There is a saying that the three most important things in a musical are book, book and book.
The ‘book’ (or libretto) is, in essence, the glue that holds all the separate parts of a show together: It’s the narrative structure that allows the story to be told without being simply an amalgamation of dances, songs and dramatic scenes. The story is the skeleton which the musical, choreographic and dramatic materials are attached to. Important aspects of the book include telling the story clearly (and concisely), allowing situations in which song and/or dance can tell the story and push the plot forward. It is also usual that it is the book that creates characterization whilst the songs create an emotional climax/release. Since a musical is a collaborative art form it is usual that the book writer and song writers will work together to ensure that a transition from dialogue into song and vice-versa is as easy and as natural as possible. Likewise all disciplines, be they dialogue, music, lyrics, dance, should work together and sympathetically toward the same goal of telling the same story. There may be places where one speciality is better at telling the story than another, so some form of diplomacy is required.
It is often the book that is criticised for a show failing although there are many successful shows that have weak books and many more short-lived shows with strong books.
I write about the subject of ‘the book’ because I was reading about some of the works of Tim Rice and the subject struck me as an intriguing one: Rice’s work, I think, epitomises the two extremes in the argument of the need for and success of ‘the book’.
Rice is heralded as being innovative in having discarded the book when he wrote the lyrics to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music for Jesus Christ Superstar, which was initially written for record before being produced theatrically (although this was the ultimate aim from the point of view of the writers). Rice himself has written that any innovations that he and Lloyd Webber initiated were happy accidents along the way of creating the record and were not necessarily their intent.
Looking at the lyric booklets provided with the album there certainly are no stage directions, but there are descriptions of days and places such as ‘Bethany, Friday night’ (used in the 1972 London production as displays). But are detailed stage directions a necessary part of what constitute the book? Reading Rice’s lyrics one certainly gets a sense of what’s happening and what needs to happen from a directorial point of view, and this can also be said of the works of Shakespeare who never wrote any stage directions himself: I recall learning in university how the ‘sacred’ texts that we take for granted as being written by Shakespeare were in reality reconstructed from several sources including actors’ rehearsal copies, leaving the possibility that those actors tweaked their own lines, that lines originally excised by the author were retained having appeared in earlier versions etc. etc.
The place, times and even entrances and exits of characters were created after Shakespeare originally wrote his words. So Shakespeare basically wrote only the words spoken by his actors. Clearly this is enough for any director as we continue to have endlessly inventive productions of Shakespeare whose words are enough to let a director, and an audience, know what is going on and what needs to happen on (or off) stage. Do Rice’s words serve any less?
Yes, a dramatic play and a musical book are different things, but do they not serve the same purpose; as a means of telling a story?
So did Rice really eradicate the book? Or did he simply, accidently, re-write what it constitutes? Opera librettos are really nothing more than the lyrics and the same can be said here: Superstar is an opera in the idea that it is told entirely through music and lyrics. The same is true of Evita whose Lyric booklet does have more detailed stage directions than Superstar. But like any good opera, directors continue to find new ideas and create new productions all the time.
Where Rice is applauded for doing away with the book for Superstar and creating a clear, concise structure through lyrics he is often criticised for the book in the musical Chess (music by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson), a musical of some length with minimal dialogue. Many complain the plot is too complex or even unbelievable; accusations that Rice has refuted and proffered evidence against. The history of Chess as a show is far more convoluted than its plot; hence its history of being constantly reworked by director after director, starting with the first; Trevor Nunn (don’t get me started). Chess was produced, like Superstar and Evita, as an album first and that album too had a book containing the lyrics, though there was a note indicating that the album was not the complete show. Included, however, was a complete synopsis of the story together with the full lyrics, together with stage directions as in the Evita booklet, of the music and scenes contained on the records (many of the stage directions were carried through to the published script) and reading the synopsis and lyrics one has a clear idea of what is going on in the story.
When it came to be staged the plot was reworked slightly in parts, lyrics were altered and song order rearranged – all per director request (much to Rice’s later regret). I shan’t go into later Chess variations (i.e. Broadway and beyond), some of which had Rice’s input, many of which did not, but I shall concentrate on the original London production which is the closest to the original album. Rice published the London Chess script in 1994 with a few more, very minor, alterations from the original London script (these include returning the original lyrics to ‘The Story of Chess’ and eliminating the meeting of Florence and Svetlana – a few lines of dialogue only - during ‘I Know Him So Well’ which served no real purpose).
Reading the published script it is easy to follow the story, so long as you pay attention to the lyric, and although Rice chooses not to always immediately give reasons for a character’s actions, he does offer consistent insights into behavioural traits, allowing a spectator and an actor to assemble a whole character, whilst his lyrics offer both clear and metaphorical commentary on both character and action. The least well written part is that of Svetlana, if only because she has little time in the show, and is not often referenced while not on stage. Many have said that the Sydney production, reworked by Rice with director Jim Sharman (who also directed the 1972 productions of Superstar in Australia and London), solved the issues of the book including expanding the Svetlana part, but I honestly believe that the London book is not as flawed as many make out.
Rice’s stage directions are basic and brief but are clear enough as any other libretto I’ve read and they allow leeway for a director and his/her designer. Perhaps at times some actions and plot exposition need reinforcing to ensure that an audience can understand (as one really must pay attention to the lyrics in Chess, even the abstract and metaphorical ones – and what’s wrong with that?) but Rice refrains from writing complex stage directions telling a director what needs to happen physically onstage to do so, while a good director will have little trouble coming up with something that will play sympathetically with the score, without altering a lyric or a melody, and certainly without screwing with plot as has often happened.
Rice reworked Chess for the 2008 Royal Albert Hall concert in an attempt to create a definitive, and clearer, version of the show. Rice admits that the concert didn’t completely meet his aims but he has said that it’s the closest that’s been achieved so far. The current UK tour directed by Craig Revel Horwood reworks the show again, and not always to its betterment in my view (see my review), and often undoes some of Rice’s efforts in the concert version (including reinstating long, dramatically unnecessary, dance sequences that Rice excised – but then Horwood is a choreographer), although it is a thrilling and exciting production. And it’s true that most revivals rework shows these days, though I wish they’d consider what they do with more care.
Reading the libretto of Chess I wonder how close a director needs to adhere to the stage directions in order to clearly tell the story. I have experienced productions of Chess that don’t strictly keep to the stage directions and so long as the lyrics are left alone the story flows quite easily. So again, the lyrics (and dialogue in Chess’ case) are more important to the story telling and any embellishments on a director’s part should only serve to enhance that telling. And this is true of all the musicals cited here.
So here we have Rice lauded for doing away with the book and its inherent problems when writing Superstar and blasted for trying to create a complex and detail-rich story, asking the audience to think, when writing Chess. When thinking about Chess and why people are often confused by it I often wonder that perhaps it’s laziness on an audience’s part, as though they are unable to put the lyrical pieces together to come up with the whole. After all, it is all there!
I wonder that, where an audience is willing to pay attention and listen to what is said in a play, they expect a musical to just wash over them with only the minimum of attention required. The 80s heralded the mega-musical and Chess certainly was one of these, but it actually does demand something more from an audience than was usual; respect for the text. Perhaps it is because the book is a little more complex and demanding of an audience that Chess is less attractive, whereas Superstar is simpler, both plot wise and lyrically and one doesn’t necessarily have to hear every word to know what’s going on. Whatever the reason both scores are excellent both musically and lyrically.
It is interesting to note that Rice is rarely credited as being the author of ‘the book’ for these two shows; in America Tom O’Horgan is often credited as writing the book for Superstar, having contractual billing as ‘Entire production Conceived and Directed by’. But having written the book? Hmmm, I wonder. In Chess’ case, on Broadway at least there certainly was a book credit – the script was rewritten by Richard Nelson who was brought in by Trevor Nunn to basically rewrite Rice’s plot. Originally - prior to previews - Rice and Nelson were both credited as book writers but, ultimately, only Nelson was credited come opening night and, apparently, Nelson’s contract means that only his script can be used in the US and his name is credited even if his script is not used. Thankfully this does not apply to the original UK version which was written by Rice, who is not often even credited with the book. And if Rice is not credited here then no one is.
Another bookless musical? Chess? I don’t think so: Its book is detailed and complex and, given the necessity of the plot, remains surprisingly clear and uncluttered (despite its turbulent history and development) allowing the story to move along.
These days song lyrics are more than simply entertaining words – they are text that allows exposition, character and plot development. So rather than recreating the book, perhaps Rice, together with Stephen Sondheim, simply reinvented the lyric and its importance.