The story of the musical Chess begins back in 1972, when Tim Rice became fascinated by the Boris Spassky v Bobby Fischer world chess championship tournament in Reykjavik. He was intrigued by the drama of the matches and the underlying battle for supremacy being fought between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. It reminded him on another scene of conflict which had originally ignited his artistic interest in the East - West confrontations. That had been during a meeting between Premier Khrushchev and President Kennedy in relation to the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.
Tim soon began thinking about the dramatic possibilities of setting a story amid the world of a chess tournament. He believed that a look at the personalities and relationships between those involved in such a high powered sporting event could be used to illustrate the Cold War tensions and intrigues between the East and West. The idea remained simply an idea for many years, while other major projects were thought about, developed and completed.
Born in Buckinghamshire in 1944, Tim had initially found employment as a junior in a lawyer’s office, but he quickly realised this was really not the career for him. He moved on to a job within the A&R departments of record companies, which he did for several years. In 1965 he was introduced to Andrew Lloyd Webber and soon after they began collaborating on writing what were essentially pop songs. Their first attempt at a musical was The Likes of Us based on the life of Dr Barnardo. It never really found its feet and remained un-staged for 40 years until it was performed as part of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sydmonton Festival on 9th July 2005. Their next project was Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which was originally a short piece written for a school performance. It quickly took on a life of its own and continued to be expanded over several years until it became a full length musical. Two more hugely successful musicals followed, initially as concept albums, Jesus Christ Superstar in 1970 and Evita in 1976. Stage versions followed in 1971 and 1978 respectively.
Tim: The lives of great chess players have always been exciting and dramatic. I was captivated by chess during the 1972 world championships in Reykjavik between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer. After that, the ideas started taking shape. By 1979 1 had written a synopsis of a story which involved the defection of a Soviet chess champion to the West immediately after his triumph over an American player. I drew on much more than the characters and stories of Fischer and Spassky for my tale. Viktor Korchnoi was a real-life chess player who did move to the West which ensured that his world title matches with Anatoly Karpov (a "good" Soviet who stayed at home) were laced with political wrangling, bitterness, vitriolic abuse, situations of near-farce and even a little chess - all invaluable ingredients for a dramatic musical.
By 1979 Tim had developed his Chess idea into a basic plotline and suggested it to Andrewas a possible new project after Evita. Andrew, however, had begun work on his own project which involved setting T. S. Eliot’s poems about cats to music, which of course didn’t need a lyricist and he was therefore too busy to consider the Chess idea for the foreseeable future.
Tim spoke to several potential collaborators about Chess and other ideas, but Chess still remained languishing with nobody showing any particular desire to begin developing it further. He happened to mention his lack of success to New York theatre producer Richard Vos, who had recently been told by Thomas Johansson, a tour promoter for Abba, that Bjorn and Benny the two songwriters (and band members) behind a string of worldwide hits for the group, were interested in writing a stage musical.
Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson had been working in the world of pop music for many years and were considerably successful in the Swedish charts by the time they met in 1964. Benny Andersson taught himself to play the piano when he was ten and has been playing and composing ever since. He first experienced major fame and success with the Hep Stars when he took over as their keyboard player. Bjorn Ulvaeus had his first taste of fame via the Hootenanny Singers who were hugely successful in Scandinavia.
The two men met one night while on tour with their respective bands and so began one of the most prolific and successful song writing partnerships of all time. Not long after this each man met another successful music artist. Bjorn met Agnetha Faltskog and Benny met Annifrid Lyngstad. It wasn’t long before the idea of using the girls’ incredible voices on one of Bjorn and Benny’s compositions was suggested. The combination was instantly successful and the single People Need Love stormed up the Swedish charts. Initially only imagined as a fun sideline project this quartet soon began to dominate their lives and careers.
The public loved their work and they began performing as Agnetha, Bjorn, Benny and Annifrid. For convenience their manager, Stig Anderson, would often use their initials when referring to the quartet and gradually the name ABBA began to stick. Eventually this name was officially adopted and one of the world’s most successful pop bands found their name.
The group went on to appear at and win the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest with the song Waterloo. Not quite overnight, but it quite a short time, the world was clamouring to hear more of the infectious melodies and harmonies produced by this Swedish quartet. During the years that followed they were seldom out of the charts across the world with such hits as SOS, Fernando, Knowing Me Knowing You, Money, Money, Money, Dancing Queen, The Name of the Game, Take A Chance on Me, Super Trouper and The Winner Takes it All.
By the early eighties, the pressure and repetitiveness of being in such a successful group was beginning to bore the two song writers. The idea of writing something longer than a three minute pop song had appealed to the boys for some time.
Benny/Bjorn: The time had come when we felt that with ABBA we had had a very good run and it was time to try something else. But we also realised that we would have to approach someone who was extremely experienced in making musicals, otherwise we'd end up making too many mistakes.
They had in fact already composed a mini 20 minute musical which became part of their 1977 world tour. The Girl with the Golden Hair told the basic story of a would-be pop star who eventually turns her dream into reality, but finds it increasingly difficult to cope with the pressures and demands of fame.
Bjorn: At the time we were very pleased with and proud of The Girl with the Golden Hair. The result went down very well with audiences, it produced some songs which were quite good, and it had been great fun.
In 1978 it had been announced that Bjorn and Benny were to devote the year to the writing of a complete musical, but those plans never materialised and the Abba album Voulez Vous was written and recorded instead.
In early 1980 the boys went on a song writing trip to Barbados where they came up with the idea of writing a musical set on New Year’s Eve. They met comedian John Cleese while they were there and asked him if he would be interested in writing the book for it. Unfortunately he declined and the only outcome of this idea was Happy New Year a song which appeared on Abba’s Super Trouper album.
Bjorn: There was kind of an attraction in drama and music together. We didn’t know quite what it was because we’d never been there before. We talked about this to several people around the world during our last world tour – agents, record people etc. – trying to spread the word.
Benny: We had been discussing this with Thomas Johansson, our tour promoter in Sweden, who also helped us when we went out to Australia and America. Thomas knew we were keen on writing a musical and mentioned this to a Broadway producer who later met Tim Rice. Tim told him he was looking for some new collaborators, so this producer (Richard Vos) said, 'Well, I know two guys who are interested in working in musicals.’
Tim had never imagined that Abba would be interested in partnering up with him to write a musical, but being a fan of their work, he was instantly intrigued and egger to pursue the possibilities. He knew their manager Stig Anderson, so quickly got on the phone and before long a meeting had been arranged in Stockholm during December 1981. He presented the boys with a few potential ideas for a musical, including one which took Cuba and the cruise missile crises as its centre, but it was the Chess idea that really peaked Bjorn and Benny’s interest.
Bjorn: So, Tim came to Stockholm. We had a nice dinner in a nice restaurant and we talked and talked, and he had a couple of sketchy ideas for musicals. One of them was Chess. I think the other was about Cuba or something. And, we thought – oh, this is intriguing! We almost had a border with Russia, or the Soviet Union (as it was), so we knew the feeling of the Cold War and what that meant. It was so close to us - so real. To have a musical with that background seemed intriguing to us. And so, I think we more or less decided that night let’s do Chess!
In November 1982 when Abba were in London to promote their The Singles – The First Ten Years album the collaboration was made official and the company Three Knights Ltd was created to handle the Chess project.
By this time Tim had already started working on another musical, this time with Stephen Oliver about a medieval minstrel - Blondel, which was due to open in London during 1983, so that had to be completed first. The members of Abba too had various commitments, but with the girls set to pursue some solo projects, Bjorn and Benny were free to begin thinking more seriously about their exciting new musical project.
In January of '83 Bjorn, Benny and Tim along with Richard Vos flew to Moscow to get some ideas about the atmosphere in which several of their lead characters would have lived. During the rest of 1983 the three collaborators spent many hours commuting between Stockholm and London, discussing the show, writing plot lines, music and lyrics. Tim’s idea about a chess game becoming a musical was now really coming to life and was given the simple working title of Chess.
During the early discussions about the project it was agreed that the musical should initially take the format of a concept album, much in the same way as Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita had. Bjorn and Benny were masters of the recording studio and owned one of their own in Stockholm – Polar Studios, which had been built for them and to their specifications at the height of their success with Abba. It was only natural that this new project would progress in such a way.
Benny: We started writing in 1983, but we started thinking about it in 1982. Tim had the idea, a synopsis of the scenes, and for a year we talked. We wanted to know what story Tim wanted to tell - to feel at home with the characters, the scenes and situations. From this concept, we proceeded to write music. We worked from 10am to 5pm, five days a week, for a year. I play the piano, Bjorn plays the guitar and we play around with ideas.
Bjorn: We spent hours and hours working together, advancing slowly. I had, of course, great respect for Tim's craft as by then he had written three enormously successful musicals. I would write dummy lyrics but with a lot of content which Tim could play around with. Or he would write something completely new, sometimes keeping my ideas or developing them, and then we'd tryout the lyrics and see whether they worked when they were sung. Working with Tim taught me a lot and I discovered that, by intuition only, I had already been 'writing in a theatrical manner when I was writing the songs for ABBA.
Tim: We took each scene from my story and worked out the plotline. Benny and Bjorn - largely Benny - would write a tune inspired by the theme, whether it was a love song, an argument or a crowd scene. Bjorn would create what was usually a very interesting mock lyric, often with no particular meaning, but some lovely lines. He was the link between me and Benny: me at the lyric end, Bjorn in the middle and Benny at the musical end.
Bjorn and Benny don’t write or read music and so they needed to have an arranger to create the musical score for the finished musical. They asked Anders Eljas, who had created arrangements for several pieces of Abba work, both on tour and in the studio. It was a big project, but Anders thankfully decided to say yes and went on to produce a beautifully orchestrated score for the show.
Anders: I went home and thought it over, but then I figured, what the hell, if you reach for the stars I guess you will at least end up somewhere in between. So I said yes, and started thinking of how to go about it, studying different scores, asking my old music teachers for advice, and so on.
While working on the songs Bjorn and Benny called on several friends to help with recording some demo versions. Abba’s Agnetha recorded a demo called Every Good Man which later became Heaven Help My Heart. Tommy Korberg and Bjorn Skifs helped out on several other tracks and indeed eventually both singers were used on the final recording.
Towards the end of 1983 the final cast for the album was announced. Elaine Paige would perform the part of Florence. Tommy Korberg would take on the role of The Russian (the character had no name at this point) Murray Head, who had appeared on the Jesus Christ Superstar album would play The American (also unnamed at this point) Bjorn Skifs would play the Arbiter, with Barbara Dickson, who had appeared as the Mistress on the original Evita album, playing the role of Svetlana, the Russian’s wife. Dennis Quilley would play the role of the KGB man, Molokov.
The recording of the album began on 1st November, 1983 and was originally scheduled to be completed towards the end of May 1984, with an anticipated release for late that summer. To bring a high quality warm orchestral sound to the recording it was decided that a full orchestra would be used and so the CTS Studios in London were booked during the first week of April 1984 for the London Symphony Orchestra and The Ambrosian Singers to provide their orchestral and choral contributions to the album.
The release date for the album was eventually put back to October of ’84, as the detail and perfection desired for the recordings had proven to be more time consuming than anticipated. The final mixing sessions took place on 28th September 1984 and at last Chess – the concept album was in the can. There was in fact enough material recorded to fill three vinyl albums, but it was felt that a two disc package was the most that could be realistically released. Although originally only a working title, Chess was eventually adopted at the name for the album.
It was released on the 26th October 1984 and to help promote it a small concert tour was arranged. The first concert was at the Barbican Centre in London on the 27th October with subsequent performances in Hamburg 28th, Amsterdam 28th, Paris 29th and finally the Berwaldhallen in Stockholm on the 1st November.
Benny: I have never felt such satisfaction with any work I have done. I was pleased with much of ABBA's music as well, but Chess is so much more in terms of atmosphere and substance.
Tim: There's an enormous difference between writing for theatre and writing pop albums - and both are equally difficult. But in the whole rock era since the 1950s I can't think of any other musicians who have done both with success. The great pop album people couldn't do the musical theatre and I don't think the great theatre writers like Sondheim or, indeed, Andrew [Lloyd Webber] could write an ABBA album. Benny and Bjorn look as if they can do both.
The album sold remarkably well, with total sales of over two million copies worldwide, which were very high sales for a musical album. Two singles from the album climbed the charts around the world. One Night In Bangkok became an international hit, reaching no 12 in the UK,but going all the way to the top in West Germany, Austria, Israel South Africa, Australia, Sweden, Denmark and Holland. World wide it sold over three million copies. Two versions of the song were hits in the United States, one reaching the top ten.
Early in 1985 I Know Him So Well was released and quickly hit the top of the charts in the UK, becoming the UK’s best selling female duet of all time. Interestingly, as is often the case, the two lead singers did not actually meet in the studio during the recording of the duet. Elaine having already recorded her part at an earlier time.
The Chess album and concerts had received generally good reviews. TIME magazine called it “The finest rock score ever produced for the theatre.” Newsday was impressed with the originality of the score, “breaks new ground in symphonic pop.”“Andersson and Ulvaeus' score ransacks melodic styles from plainsong to Gilbert and Sullivan, to Richard Rodgers to Phil Spector to hip-hop in a rock symphonic synthesis ripe with sophistication and hummable tunes.”
The London Times was not so complimentary. Referring to 'the opening Tyrolean chorus, straight out of White Horse Inn ... the sub-Albinoni adagio ... some sub-Lloyd Webber, a capable operatic quartet (Schumann with a dash of Bach) ... and a good deal that Liberace might look at.'
promo videos were made to accompany the album and singles. They were released
on a compilation video called Chess Moves. The songs were: One Night In
Bangkok, Nobody’s Side, The Arbiter, I Know Him So Well andPity The Child. Each video had a brief
introduction by Tim Rice, explaining the context of the characters and songs.
For more details on the album, singles and other recordings of Chess please see the Recordings Page
With such a successful album and hit singles, Chess - the stage show, became an eagerly awaited commodity. How exactly the album was going to be turned into a fully staged theatrical event was the next challenge and nobody was too sure how it would be achieved.