CHESS in Concert article

Tim Rice has been playing the "Chess" game for more than 25 years, and the lyricist will go another round as PBS Great Performances serves up Chess in Concert.


Associated Press Writer


"I think, at last, we’re getting it right," Rice told the 5,000 audience members who packed London’s Royal Albert Hall to see pop singer Josh Groban and Broadway stars Idina Menzel (Wicked) and Adam Pascal (Rent) head up a concert production of the musical in May 2008, which was recorded for the PBS presentation on Wednesday (check local listings).

At the start, Rice (Jesus Christ Superstar,Evita) and co-composers Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson (the songwriting half of ABBA) appeared to be making all the right moves.

Chess was inspired by the 1972 chess match between American Bobby Fischer and Russian Boris Spassky.

Rice said he didn’t have any great fascination with the game itself but was intrigued that "each side had the wrong guy.

"The Americans, who from our point of view in the West, who were meant to be the good guys, had a real bum in Fisher" he said. "And the Russians, who were meant to be the bad guys, from the West’s point of view, had a really nice guy in Spassky."

Rice imagined the two players as fictional characters in a love triangle that served as an allegory for East-West tensions. He wrote the book and then teamed with Ulvaeus and Andersson, who were seeking a diversion from ABBA (to which they ultimately never returned).

A CHESS concept recording was released in 1984, delivering the American pop-chart smash One Night in Bangkok as well as a British chart topper, the duet I Know Him So Well.

Menzel recalled that, as a young theater fan, hearing "Bangkok" on the radio was heartening. "It’s so rare that you ever have a single from a musical," she said.

A West End production was unveiled in 1986 to mixed reviews, but propelled in part by ABBA-mania and the hit singles, ran for three years. A much-altered version of the show, complete with a hefty new book, opened on Broadway two years later, was widely panned and closed in just eight weeks.

"I was very depressed by it," Rice said. "But there was something about the music of CHESS that made me think, sometime later, ‘I’ve got to pick myself up,’ as the song says, ‘and start all over again.’"

"CHESS took on its own life, with dozens of productions around the globe – many cobbling together elements of the West End and Broadway versions and often adding their own new spins. Among them was a 2003 Actors Fund of America benefit concert for which Groban was approached to star."

"I thought to myself, ‘Well, if I haven’t heard it at this point, it probably isn’t that good,’" Groban said. And when I put it in the CD player, I remember specifically, I was sitting in traffic and I remember sitting there with my mouth wide open, chilled – thinking to myself, ‘How have I not heard this brilliant music?’"

The Actors Fund production got Rice to thinking that an official version of CHESS should be declared and documented, and Chess in Concert was born. But it’s not likely the endgame for the musical.

"I hope not," the 64-year-old Rice said. "I think, and I hope, that it will come back to Broadway and/or the West End as a show, but I very much want it to be based on the score that this concert is.

"But it takes time," he said, with a smile. "These things take time." 

Seattle Times


  • I find it hard to believe any PBS station wouldn’t broadcast Chess in Concert given the broad appeal of the performers.

    But I was fortunate to see it in high definition in Houston. I was impressed with the entire presentation, and there were many highlights, but I was probably most impressed with Pascal’s performance, in particular "Pity the Child", a song I haven’t cared for much until now. Groban was great, Menzel was OK with her acting and the quieter dramatic moments, but she seems to lose pitch when she sings loud. I would have loved to see a different Florence.

  • I am watching it right now on KQED in San Francisco and am loving it! Sheer brilliance!

  • If only someone in the US could capture it in HD and make that available …

  • I saw the original opening night of Chess and the closing night in the West End.

    After Mamma Mia’s commercial success surely it is time for this masterpiece to return to the West End.

    Please – Cameron?? – Andrew?? – Bill ?? Will somebody do it please!!!!

  • I bought the original recording and later saw the staged CHESS in London, missed the New York production, but bought the New York recording because of the added song SOMEONE ELSE’S STORY which I hummed for months. The PBS version, which I watched twice consecutively with tears in my eyes, was magnificent. THAT is musical theatre, equaling the best of opera–whatever that is!

  • Just go tmy DVD, and thoroughly enjoying it – brings back memories of last year when we attended the second night. I think Adam was superb, Josh and Kerry too. I still have severe problems with Idena – her diction is slurred, the tone squeeky/squalky and just not suitable for the role – maybe we had been spoilt over the years with other performeances, but maybe without that knowledge, newcomers will not be put off. Overall fantastic DVD, would love this to tour.

  • Have just recieved and watched the DVD,Josh was astounding,but Idena is the worst Florence I’ve heard.I have Every recording and have enjoyed Florence song by them all,[Helen is the best],but Idena was off she had no passion really a big dissapointment.,in all other aspects it was a really polished performance of a trully great musical.

  • I have never heard such nasally whining in all my life. She ruined it for me.
    Josh version of anthem is stunning. OMG!
    "Svetlana" has the voice of an angel.
    Lose the rest.
    VERY DISAPPOINTED with it as a whole.

  • While I did enjoy the show (it was CHESS, after all!) it was disappointing in some respects. First of all, I didn’t care very much for Idina’s performance; there seemed to be too much belting (showboating), treating a number as a thing unto itself for the sake of giving a "performance" of that one number, instead of fitting it dramatically into the opera as a whole. Additionally, I do not think that her voice was a good pairing with Groban’s. Even if her performance had been wonderful (by itself), that by itself is not enough; voices in duets need to go well together. In this case, they did not.

    What I was more disappointed with was the sequencing of numbers, and choices from alternate versions of numbers. The way the pieces were fit together in this concert seemed to leave some things lacking. For instance, Florence’s background, and the questions about her father, were downplayed too much. Florence’s and Anatoly’s romance is very underdeveloped. The placement of "Nobody’s Side" is very problematic in any version: musically, it belongs immediately after the argument between Florence and Freddie, because of the instrumental lead-in; lyrically, it makes more sense coming sometime after "Mountain (or Terrace) Duet" because of the line that begins "The one I should not think of …"–nothing before this song in the concert (and original album) version indicate that Florence is becoming obsessed with Anatoly.

    In regard to "Endgame" (or whatever it’s called in this version) I will probably always have problems with ANY version, because there are two entirely different sets of lyrics, going with two entirely different storylines. I love both versions, and am always disappointed when I don’t hear certain favorite lines!

    The final reprise of "You and I" in this concert uses the second, and (to me) vastly inferior, lyric. Maybe the lyric in this version has more "drama", but it falls flat because 1) it lacks rhyme, and 2) it lacks the more poetic phrases in the original version ("I pray the days and nights in their endless, weary procession soon overwhelm my sad obsession"; "So if you hear today I’m no longer quite so devoted to this affair, I’ve been misquoted"). The poetry of the original, to me, really adds a lot.

    Other than this concert, I have now seen about ten productions of CHESS, and my favorite by far was a student production at Northwestern University. They did not strictly follow the Richard Nelson book, instead making many significant changes to base it mostly on the original album and London production; it needed to get Tim Rice’s approval to keep Samuel French from closing down the show. It was done in the round, with minimal settings and props, much closer in spirit to a concert performance. It was wonderful, and combined the best of the London and Broadway elements. (A few years later Northwestern did it again, but followed the standard published script–not anywhere near as good.)

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