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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