Scene: Me and Sir Tim Rice, rewriting ‘Chess’

A spacious lounge room, wooden floor, old, weathered furniture. SIR TIM, attractively rumpled,  is in an armchair, watching something on a laptop computer. ME enters, pulling a script and another laptop from a satchel, a little too keen.

Me: (setting up) Morning, Sir Tim. Day 1, ay? I’ve got the 1990 Sydney script here.

Sir Tim: (pausing the video) Where on earth did you get that? And please, it’s Tim.

Me: Tim! Great. Well, I know people, Tim. Chorus-folk. They hoard stuff.

Tim: (of the video) So are these just sitting there on YouTube? All these versions, out in the open?

Me: Yep, until someone takes one down, and someone else puts it up again. People bloody love that score.

Tim: I know, I know. Every time we do a concert version, it’s “Oh, those songs … shame about the book.” And they look at me as though someone else wrote it.

Me: Could be worse. Could be the other way around.

Tim: What no-one seems to understand, though, is that it’s not just the dialogue.

Me: No, no, it is just the dialogue, Tim, I’m sure of it. We tweak a little here, move a bit there, make everyone nicer –

Tim: (Of the script) May I see that?

ME hands it over.

Tim: (reading) I’d forgotten this. Director’s note: “Chess is virtually unique among modern musicals, in being neither nostalgic nor a period costume drama.” Well, I suppose it is now.

Me: Let’s talk love triangle: Freddie, Florence, Anatoly. Go. Hit the musical beats for me.

Tim: Tea first? Coffee?

Me: I’ve had four already. Love triangle. Beats.

Tim: (reading, sighs) “One or two less mistakes.” It should be fewer.

Me: What? No, no, don’t change ‘The Story of Chess’. People bloody love that song. Get to Freddie and Florence.

Tim: Righto. (leafing) Arbiter announces where we are, who everyone is – dear God, the exposition! The clunking of it. Freddie is this, Florence is that, blah blah blah. Have we another version?

Me: I thought you’d like that one! It’s yours.

Tim: How about the latest fan version?

Me: (swivelling laptop to show) I’d say Wayne Rossi is a bit more than a fan. This is from 2015.

Tim: (reading from screen) Prologue with little Florence and her father, then the lullaby. So two prologues, really. Then Freddie at  – ah, yes, a press conference! Refuge of the destitute. Probably my idea.

Me: Stop being so hard on yourself! It gets the job done. Now, give me love triangle.

TIM stands up and begins pacing.

Tim: No matter which version we’re talking about, when we meet Freddie and Florence, they’re together, after a fashion, and they bicker a lot, sometimes in song.

Me: (typing) Great. One side of the triangle.

Tim: Then, when Anatoly meets Florence, he calls her nice and civilised.

Me: (nodding) Yes, yes. ‘Model of Decorum and Tranquility’. People love that song.

Tim: Later, Florence and Freddie fight after Freddie misbehaves at the first chess match, and – most of the time – Florence sings ‘Nobody’s Side’.

Me: (typing madly now) That’s the one, baby! Goddamn best keyboard riff, makes me want to climb halfway up a staircase to nowhere and stick one hip out. I bloody love that song.

Tim: (undistracted) And in it, Florence sings “the one I should not think of keeps running through my mind” – which I’ve always felt was a bit rich, because all Anatoly has done is treat her with politeness and respect, while Freddie’s been a complete twat. I mean, these are her options?

Me: No, you’re doing great. Second side of the triangle, done.

Tim: Well, then the third side follows almost immediately in the Mountain Duet. Freddie doesn’t show up, and Florence and Anatoly discover they like each other, and sing about it. Then they kiss.

Me: Boom. Three sides, triangle sorted. OK, so let’s just look at the dialogue –

Tim stops pacing.

Tim: See, this is my point, though. It’s not just the dialogue, because it’s all book, all of it. Having a Hungarian prologue, a press conference at the start, the fact that Freddie’s surname is Trumper. God-awful, what was I thinking? The decision not to show Florence and Freddie in love. We’re supposed to care that Florence is thinking of leaving Freddie, but really, who wouldn’t? We never learn what she likes about him, so good riddance, Yank. And then, a couple of compliments from the only man onstage who isn’t a right bastard, and she’s snogging away! That’s all book. I could rewrite every line, I could stop pretending that Persia rhymes with inertia, and none of that would change. Bloody hell, I’ve got a woman singing about seeing her “present partner in the imperfect tense”! Is this someone on the horns of a dilemma, making grammar puns? It doesn’t even make sense!

Me: Don’t you say a word against ‘Nobody’s Side’. That’s a solid-gold hit!

Tim: It’s a bloody albatross around my neck! Nearly as bad as ‘One Night in Bangkok’. This show is supposed to be a love triangle with the Cold War in the background, but instead it’s pallid jokes about the Cold War with a love triangle in the background. No, the only way to fix this is to cut some songs –

Me: No!

Tim: Yes! Cut some songs and write some new ones. That’s what you do when you rewrite the book, you rewrite the score too. Because it’s all book.

Me: But –

Tim: All of it is the book!

A pause. Me is aghast, adrift.

Me: But –

A long pause.

Tim: I know. People bloody love that score.

Tim slumps back into the armchair. Me quietly closes his laptop. Slow blackout.

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