When ABBA Wrote Music for the Cold War-Themed Musical, Chess: “One of the Best Rock Scores Ever Produced for the Theatre” (1984)

Chess is amazing. The simplicity of its characters and plot (capture the king!) can be appreciated and understood by children; the complexity of its tactics can consume an adult life. Despite its medieval origins—and stumpers for us moderns like the strategic importance of a bishop on the battlefield—chess remains as much a potent allegory for power and its tactics as it was 1,500 years ago in India when it was called “chaturanga.” 

The game has inspired great works of literature, film, and arguably every creative move made by Marcel Duchamp. So why not a musical? A musical with a Cold War-era chess battle between a Bobby Fischer-like character and a Russian grandmaster loosely based on Boris Spassky, with music by the guys from ABBA and lyrics by Tim Rice?

The drama is inherent, both within the game itself and its geopolitical significance in 1984, the year the concept album above debuted in advance of the show’s first European tour, a fundraising maneuver also employed before the opening of much better-known Rice shows like Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita. While Andrew Lloyd Webber may be an excellent stage composer, though not to everyone’s taste, partisans of Mamma Mia! might agree with critic William Henry, who wrote at Time that Chess, the musical is “one of the best rock scores ever produced for the theatre.”

The show itself, Henry wrote, was “difficult, demanding and rewarding” and pushed “the boundaries of the form.” According to a site documenting its history:

Chess at London’s Prince Edward Theatre was a love story set amid a world championship chess match, the tensions of the Cold War, and a media circus. It ran for three years. When the Berlin Wall fell, a radically altered version of the show was presented on Broadway and failed.

The new version, with lyrics by Richard Nelson, ran for only two months. Its unpopularity did not tarnish the reputation of Chess, which was revived to great acclaim several times afterward. The show may not have had the widespread cultural resonance of Hamilton or the gravitas of Nixon in China, but Chess has inspired devotion among musical fans, ranking seventh in a recent BBC listener poll on the top ten essential musicals. It is now, 34 years after its London debut, running in Moscow, in a Russian translation, with “rewrites,” notes MetaFilter user Shakhmaty, “that humanize its KGB antagonist.”

Chess produced the hit “I Know Him So Well,” a duet by Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson that “held the Number One spot on the UK singles charts for 4 weeks and won the Ivor Novello Award as the Best Selling Single,” Ice the Site writes. A VHS video appeared in 1985 featuring the performers on the album singing that song and others from the show like “One Night in Bangkok” (above), which also became a “worldwide smash.”

Like Mamma Mia!, Chess is a medley, of sorts— in this case of musical styles rather than greatest pop hits. A contemporary New York Times review called the concept album “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.” Hear the full album the top of the post, read a summary of the show’s plot here, and see Tim Rice and ABBA’s Bjorn Ulvaeus promote the show in 1986 on a British morning show just above.

Related Content: 

When John Cage & Marcel Duchamp Played Chess on a Chessboard That Turned Chess Moves Into Electronic Music (1968)

A Beautiful Short Documentary Takes You Inside New York City’s Last Great Chess Store

Garry Kasparov Now Teaching an Online Course on Chess

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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  • Aaron Holbritter says:

    You forgot to mention the rather amazing “lightly staged” concert film from 2008 with Josh Grobin, Idina Menzel and Adam Pascal (the latter two alums from the Rent original cast) along with a number of amazing performers. It’s available on Amazon and is a terrific way to experience this show!

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