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Back in the game: Chess returns to the West End

Tommy Korberg, Tim Rice, Elaine Paige, Bjorn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Denis Quilley in 1986 Tommy Korberg, Tim Rice, Elaine Paige, Bjorn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Denis Quilley in 1986
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With a long history of rewrites and revisions, Chess is being revived at the London Coliseum this month. Nick Smurthwaite looks at the history of the musical and how it achieved the status of a classic

It was Tim Rice’s first musical since his split with Andrew Lloyd Webber after Evita in 1979. Chess was his baby. He’d written the book and the lyrics. If it failed, he knew the verdict would be that he couldn’t hack it alone without the golden boy of British musicals.

What transpired was far from conclusive. Chess was generally well received in London in 1986 and ran for three years. However, the Broadway transfer, having been largely re-imagined, was savaged by the critics and came off after just 10 weeks.

Rice has since said the Chess experience caused him to become disillusioned with the stage. “It may sound arrogant but Chess was as good as anything I’ve ever done,” he told one interviewer.

Elaine Paige and Murray Head in the 1986 production. Photo: Conrad Blakemore
Elaine Paige and Murray Head in the 1986 production. Photo: Conrad Blakemore

For the uninitiated, his original idea wasn’t to write a show about chess at all but to use the game as a metaphor for the Cold War and how it affected the lives of those it touched.

Looking for someone to write the score, Rice found Lloyd Webber was preoccupied with Cats and Marvin Hamlisch was overstretched, with three or four projects on the go. Then, in 1981, the Broadway producer Richard Vos suggested Rice meet with Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus from the Swedish band Abba, who he knew were looking to move into stage musicals.

When all four members of Abba were in London in November 1982, celebrating 10 years of chart success, Benny and Bjorn announced they were developing a new musical with Tim Rice about the Cold War.

Having decided to produce a concept album first, they set to work, writing and recording the album at the Polar Studios in Stockholm. It featured, among others, Elaine Paige, Barbara Dickson, Murray Head and the late Denis Quilley.

A concert performance at the Barbican on October 27, 1984, coincided with the release of the album. Further concerts followed in Paris, Amsterdam, Hamburg and Stockholm.

Two numbers from the album – One Night in Bangkok, sung by Head, and I Know Him So Well, sung by Paige and Dickson – were released as singles and did well, the latter holding the top spot in the UK charts for four weeks. The album stayed in the UK charts for 16 weeks and album sales in Europe overtook those of Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar.

The Prince Edward Theatre was secured for an autumn 1985 opening of the musical, with American Michael Bennett directing. Three months before its opening date, Bennett pulled out due to illness – he later died of Aids-related lymphoma – and Trevor Nunn took over the £4 million show. For technical as well as artistic reasons, the production was postponed until May 1986, garnered respectful notices, and ran for three years.

The cast of Chess (1986). Photo: Conrad Blakemore
The cast of Chess (1986). Photo: Conrad Blakemore

For the Broadway transfer, which didn’t open for another two years, Rice rewrote the book with Richard Nelson, a friend of Nunn’s, and added several new songs. Nunn was still heavily involved with the Royal Shakespeare Company and there were scheduling clashes during pre-production and rehearsals.

Andersson told Variety at the time: “The main difference between London and here [New York] is that in London there is only about two or three minutes of spoken dialogue. Here, it is almost one-third dialogue.”

The first Broadway preview ran for four hours – apparently the stage crew had problems with the set – but they managed to take 45 minutes off the running time by the opening night. The critics were not impressed. Frank Rich in the New York Times said it had “the theatrical consistency of quicksand”, while Newsweek declared that the show “assaults the audience with a relentless barrage of scenes and numbers that are muscle-bound with self-importance”.

Rich later conceded in his book Hot Seat that “the score retains its devoted fans”, and the show has indeed acquired a cult following over the years – mostly down to that score – hence the continued interest in reviving it. The show’s history of rewrites and revisions prompted one wag to remark that it had more lives than Shirley MacLaine.

In its latest manifestation at the London Coliseum, director Laurence Connor, well known for breathing new life into old musicals, says he has “totally reconstructed” the show to bring it back to the original concept album, stripping the story back and emphasising a more concert-style approach, “so we can get to the heart of the story”.

It is, in fact, only five years since London’s most recent revival of Chess at the Union Theatre in south London, which Mark Shenton praised in The Stage. He wrote: “It is arguably the best of all the 1980s pop opera scores, thrillingly rendered in the unmiked conditions of this chamber theatre by a cast of 16 and superb band of six led by Simon Lambert, which is more than a third of the total audience watching it.

“Each game of chess means there’s one less variation left to be played,” we are informed in Tim Rice’s clever and pointed lyrics to the opening song of the show, which he wrote to Ulvaeus and Andersson’s insistently memorable tunes. Each production of Chess, by contrast, brings yet another variation to how the show is interpreted.

Chess will be playing at the London Coliseum until June 2

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of theatre, all previous content from The Stage is available at the British Newspaper Archive in a convenient, easy-to-access format. Please visit: thestage.co.uk/archive

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