If you think the only musical theatre entry of Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson of ABBA is MAMMA MIA!, you’d be wrong. Shortly after the last songs of ABBA’s catalogue were completed, the members of ABBA decided to take a break from the group, and Björn & Benny decided to try their hand at writing a musical. Tim Rice, well known for his collaborations with Andrew Lloyd Webber, was in the market for new composers to work with for his idea of building a musical around the idea of a Chess championship. After having met Björn & Benny and deciding to work together, the process of bringing Chess to life was born.
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice established a successful formula of trying out the songs from shows they wrote in a “Concept Album” format that got released to the public long before a staged version of the show got made. This methodology was an invaluable way to see if the songs were good enough to warrant the time and expense of launching a full scale musical. Instead of going to the expense of launching a full show, it’s a chance to release the album to the public and see if it generates enough interest. If the album tanks, a fortune has been saved, and if it succeeds, then it creates an audience for the show when it gets launched.
Since the concept album method worked so well for Tim Rice in the past, he and Björn & Benny released the CHESS concept album in 1984. (Available from Amazon.com by clicking here.) The concept album featured Elaine Paige as Florence, Murray Head as the American, and Tommy Körberg as the Russian. The concept album exploded onto the scene with the song “One Night In Bangkok” sung by Murray Head becoming a sizable hit around the globe. Even the Elaine Paige & Barbara Dickson duet “I Know Him So Well” became a record setting longest running #1 hit as female duo in the United Kingdom, a record that still has yet to be broken.
To promote the album, concert versions of the show were staged in Europe featuring most of the original concept cast. This concert tour was very well received, and it wasn’t long before Tim Rice and the boys from ABBA set about turning CHESS into a proper stage musical.
The London stage production finally saw the light of day in 1986 and it featured most of the original concept album cast, and the creation of the show had been plagued with problems including having to replace the director and extremely expensive and technologically advanced set components. The show did reasonably well in London’s West End. It ran for three years before it closed. It was a hit but hardly a massive hit (by comparison MAMMA MIA! has been running in London for over 10 years now.)
Bringing CHESS to Broadway was the next goal, the show was revamped in the hopes it would correct some of the issues with the original London show, and in the process the plot became less of a love story and more of a political piece, playing up the East vs. West aspect of the Cold War. Additionally a wonderful new song was added to the show for Florence called “Someone Else’s Story.” The Broadway production was a complete flop, it was panned by audiences and the critics and closed after 17 previews and 68 regular performances. Despite the failure of the Broadway production Björn and Benny opted to produce a cast album for the Broadway production after the show closed to preserve the efforts there. (Cast album is available from third party sellers through Amazon.com by clicking here as the album is now out of print in the US.)
Because of the huge differences in the plot between the original London version of the show and the Broadway version, productions of the show everywhere since have been hybrid versions of the two shows and a definitive version of the show has never been established. Despite this the music from CHESS has taken on a cult following not only from legions of ABBA fans, but devout theatre fans have also loved CHESS.
The show gets resurrected quite often in regional theatres and it even gets revived in concert versions. In fact, the show has returned to New York twice in concert versions. The first of which occurred in 1989 featuring a reunited original Broadway cast performing for the benefit of Emergency Shelters, Inc. The second return to New York was in 2003, a one night only benefit concert performance staged on behalf of the Actors’ Fund of America. A Broadway Cares benefit performance that was a hybrid concert/staged version was presented in Los Angeles in 2007. Additionally, Björn and Benny brought a fully staged version of CHESS to Swedish audiences in the Swedish language in 2002.
For a show that was really just a moderate success, it keeps coming back repeatedly. Following the success of the Swedish version and the most recent benefit shows, Tim Rice decided he wanted a hand in trying to secure the legacy of the show. There had been rumored talks about reviving the show for both London and Broadway as well as a feature film adaption.
The only definitive announcement has been that Tim Rice was staging a concert version at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 2008. A few of the cast leads would be the same as the 2003 New York benefit production, namely the male leads, Josh Groban as Anatoly (The Russian) and Adam Pascal as Freddie (The American). Joining the cast would be Idina Menzel of RENT and WICKED fame as Florence, and Kerry Ellis as Svetlana. The performances were recorded and in the United States, will be shown as part of the PBS series, “Great Performances” that will be airing this month across the United States. Additionally both a DVD of the show has been produced, as well as a 2-CD full cast album, and a 1-CD highlights cast album. These get released in the United States on Tuesday, June 16th.
The highlights cast album features the red cover (as depicted above) and both the DVD and full cast album feature white covers. You can purchase these items directly from Amazon by using the featured items below, or you can even click on the “Ryan’s Incredible Store” link in the upper left corner of this page, or use the links here. Amazon offers very reasonable prices. I personally recommend the full cast album and the DVD, but whatever version or combination of versions you like best, you’re going to get a great deal from Amazon.com.
To purchase the DVD of CHESS IN CONCERT, click here.
To purchase the 2 CD full cast CHESS IN CONCERT, click here.
To purchase the 1 CD highlights CHESS IN CONCERT, click here.
And of course, the visual store appears below.