diversion into the world of theatre. If you insist, I can make the connection to the themes of the blog relevant. I want to encourage theatre-goers in the greater Toronto area to go and see the production of the musical Chess, currently playing at the Princess of Wales theatre.

How can I make this relevant? Well, despite its title, and despite the fact that the chorus features cast members decked out in costumes inspired by bishops, rooks and knights, Chess is at its core both a romance and a historical period piece inspired by the Cold War. With lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson (of ABBA fame), it was inspired by the Cold War era world chess championship which pitted American Bobby Fischer against Russian Boris Spassky, with the resultant political posturing that accompanied any such East-West clash (and indeed several decades of Olympic competitions). In addition to some truly great love songs (I Know Him So Well), pop classics (One Night in Bangkok) and power anthems (Nobody's Side), there are wonderfully subtle politically-tinged lyrics and songs designed to evoke the tensions of the Cold War. The concept album for the musical was first released in 1984, and I've been listening to it since I was a little boy (and chess player), longing for the chance to see it in person. Yesterday I finally did.

The current incarnation of the musical is not without its minor flaws, but the producers have done a great job of staging a wonderful production, maintaining the core human and political stories that drive it. What I did find interesting is that to a certain extent, the musical has been sexed up (not that I'm complaining), and some of the chill of the Cold War atmosphere has been reduced, favoring instead a more boisterous (and comical, to some extent) interpretation of the Soviet diplomats who are constantly on the fringes of the action. In the original concept album, there was something substantially more sinister about the Soviet agents, and more austere about the Arbiter overseeing the conflicts. Part of me is wondering if this has been done to appeal to an audience that no longer viscerally relates to the tensions of Cold War, or views the Soviet Union as a chilling menace.

Indeed, this is a question that is starting to preoccupy me as a young(-ish) historian. Until I was a teenager, the Cold War was an omnipresent fact of life, running through all aspects of political and popular culture. I was weaned on spy novels, Bond movies and even songs by Sting that reflected the omnipresent threat of nuclear war and the communist menace. And then the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the world shifted. Suddenly, what had seemed like an ageless conflict, certain to last indefinitely, had time parameters that (conservatively at least) were limited to less than half a century. I already know that I can no longer assume that my students will know that the Ukraine had been part of the Soviet Union and that this fact strongly coloured Ukrainian-Canadian politics. It makes me wonder how significant the Cold War will be by the time I am delivering history lectures at the end of my teaching career. Will the period from 1945-89 (or 91) seem as significant as an era thirty years from now? Will I be able to convey how that era felt to my students in a way that will do it justice? I'm not entirely certain.

In any case, if you like musicals, go and see Chess. The score and songs are spectacular, and the orchestration is lush. But make a point of reading the plot description in your playbill before the curtain rises. The plot is filled with twists and turns and complications - much like the diplomacy of the era!

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