Twenty-five years of CHESS (the musical)

by ChessBase
5/26/2010 – A quarter of a century ago, plus or minus a year (the LP was released in 1984, the music videos in 1985 and the London stage première took place in 1986), a brilliant musical came into being, authored by Tim Rice with music by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, formerly of ABBA. It proved a world-wide success and was greatly loved by chess fans. Looking back...

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Can it really be 25 years or so since the superb musical CHESS was first heard and seen? Fond memories have been flooding back after the appearance online of a brief article 'CHESS The Musical' by Edward Winter. He notes, in particular, the range of themes covered by the production:

'A vast number of aspects of the game are treated with wit, style and realistic cynicism: the shallow patriotism and pride of locals and match organizers, to say nothing of their greed ("all major credit cards taken of course"); the rapport between a top player and his fans; the East-West conflict and the hypocrisy that arises in pre-match negotiations; the question of trust between a great master and his seconds; the rigidity of arbiters; the vulgarity of merchandisers; the Soviet Union's political record; the difficulties of childhood for a gifted player ... all this and some beautiful sequences about – forgive us the Americanism – human relationships.'

And simply not to be missed is Winter's hilarious account of attending a performance of the musical fairly late in its run (London, 1988). Read it here.

I (Frederic Friedel) got to see the musical and, in fact, meet some of the performers in 1986, during the London half of the Kasparov-Karpov match. At the opening in the Ball Room of the Park Lane Hotel, with the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher officiating, Tim Rice and the lead singer Elaine Paige were present. It was highly memorable: Rice was tall and aristocratic, mildly spoken and intellectual; Paige was petite but brimming with energy, with a voice that stunned and enchanted. Both mingled with Kasparov, Karpov, Thatcher and the other visitors – it was a wonderful evening. I returned from London to Hamburg with the double LP, and both my sons, as young children, listened to the discs scores of times, following the lyrics on the album inlay. They picked up some of their natural English from this album – in addition to the usual sources: Willy Wonka, Garfield, Calvin & Hobbes, Gary Larsen...

A few pieces from CHESS

The Opening Ceremony – It's the U.S. versus U.S.S.R...

Yet we more or less are To our credit putting all that aside, We have swallowed our pride.

It really doesn't matter who comes out on top, who gets the chop,
No one's way of life is threatened by a flop ...

But we're gonna smash their bastard,
Make him wanna change his name
Take him to the cleaners and devastate him,     
Wipe him out, humiliate him

We don't want the whole world saying,
They can't even win a game
We have never reckoned
On coming second. There's no use in losing

I Know Him So Well – Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson

One Night in Bangkok – Murray Head

Nobody's Side – Elaine Paige

Quartet – A Model of Decorum and Tranquility

The last is one of our big favourites – a wonderful quodlibet, sung with perfect precision. Here are the lyrics:

We wish, no, must, make our disgust
For this abuse perfectly clear
We're here for chess --
Are the U.S.?
If so, why foul the atmosphere?

Though we concede
The fact your masters bend the rules is maybe
not your fault
If they withdraw their psychological assault
Then under protest he'll proceed.

I am not surprised he wanted fresher air
Once he realized there was no hope
Of your guys playing fair.

How sad
To see

I must protest -- our delegation
Has a host of valid points to raise.

It's not just black and white
If I may coin a phrase
As any neutral would attest.

If your man's so sweet
Then why his fighting talk?
If he says we cheat
Then why on earth did he go take a walk?

It's very sad to see
The ancient and distinguished game that used to be

A model of decorum and tranquility
Become like any other sport
A battleground for rival ideologies
To slug it out with glee.

I would say with regard to
Him it is hard to
Ever-growing suspicions
My opposition's
A nut.

But how on earth can someone even
Half as civilized and nice as you
Be part of such a self-destructive
Point of view?
I hope he pays you
What you're worth.

In that case
I must ask you
Why you now
Preside over a brawl.

It's very sad to see
The ancient and distinguished game that used to be

How sad
To see

I would have said
You'd understand the strain and pressure
getting where he's got
For then you'd simply call him highly strung and not
Imply that he was off his head.

I call this tune
No one's immune to my power
Once in that hall.

I'm not getting rich
My only interest
Is in something which
Gives me the chance
Of working with the best.

I can only say
I hope your dream comes true
Till that far-off day
I hope you cope
With helping number two.

A model of decorum and tranquility
Become like any other sport
A battleground for rival ideologies
To slug it out with glee.

Background information about CHESS The Musical (Source: Wikipedia)

CHESS is a well-known and successful 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 Bobby Fischer, while elements of the story may have been inspired by the chess careers of Russian grandmasters Viktor Korchnoi and Anatoly Karpov.

The creation of the musical began when Tim Rice, who had been fascinated by the political machinations of the 1972 'Match of the Century' between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky, decided to write a musical about the Cold War with the American-Soviet chess rivalry as a theme. Rice contacted Andersson and Ulvaeus, knowing they were looking for projects outside of ABBA. The three worked together all through 1983 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. 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).

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 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 resulting album, a double LP, was released worldwide in the fall of 1984. 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.

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