Tim Rice - and Chess The Musical reborn

I have known Sir Tim Rice a long time.  My wife first met him in the 1960s when she was a student at Oxford and scouting for bands to perform at her college ball.  I got to know him in the 1970s when he would host enjoyable lunches for groups of interesting friends at the Gay Hussar restaurant in Soho.  In 1986, he kindly invited Michèle and me to be his guests at the opening night of Chess, his second non-Lloyd-Webber musical - a story of the Cold War, obsession, love, sacrifice and, er, chess.  The idea was Tim's and he had world-class collaborators: the ABBA songwriters Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus.  I remember that first night well.  We were excited to be there and enjoyed the show but sensed at once - sitting in the stalls, even before the interval - that it was not going to be the smasheroo that Tim had hoped for.  As we left, some of the audience were evidently bewildered: for them the show had been confusing, too difficult to follow, too operatic, and much too heavy on the, er, chess.  'There go your plans for "Scrabble The Musical",' said my wife, as we made our way into Old Compton Street.

I remember Tim telling me once that the great musicals (My Fair Lady / Oklahoma) have six to eight hit songs in them.  'That's what you aim for.'  Chess had two: I Know Him So Well and One Night In Bangkok.  Those songs were huge hits in 1986 and in London the show did well.  Despite mixed reviews, it ran (I think) for three years.  In New York, however, it lasted just two months.

Tim tells funny stories about the New York disaster.  He is a funny man.  But he is also a remarkable man.  He is a triple-Oscar-winner for a reason.  He is a great lyricist - he has what it takes to be a great lyricist: wit, intelligence, a wondrous way with words, and, above all, heart.  And he is determined.  He looks easy-going and amiable (and he's both), but beneath the apparently relaxed exterior is an extraordinary achiever who doesn't give up.  Tim never gave up on Chess - and last night, at the Coliseum in St Martin's Lane, Tim's faith and persistence paid off.  And how!

32 years after that first first night, Michèle and I were back, again as Tim's guests, looking forward to the show, knowing he'd been working on it, knowing he had high hopes, but feeling relatively subdued about it ourselves.  In the event, we were blown away, bowled over, overwhelmed by one of the most thrilling evenings in the theatre that you can imagine.  And we weren't alone: if the company hadn't eventually left the stage, the standing ovation would still be going on now.

Chess The Musical is a total triumph.  Everything about this production works - the story, the score, the lyrics, the setting, the production, the cast.  I don't know what they've done or how they've done it, but the show is reborn: yes, the story still centres on, er, chess, but it's utterly compelling, from start to finish; the orchestration is beyond praise; the music and the singing send tingles up and down your spine; the use of lights and cameras is the best of its kind you are ever likely to see.  It's immaculately done, it never falters, it's funny (with some wonderfully witty and camp dance routines), it's moving, it's simply wonderful - and it's an object lesson in faith.  Keep the faith.  Tim believed in his show.  And he was right.  My admiration for him (already considerable) now knows no bounds.  

I imagine the short run at the Coliseum will be sold out by tomorrow, so book today.  As you can tell, I liked it.

PS.  In the introduction to the script of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, I came across this: “Irwin Shaw once advised all writers, in order to withstand criticism from without and compromise from within, to be vain about their work.”   

PPS.  Tim and I Invented a new game the other night.  It’s called Odd Couples.  I told Tim that at a party once I introduced Jim Davidson to Margaret Drabble.  Neither had any idea who the other was, but they got on famously.  Tim responded: ‘At the opening of Jesus Christ Superstar in Paris I introduced Salvador Dali to Frankie Howerd.  Beat that.’  I can’t.  Can you?  If you can, send your Odd Couple to the letters page at www.theoldie.co.uk

Gyles Brandreth