I once had the pleasure of seeing a performance of Chess at the tiny 99-seat Hudson Theatre in Hollywood back in 1995 with the great Marcia Mitzman (who also starred in the Broadway version of The Who’s Tommy) starring opposite Sean Smith. It was a joy to see, and it differed vastly from any album version I had previously heard (but I wasn’t complaining – although my mother was, as I recall).
Chess is one of those musicals that you can see ten times over and never once see the same thing. It’s own author, lyricist Tim Rice, referred to it as “a work in progress” in the liner notes for the original 1984 concept album that would go on to spawn a phenomenon. The basic storyline is simple, even for a musical: it’s a love triangle between a woman and two men – one American and one Russian – who happen to be competing against each other in the world chess championship during the Cold War. Intrigue, backstabbing and espionage loom around every corner for all – even during such a routinely straightforward game as chess. However, every manifestation ever produced – from the largest spectacles to the smallest of stage productions has made numerous changes to the characters and story. My guess would be that Tim Rice is very proud of this one – and wants to get it right someday, so he’s still testing it out.
Rice had frequently worked with composer Andrew Lloyd Webber on several lavish productions (which have become hits in their own right) in the past. For Chess, though, Rice made a very wise move and departed from such aspects as singing messiahs and Technicolor dreamcoats, giving the whole story a higher factor of believability and brining us back down to Earth for a change. The entire project sat brewing in the back of Rice’s head for several years. Finally, when the opportunity to turn the work into reality arose, it would not be Andrew Lloyd Webber writing the music. Instead, Chess’ composers would be Swedish musicians Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus. If the names don’t mean much to you, perhaps this will: they were the BB in ABBA.
The concept album was a hit. Several singles branched out into the world of mainstream success, including “I Know Him So Well” and the even-more popular “One Night In Bangkok” (yes, that “One Night In Bangkok” came from a musical). Within two years, the album and an altered story made their way to the stage in London’s West End. It ran for nearly three years. A reworked (read: Americanized) version in the late 80s hit Broadway. It flopped, and rightfully so – it sucked (RCA even discontinued the soundtrack from that particular version because it was so bad).