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.
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.