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CHESS The Musical – a chequered history indeed

CHESS is a musical with lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, formerly of ABBA. The story involves a romantic triangle between two top players, an American and a Russian, in a world chess championship, and a woman who manages one and falls in love with the other; all in the context of a Cold War struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, during which both countries wanted to win international chess tournaments for propaganda purposes. Although the protagonists were not intended to represent any specific individuals, the character of the American was loosely based on chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer, while elements of the story may have been inspired by the chess careers of Russian grandmasters Viktor Korchnoi and Anatoly Karpov.

Following the pattern of Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, a highly successful concept album of CHESS was released in 1984. The first theatrical production of CHESS opened in London’s West End in 1986 and played for three years. A much-altered US version premièred on Broadway in 1988, but survived only for two months. CHESS is frequently revised for new productions, many of which try to merge elements from both the London and Broadway versions; however, no major revival production of the musical has yet been attempted either on West End or Broadway.

CHESS came seventh in a BBC Radio 2 listener poll of the United Kingdom’s “Number One Essential Musicals.”



Tim Rice had long wanted to create a musical about the Cold War; in the 1970s he had discussed writing a musical about the Cuban Missile Crisis with his usual collaborator, Andrew Lloyd Webber. In 1979, Rice had the idea to instead tell the story through the prism of the American-Soviet CHESS rivalry; he had previously been fascinated by the political machinations of the 1972 “Match of the Century” between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. Webber was busy at the time with the musical Cats, so American producer Richard Vos suggested working with Andersson and Ulvaeus instead, knowing they were looking for projects outside of ABBA. Rice, who was a fan of ABBA, agreed; he wrote later that he felt no reservations because “there is a sense of theatre in the ABBA style”. Rice met with the two for the first time in December 1981 in Stockholm to discuss the concept (Vos was also in attendance), and they quickly signed on to the project. (ABBA stopped performing a year later, about which Rice has joked, “maybe that’s my fault”.)

All through 1983 Rice, Andersson and Ulvaeus worked on the music and lyrics. Rice would describe the mood of particular songs he wanted, then Andersson and Ulvaeus would write and record the music and send the tapes to Rice, and Rice would then write lyrics to fit the music. Some of the songs on the album contained elements of music Andersson and Ulvaeus previously had written for ABBA: the chorus of “I Know Him So Well”, for instance, was based on the chorus of “I Am An A”, a song from ABBA’s 1977 tour; while the chorus of “Anthem” used the chords of the guitar solo of “Our Last Summer”. Ulvaeus would also provide dummy lyrics to emphasize the rhythmic patterns of the music, and some of them ended up in the final version since Rice found them “embarrassingly good” (“One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble” is the most well-known example). One song, which became “Heaven Help My Heart”, was recorded with an entire set of lyrics, sung by ABBA’s Agnetha Fältskog, with the title “Every Good Man”; though none of the original lyrics from this song were used.


CHESS Concept Album
CHESS Concept Album

It was decided to release the music as an album before any stage show was under way, a strategy that had proven successful with Rice’s two previous musicals, Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita. Recording work on the album musical of CHESS began in November 1983. The main recording was done at Polar Studios in Stockholm, with orchestral and choir parts recorded in London by the London Symphony Orchestra. Andersson himself played the keyboards. The protagonists, simply called the “American” and the “Russian” for the album, were sung by Murray Head and Tommy Körberg, respectively; the part of Florence, initially the American’s second and subsequently the Russian’s mistress, was sung by Elaine Paige while the part of Svetlana, the Russian’s wife, was sung by Barbara Dickson. The album was sound-engineered and mixed by Michael B. Tretow, who worked with ABBA on all of their recordings.

The resulting album, a double LP, was released worldwide in the fall of 1984. The album’s liner notes included a basic synopsis of the story. The music on the album was described by The New York Times in the contemporary review as “a sumptuously recorded…grandiose pastiche that touches half a dozen bases, from Gilbert and Sullivan to late Rodgers and Hammerstein, from Italian opera to trendy synthesizer-based pop, all of it lavishly arranged for the London Symphony Orchestra with splashy electronic embellishments”. A single from the album, “One Night in Bangkok”, performed by Murray Head (in verses) and Anders Glenmark (in chorus) became a worldwide smash, also reaching No.3 on the US Billboard Hot 100. The duet “I Know Him So Well” by Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson held the Number One spot on the UK singles charts for 4 weeks and won the Ivor Novello Award as the Best Selling Single (‘A’ Side). It was later covered by Whitney Houston and her mother Cissy on Whitney’s second album Whitney, and by Barbra Streisand on her 1992 “Highlights from Just for the Record”.

On 27 October 1984, the concert version of the CHESS album was premiered by the original cast in London’s Barbican Centre and then performed in Hamburg, Amsterdam and Paris with a final presentation on 1 November in Berwaldhallen in Stockholm.

In 1985, music videos were filmed for the songs “One Night in Bangkok”, “Nobody’s Side”, “The Arbiter”, “I Know Him So Well” and “Pity the Child”, featuring the performers from the album, and directed by David G. Hillier. These were released together in a VHS video entitled CHESS Moves.

West End

CHESS premièred in the Prince Edward Theatre in London on 14 May 1986 and closed on 8 April 1989. It was originally set to be directed by Michael Bennett, but he withdrew for health reasons. He only did so, however, after casting the show and commissioning the expansive set and costume designs. The show was rescued by director Trevor Nunn, who shepherded the show on to its scheduled opening, though with considerable technical difficulty. The three principal singers from the concept album, Elaine Paige, Tommy Körberg and Murray Head reprised their roles on stage. Barbara Dickson declined to appear, and Siobhán McCarthy played the part of Svetlana.

According to set designer Robin Wagner, interviewed in Lynn Pecktal’s book Set Design, the original Bennett version was to be a “multimedia” show, with an elaborate tilting floor, banks of television monitors, and other technological touches. Nunn, realizing he could never bring Bennett’s vision to fruition, instead applied his realistic style to the show, although the basics of the mammoth set design were still present in Nunn’s show. This included the three videowalls, the main of which featured commentary from CHESS master William Hartston, along with appearances from BBC newsreaders.

The London version was a massive physical production, with estimated costs up to $12 million. It expanded the storyline of the concept album, adding considerable new recitative, and attracted several West End stars, such as Anthony Head, Grania Renihan, Ria Jones, David Burt, and Peter Karrie, during its three year run.

The production won the 1986 Critics’ Circle Theatre Award for Best Musical, and received three 1986 Laurence Olivier Award nominations: Best Musical, Outstanding Performance by an Actor (Tommy Körberg) and Outstanding Performance by an Actress (Elaine Paige). Notably, in two of these categories (Best Musical and Outstanding Performance by an Actor) CHESS lost to The Phantom of the Opera, by Rice’s former collaborator Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Critical reception

The premiere of the musical provoked an overall mixed to favourable verdict from the critics and, according to Variety Magazine, “one of the bigger West End mob-scenes in recent memory”. Most of the naysaying notices had comments ranging from “far too long” and “shallow, improbable story masquerading as a serious musical” (The Sunday Times) to The Guardian’s conclusion, “A musical is only as good as its book, and here one is confronted by an inchoate mess.”

Other newspapers posted raving reviews. The Daily Telegraph wrote that the show “gift-wrapped and gorgeous…compels admiration”, The Times noted that “it turns out to be a fine piece of work that shows the dinosaur mega-musical evolving into intelligent form of life” and Today called it “gripping, eye-catching.. nearly a major triumph”. Michael Ratcliffe wrote in Observer that “operetta plot which would have delighted mature Lehar is dramatised in a buoyant, eclectic and stirring theatre-score” and called Körberg “the indisputable star of the show”. Sheridan Morley in International Herald Tribune complimented show’s “remarkably coherent dramatic shape … staging of considerable intelligence and invention”.


After London, the creative team decided that the show had to be reimagined from the top down. Trevor Nunn brought in playwright Richard Nelson to recreate the musical as a straightforward “book show”. Nunn brought in new, younger principals after he disqualified Paige from the role of Florence by insisting Nelson recreate the character as an American. The story changed drastically, with different settings, characters, and many different plot elements, although the basic plot remained the same. As Benny Andersson put it to Variety: “The main difference between London and here is that in London there is only about two or three minutes of spoken dialog. Here, in order to clarify some points, it is almost one-third dialog”. The changes necessitated the score to be reordered as well, and comparisons of the Broadway cast recording and the original concept album reveal the dramatic extent of the changes. Robin Wagner completely redesigned the set, which featured a ground-breaking design of mobile towers that shifted continuously throughout the show, in an attempt to give it a sense of cinematic fluidity.

The first preview on 11 April 1988 ran 4 hours with an unexpected 90 minute intermission (the stage crew reportedly had problems with the sets); by opening night on 28 April, it was down to 3 hours 15 minutes. But despite a healthy box-office advance, the Broadway production did not manage to sustain a consistently large audience and closed on 25 June, after 17 previews and 68 regular performances. “And there I was, on closing night, singing and sobbing along”, later wrote Time magazine critic Richard Corliss.

Overall, the show (capitalized at $6 million) since its opening, according to Variety, “has been doing moderate business, mainly on the strength of theater party advances”, but by mid-June it mostly have been used up. Gerald Schoenfeld, co-producer of the show, elaborated on the reasons for folding the production: “The musical had been playing to about 80 percent capacity, which is considered good, but about 50 percent of the audience have held special, half-priced tickets. If we filled the house at 100 percent at half price, we’d go broke and I haven’t seen any surge of tourist business yet this season. The show needs a $350,000 weekly gross to break even, but only a few weeks since its April 28 opening have reached that…. You have to consider what your grosses are going to be in the future” (USA Today, June 21, 1988).

The Broadway production picked up several major award nominations. It got five nods from the Drama Desk Awards: Outstanding Actor in a Musical (David Carroll), Outstanding Actress in a Musical (Judy Kuhn), Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical (Harry Goz), Outstanding Music (Andersson and Ulvaeus) and Outstanding Lighting Design (David Hersey). Carroll and Kuhn also received Tony Award nominations in Leading Actor in a Musical and Leading Actress in a Musical categories. None of the nominations resulted in the win, but Philip Casnoff did receive the 1988 Theatre World Award for Best Debut Performance. The Original Broadway Cast recording of the musical was nominated for 1988 Grammy Award in the category Best Musical Cast Show Album (won by the Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods).

Later on, the musical had developed a cult following based primarily on the score as heard on the original concept album (Frank Rich noted in his book Hot Seat that “the score retains its devoted fans”), while Nelson’s book became a frequent target of scorn from critics and fans alike, though it still has its supporters. Many subsequent attempts have been made to fix its perceived problems, but nonetheless, Nelson’s book is still used in many American productions, because a contractual stipulation, ostensibly, prevents the London version, which many believe to be the source of the show’s popularity and appeal, from being performed within the United States.

In 2001, in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle Tim Rice admitted that after the “comparative failure of CHESS, his all-time favourite, he became disillusioned with theatre.” He commented, “It may sound arrogant, but CHESS is as good as anything I’ve ever done. And maybe it costs too much brainpower for the average person to follow it”.

Critical reception

Many critics panned the show, most notably Frank Rich of The New York Times, who wrote that “the evening has the theatrical consistency of quicksand” and described it as “a suite of temper tantrums, [where] the characters … yell at one another to rock music”. Howard Kissel of New York Daily News complained that “the show is shrilly overamplified” and “neither of the love stories is emotionally involving”, while Newsweek magazine called the show a “Broadway’s monster” and opined that “CHESS” assaults the audience with a relentless barrage of scenes and numbers that are muscle-bound with self-importance”.

A few reviewers, however, praised it very highly. William A. Henry III wrote an exceptionally sympathetic review in Time: “Clear narrative drive, Nunn’s cinematic staging, three superb leading performances by actors willing to be complex and unlikeable and one of the best rock scores ever produced in the theater. This is an angry, difficult, demanding and rewarding show, one that pushes the boundaries of the form” (Time, May 9, 1988). His sentiments were echoed by William K. Gale in Providence Journal: “A show with a solid, even wonderfully old-fashioned story that still has a bitter-sweet, rough-edged view of the world … exciting, dynamic theater … a match of wit and passion.”

Richard Christiansen of Chicago Tribune suggested that “CHESS” falters despite new strategy”, yet concluded his review: “Audiences forgive a lot of failings when they find a show that touches them with its music, and “CHESS”, clumsy and overblown as it sometimes is in its three hours-plus running time, gives them that heart”. Welton Jones wrote in The San Diego Union-Tribune that CHESS “has one of the richest, most exciting scores heard on Broadway in years … Sadly, the music has been encumbered with an overwritten book and an uninspired staging … Truly, this is a score to be treasured, held ransom by a questionable book and production”.

All critics agreed, though, on the three leading performances by Judy Kuhn, David Carroll and Philip Casnoff. They were showered with praise — “splendid and gallant” (Newsweek), “powerful singers” (The New York Times), “remarkably fine” (New York Post) — especially Kuhn, whose performance Variety called a “show’s chief pleasure”.

Benny Andersson commented on the negative Broadway reviews: “I really don’t know why they don’t like it … I do know that most of the audiences so far stand up and cheer for everyone at the end. They appear to get emotionally involved with the show, and they really like it” (Variety, May 4, 1988).

1989 to the present

A few months after the show closed on Broadway, in January 1989, the concert version was performed in Carnegie Hall by the original cast in a sold-out benefit performance. In September of that year, Judy Kuhn joined forces with two main principals from the West End production (Körberg and Head) in Skellefteå, Sweden, where they performed in two concert presentations of the musical during finals of the 1989 Chess World Cup tournament.

CHESS was now a mixed success, combining the popularity of a smash hit album and the problems of a critically-derided script — in other words, fertile ground for those seeking to “get it right,” even though historical conditions and the fall of the Soviet Union severely compromised the timeliness of the story. The first major attempt at a revival was the American tour, which ran from January to July 1990. This tour, which starred Carolee Carmello, John Herrera, and Stephen Bogardus, was staged by Des McAnuff, who was brought in at the eleventh hour when Trevor Nunn declined to be involved. Robert Coe, the playwright who worked with McAnuff on revising the show, restored most of the original song order from London and deleted the new songs written for the Broadway version, but had only four weeks to complete a complex rewrite. (The performing editions in the United States retain Nelson’s book.) The seven-month-long tour was not a major success, but it did garner some positive reviews. A separate tour in the United Kingdom, starring Rebecca Storm and mostly based on the London production, was a smash.

Also in 1990 was the production at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, Illinois, near Chicago. Directed by David H. Bell and starring Susie McMonagle, David Studwell and Kim Strauss, it featured another reworking of the Nelson script. Bell’s version has been performed in Sacramento and Atlanta as well. Tim Rice was involved in a 1990 production in Sydney, Australia, where Jim Sharman directed a total rewrite done primarily by Rice. It starred Jodie Gillies, David McLeod, and Robbie Krupski, with the action shifted to an international hotel in Bangkok during the CHESS championships, and was a critical and popular success. A later Australian production opened at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne in 1997, with Barbara Dickson taking the lead role of Florence (not Svetlana, as she had sung on the original studio cast album). Co-stars included Derek Metzger and Daryl Braithwaite.

CHESS was, even in 1990, trying to keep itself modern; the ending of the Cold War was noted in all new versions of the show. Once the Soviet Union fell, the modernisation attempts died out, and the clock was set back: Tim Rice’s 1990 rewrite that played a brief run off Broadway went all the way back to 1972. The CHESS mania that had begun in the UK more or less died down to a string of occasional productions of the Broadway and London versions for the next decade.

In 1995, the Los Angeles production of CHESS at Hollywood’s Hudson Theater starring Marcia Mitzman (who played Svetlana in the original Broadway production) as Florence and Sean Smith as Anatoly received critical praise. For their performances both Mitzman and Smith won an Ovation Award and a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award.

On 12 and 13 May 2008, there were two concert performances at the Royal Albert Hall of a reworked CHESS, with further changes to the song list and almost no dialogue; Tim Rice described this in the concert program as the new “official version”. Josh Groban, Adam Pascal and Idina Menzel starred in the lead roles of Anatoly, Freddie and Florence respectively. Kerry Ellis also performed as Svetlana. The recording of this concert cast was released on June 16, 2009, as a DVD and 2-CD cast album in the United States and PBS showed the concert on television on June 17 and 18.

There are still touring and regional stagings in various parts of the world, such as the 2006 performance at the outdoor Minack Theatre in Cornwall, and a 4-month tour in early 2008 by the Rolling Stock Theatre Company.

On September 3, 2009 Benny Andersson told London’s The Stage newspaper that plans are under way for a major revival of CHESS on Broadway, although it has not been officially confirmed.

The open-air premiere of the Royal Albert Hall version of the show was held on Margaret Island (Budapest, Hungary) on August 7–8, 2010 by the crew of the famous Hungarian premiere of Dance of the Vampires. On October 30, 2010 it will open as an indoors production at the Magyar Színház. The cast include Géza Egyházi as Anatoly, Éva Sári as Florence, János Szemenyei as Freddie and Tímea Kecskés as Svetlana. It is the third Hungarian CHESS-production after two short theatre runs from 1992 and 1995.[11]

The first major revival of CHESS in the United States opened at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia on August 8, 2010, and was scheduled to run until September 26, 2010, but was extended through Oct 3. The musical was directed by Eric Schaeffer and starred Jeremy Kushnier as Freddie, Euan Morton as Anatoly, and Jill Paice as Florence.

A new UK production opened at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle on August 27, 2010 and toured through to April 2011. The production was directed by Craig Revel Horwood with musical direction by Sarah Travis. The producer was Michael Harrison, who said that Tim Rice was actively involved in the production. Revel-Horwood again adopted his innovative approach to staging, using a company of around 25 who, between them, acted, sung and played all of the music.

An updated version of CHESS på Svenska premiered at Göteborgs Operan on 8 September 2012 and ran until Spring 2013. The show, directed by Mira Bartov and conducted by Anders Eljas (who arranged the music for CHESS and directed the London Symphony Orchestra both for the album recording and during the European tour of 1984), uses the graphic style of the comic world, with today’s surveillance society as a dramatic metaphor for the cold war. There was no direct involvement from Benny Andersson or Björn Ulvaeus.

CHESS returned to London in February 2013, on a far smaller scale than on its previous residence in the UK capital. The Union Theatre in Southwark only seats around 50 people. Because of the intimate nature of the venue and the scaled down production that it necessitated, Sir Tim Rice commented that the incarnation was unlikely to transfer to the West End.