Tim Rice had been thinking about writing a musical about the Cold War for some time in the late 1970s. Fascinated by the Soviet-U.S. chess rivalry of the time, the lyricist-librettist approached his longtime collaborator Andrew Lloyd Webber with the idea. Lloyd Webber, however, was not available, as he was too busy developing a little show known as Cats. A suggestion from a producer put Rice in touch with songwriters Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus of ABBA. Looking to pursue some projects outside of the group, Andersson and Ulvaeus met with Rice in 1981 and signed onto the project. Over the course of the next couple of years, the group worked on the musical with Rice writing lyrics (with some contributions from Ulvaeus) and Andersson and Ulvaeus writing the music. In order to raise money, it was decided to release a concept album first, a strategy that had worked for Rice previously with Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita. Chess was released in 1984, and now to celebrate its 30th anniversary, Universal U.K. is releasing Chess: The Original Recording – Remastered Deluxe Edition, a 2-CD/ 1-DVD set.
Chess tells the fictional Cold War-era story of Soviet chess grandmaster Anatoly and his American opponent Freddie. While competing against each other, Anatoly becomes romantically involved with Freddie’s second and presumed lover, Florence. This leads him to defect to the United States setting off political machinations and romantic entanglements (including Anatoly’s Soviet wife Svetlana) which come to a head around the concluding chess match. Standout songs from the score include “Nobody’s Side,” “Anthem,” “Heaven Help My Heart,” “Pity the Child,” “I Know Him So Well” and “One Night in Bangkok.”
The original concept album was released in the fall of 1984. Murray Head played Freddie and Tommy Korberg portrayed Anatoly (although they were just referred to as “The American” and “The Russian” on the album). Florence was played by Elaine Page and Svetlana by Barbara Dickson. The LP release featured lyrics and a basic description of the plot. It received favorable critical notices and reached No. 47 on the Billboard 200 in US but fared even better in the U.K., climbing into the Top 10. A couple of singles were released including “One Night in Bangkok” sung by Murray Head. It peaked at No. 12 in the U.K. but impressively hit No. 3 on the U.S. Hot 100. Having greater success in the U.K. was the duet between Paige and Dickson, “I Know Him So Well.” The soaring power ballad topped the British chart for four weeks and remains the best-selling single by a female duo ever in the country. The song was later covered by artists like Whitney Houston with mom Cissy, and a solo Barbra Streisand.
With the album’s success, Chess was brought to London’s West End and premiered in May of 1986. The plot was expanded and several new songs and characters were added from the original album. Michael Bennett, the theatrical genius behind such shows as A Chorus Line and Dreamgirls, was brought on to direct. Unfortunately, he became ill while working on the show and had to pull out before tragically dying from an AIDS-related illness in 1987 at the age of 44. Trevor Nunn, who had directed the massive musical hits Cats and Les Miserables, came onboard as Bennett’s replacement. Nunn married his more realistic style to some conceptual elements which had already been planned for the Bennett version. Head, Paige and Korberg all reprised their roles from the concept album but Dickson was unavailable and was replaced by Siobhan McCarthy. The musical opened to generally mixed to favorable reviews and ran for three years. It did not have a new original cast album recorded.
There’s more on the history of Chess, plus details on this new deluxe reissue, after the jump!
For its Broadway run, the creative team decided that the show had to be completely reconceived for an American audience. Songs, characters and plot were all changed to varying degrees. In Britain, the show was almost entirely through-sung. In America, about a third of the piece was dialogue. The show was entirely recast with Philip Casnoff, Judy Kuhn, David Carroll and Marcia Mitzman taking the roles of Freddie, Florence, Anatoly and Svetlana. The critical reception was not as strong as it had been in the U.K., with the show receiving mostly negative notices. The actors, however, largely emerged unscathed and garnered praise for their performances. Opening in April of 1988 in New York, the musical only ran for two months, but did receive a new original cast album preserving the changes to the text.
Since then, Chess has received many productions around the world and has been revised many times with the creative team perpetually searching for the perfect version that will click with audiences. The most recent major English recording was a 2009 Royal Albert Hall concert starring Josh Groban, Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal and Kerry Ellis. It was based primarily on the West End version of the show. Of course, Tim Rice and Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus enjoyed great theatrical success after Chess with Rice writing lyrics to The Lion King and Andersson and Ulvaeus turning the ABBA catalogue into Mamma Mia.
For Universal U.K.’s new deluxe edition, the album has been remastered and three outtakes have been added: “Press Conference,” “Intro Mountain Duet (Der Kleine Franz)” and an instrumental version of “Anthem.” In addition, the third disc is a DVD which includes a Swedish television documentary from 1984 (with English subtitles) and five music videos which were produced at the time. The DVD is listed as Region 2, but there have been reports that it will play in all regions. It was released in the U.K. on November 24 and was scheduled for American release on December 2, but it has not come into stock on Amazon as of this writing. You can find links below!
- The Russian and Molokov
- Opening Ceremony
- Quartet (A Model of Decorum and Tranquility)
- The American and Florence
- Mountain Duet
- Florence Quits
- Embassy Lament
- Bangkok/One Night in Bangkok
- Heaven Help My Heart
- I Know Him So Well
- The Deal (No Deal)
- Pity the Child
- Epilogue: The Story of Chess/You and I
- Press Conference – The Ambrosian Singers (Bonus Track)
- Intro Mountain Duet (Der Kleine Franz) – London Symphony Orchestra (Bonus Track)
- Anthem – London Symphony Orchestra (Bonus Track)
- Magasinet Special: Chess 1984
- One Night in Bangkok
- Nobody’s Side
- The Arbiter
- I Know Him So Well
- Pity the Child