With the album and singles riding high in the charts around the world, it was inevitable that various people would be interested in creating a fully realised stage version of Chess. One of the most powerful producers that began to show interest was the Shubert Organisation who wanted to produce the show on Broadway. Their President,Bernard Jacobs, had praised the music.'Very few scores prior to production have excited me as much as this one, none in fact since My Fair Lady.'Initially it was thought possible that the show might open on Broadway before it came to London, but ultimately this was not the preferred option for the creators and it was eventually decided that it would have its world premier in London. The producing team were to be the Shuberts in association with Robert Fox Ltd. and they hoped for an opening in late '85 or early '86.
The most important aspect of this production was finding the right director. Trevor Nunn was approached in March '85 with an offer of the job, but even though he was very much a fan of the score he was simply not available to take on such a project. His commitments to his work at the Royal Shakespeare Company, the staging of Les Miserables and a film of Lady Jane left him with no time to develop a production on the scale that Chess was going to be. He could do it in 1987, but not before then.
In April ’85 the Tony Award winning director and choreographer Michael Bennett flew to London to discuss the possibility of directing Chess. His previous work, A Chorus Line and Dreamgirls had been hugely successful on Broadway and he seemed the perfect candidate to take on Chess. Michael’s energy and enthusiasm for the piece soon made it clear to the production team that he was indeed the perfect man to turn the phenomenal album into a hit West End musical.
Michael Bennett enlisted the help of many of his previous collaborators including, choreographer Bob Avian and designer Robin Wagner - the same team that had experienced such great success on Broadway with A Chorus Line and Dreamgirls.
Michael wasted no time in beginning work on developing the album into a fully staged musical. The plot was now worked out in detail, but various sections of dialogue and linking sections were still to be written. The creative team spent many hours working out how to reimagine what had hetherto only been a handfull of (admittedly brilliant) songs, but with a fairly sketchy plotline
For the rest of '85 the many aspects of putting on a huge West End musical were developed and arranged. The Prince Edward theatre had been settled on as the stage where Chess would come to life. Evita had been playing there for eight years, but was no longer making sufficient profits, so its producers decided to close it and embark upon a UK tour. The world premier of Chess was set for 14th May 1986.
Adverts were placed for dancers and singers in the theatrical papers and auditions began in August and ran through until October at the Prince of Wales and Lyric theatres in London. Over 700 would-be chess players applied and took part in a series of almost 1,300 auditions. As always the process was long and at times arduous with performers being called back four or five times until Michael and Bob were certain they had the best people for the job. They wanted dancers who could sing and singers who could dance, they needed the best that was available in the West End.
By the end of October the casting was complete. Elaine Paige, Tommy Korberg and Murray Head would all take on the roles they had created on the album. Siobhan McCarthy who had created the original role of the Mistress in Evita on stage and later took over the title role, would play Svetlana. Tom Jobe as the Arbiter, Kevin Colson as Walter (a character not mentioned on the album) and John Turner as Molokov would complete the principal roles. Rehearsals were set to begin in early February '86 with previews beginning on the 23rd April, but before then there was still much work to be done.
Michael and his designer Robin Wagner had devised an amazing set for the show. There were six hydraulic lifts which would be used to raise and lower various pieces of scenery including blocks or towers that would rise out of the floor to create various locations, spaces and platforms for the action to take place.
Above the stage would hang a vidiwall of sixty-four television monitors and two banks of thirty-two monitors mounted either side of the proscenium arch. There was to be two sweeping staircases and even at one point talk of an entire set being lowered from the flies or rising from the depths of the stage and the possibility that trucks and platforms would come on to entirely cover the chess board floor when this effect was not required.
Michael planned to have seamless choreography and movement throughout the show and had envisaged creating a ballet during the main chess games, while the entire feel of the design would be abstract and high tech.
The set model made to illustrate this amazing piece of design was reported to have cost £40,000. It had full moving parts including a stage floor that could lift and rotate and all parts of the stage design were represented in scale. The show, in its model form, was looking fantastic, but so was the budget. Under Michael’s imaginative genius the cost of staging the show had risen from £2 million pound to nearly £4 million!
Tim: Everyone viewed Chess as the goose laying golden eggs. It was so sure to be such a mega-smash that no expenditure was too extravagant, no concept was too elaborate. We had a ridiculous budget.
Towards the end of 1985 a highlights album was released, Chess Pieces. This contained 12 tracks from the original album, with some tracks edited and a extended and remixed version of The Arbiter. It included a leaflet saying that the show would open in the spring of 1986 and tickets would go on sale in late November. The back of the leaflet has a selection of Chess merchandise: T-shirts, sweatshirts and an enamel badge.
As 1985 drew to a close many hours were spent in the basement of the Three Knights' Shaftesbury Avenue offices running through every detail of every scene. The dream of a model was able to reproduce everything, even the lighting changes that were being envisaged. The one thing it couldn’t do was write the script and this was still not quite complete. Tim Rice had a prior commitment in the Far East, but the script would be completed on his return and ready for the real work to begin early in January 1986.
As Michael flew back to the United States for Christmas the set model sat quietly in the basement unaware that its ‘performance’ of the show was the closest anybody would ever get to seeing his inspired vision for Chess. He was expected back in London during the first week of January, but his return was delayed. Tim had completed his script over Christmas and set off on Concord to present it to Michael. As far as Tim was concerned everything was perfectly fine and Michael would be back in the UK within a week or so.
The devastating news came within days of Tim arriving back in London. Michael was seriously ill with heart trouble. He had been instructed by his doctors to remain in New York while tests were carried out. It was soon announced that he had been diagnosed as having angina pectoris. It would be impossible for him to endure the strenuous and exhausting schedule that had been set for rehearsals, so he had to withdraw from the project.
Chess was once again without a director. When the news became public there was much speculation that artistic differences were to blame, that Bennett had fallen out with Tim or Elaine, but the denials that were given at the time soon proved to be true. It eventually became clear that Michael was indeed seriously ill and sadly died the following year with an Aids related illness.
Nobody at Three Knights Ltd had any idea of the true seriousness of Michael’s condition and after the initial shock of his supposed heart problems they began to wonder if the project could be saved? By this time over £1.5 million pounds worth of tickets had already been sold. They needed to find a director who could and would be willing to take on a show that was already cast, designed and scheduled to begin rehearsals in less than three weeks on 3rd February 1986.
Thoughts once again returned to Trevor Nunn and even though he had not been free when first asked they thought it worth their while asking again. It was. This time, as he would only be required to devote three or four months to the project, Trevor was able to say yes.
Trevor Nunn: The Shuberts had been very good to us when I was at the R.S.C., and I could see they were in terrible distress. I also felt for Michael. I admired Michael to idolatry, and when I heard he had been stricken with heart disease, which was the story at the time, I felt despair on his behalf. So I undertook to do it. It's something that people in the theatre community can occasionally do; you owe each other.
Several days of discussions, rearranging and consolidation of time, design and rehearsal schedules put the Chess project back into first gear. Rehearsals were going to be delayed by a month and reduced from thirteen weeks to nine, while the number of previews were reduced from twenty-one to fourteen.
The set designs were modified, probably as much to reduce the amount of rehearsal time required as to match with Trevor’s own vision of the piece. The kind of moving, rising, revolving set that Michael had envisaged would have taken a long time to fine tune and make safe for all the cast to work on, and this had been reflected in the original number of rehearsal weeks and previews. The vidiwalls were to remain, but five of the six hydraulic lifts would be scrapped.
Trevor Nunn: I gave Benny and Björn and Tim my analysis of the material and I felt that the work had to be more humanised and needed to be less geometric and less impressionist. And they readily, perhaps too readily accepted comments of mine, but I did want to make changes. I won’t deny that there were occasions during the rehearsal period when I did feel, most emphatically, that I was standing in for somebody else and that I was in somebody else’s shoes and that I wasn't quite speaking with my own creative persona. But that was fine.
On the 6th February these technical changes were explained to the production team. Trevor described Chess as “A show about conflict, between ideologies, nations and individuals with, at its centre, a romance as unlikely and delightful as Ninotchka.” The old set model, now modified, was used by Trevor and Robin Wagner to show the team how the new show would work physically.
Rehearsals eventually began on 3rd March at the Production Village in Cricklewood. Some of the cast had only met Trevor in brief five minute introductory chats which he did as part of trying to assimilate himself into this new project and company that was really somebody else’s.
The set model was once again brought into action to show the cast what they would be working on and by the end of another complete run through of the show (in miniature) everybody had a fairly good idea of what they were aiming to achieve.
Robert Fox: Trevor had to take over somebody else's concept, somebody else's design, somebody else's casting, a whole production setup that wasn't his.
Trevor Nunn: I think the existence of the album was very important because there were quite thrilling musical effects. The orchestral scale, the near symphonic scale in places and the choral ambition of it was all present on record. Therefore it was possible to see that it was a serious project, with very high quality musical credentials. Partly, it was difficult for the artists to break the mould though, of what they had done on record and partly it was a difficult decision to say ‘we are going to be presenting something that sounds, in many areas, different from a very high-selling recording that’s been very well received.’
Over the following few weeks the cast rehearsed the songs, the basic blocking of the scenes, discussed the characters emotions and desires and generally got under the skin of the people they were being asked to portray.
Meanwhile back at the Prince Edward theatre the Chess set was being built. The stage floor was designed to rise, revolve and tilt just like the set model, but a moving floor on this scale was a first for the West End and a great deal of work was going to have to be done in the Prince Edward to accommodate it. The floor was made up of 64 squares, all of which could be underlit in white or red or left unlit to look black. It was practically built piece by piece and took a considerable amount of time to put together.
Computers were already being used in the game of chess and they were going to be heavily used in the musical. Almost everything was to be controlled by computer. The floor, the lights, the vidiwalls, even scene changes via trucks were originally planned to be executed by computer, though this would have been in Michael's version of the set.
The schedule had always been tight, but now with the delay in finalizing the design and the rebuilding of certain elements of the set, the work was taking even longer than anticipated. The cast had originally been scheduled to move into the theatre during the first week of April, but gradually this date was put farther and farther back.
During the second week of April the cast were at last able to head to the theatre to begin rehearsing on the actual set. This, however, was not to last, a few days later they were back in rehearsal rooms, any empty room really that could be found. Technical problems in the theatre had escalated and the computer that was supposed to operate the stage floor was simply not doing its job. The computer did not want to talk to the hydraulics. After many all-night programming sessions the computers still could not be coaxed into cooperation. Without the floor working it was impossible to do any technical rehearsals, all important for the smooth running and safety of the show.
By the 26th April Trevor was left with no option but to state that if the computer could not be made to move the floor within twenty-four hours, there would be nothing for it but to dump the computer and resort to the old fashioned manual method. With the first preview almost upon them, there was no way the show could be ready to show to the public. It was decided that the first five previews would have to be cancelled.
Another computer was soon to begin giving the Chess team problems. This time it was the one that controlled the vidiwall images. The idea of the vidiwall was to be able to display an incredible number of images across the 128 screens either as one single image or up to as many as 128 individual ones.
The main wall of 64 screens was lowered from the flies when it was required and it was expected that it would be used to show the various moves taking place on the chess board. For this, each individual screen would represent a square on the board. Besides the fact that the screens were not actually square it was perfectly reasonable to expect that if an image of a rectangular ‘square’ was sent to it that was what it would show. This unfortunately was not the case, either with the 'squares' or any number of other images. The images would overlap the screens, only show half of the desired image or show nothing at all! Only with the utmost precision could the original graphics be accurately displayed on the screens.
The concept had been tried and tested before, but the number of screens used for Chess was greater than had previously been attempted. The footage itself had been scheduled to be recorded at the beginning of the year, but due to the many delays the production had experienced this hadn't happened until the middle of April. The plan was to record mock newscasts and commentaries in eight different languages to convey the world media coverage that the tournament was receiving. There was also to be ‘home movies’ of Anatoly’s family in Russia and possibly more recent footage of Florence and Anatoly as they enjoyed the blossoming of their romance in the public eye. Stand-ins were to be used for the recordings, the ladies being given look-a-like wigs for the Svetlana and Florence characters. There was also to be footage from the Hungarian uprising of 1956 and the Cuban missile crises of 1962 all to convey the idea of confrontation between East and West.
In the end much of the footage that was recorded and meticulously programmed to fit the screens was eventually cut from the show. Trevor felt, quite rightly, that the huge screens ran the risk of being a distraction for the audience and so bit by bit their use was reduced. Every minor cut from the footage being used seemed to throw the computers into disarray and many more hours of programming was required for every alteration.
Right up until just before the first preview began the programmers were still frantically trying to get the computer and vidiwall to cooperate. That first performance only had a few minutes of footage used, but over the period of the previews the vidiwalls showed a slightly different set of images every night. Some parts were cut and others gradually made their way into the show as the computer agreed to show them.
In the end the vidiwalls were hardly used at all. They provided wonderful images of chess moves, news reports and political conflict during the chess games and briefly made an appearance during Nobody’s Side. This scene was set in the control room of a TV studio and at one point Florence managed to flash 64 reproductions of herself on the main wall, when she became somewhat frustrated and took out her anger on an array of knobs and dials on the studio console. The main wall of course worked perfectly for the TV studio during TV Interview andalso provided a visual 'commentary' of various chess moves and scores during The Deal. The side walls were also briefly used when Freddie did a couple of live to camera reports about the tournament at the end of One Night In Bangkok and just before the 'game' begins in Endgame.
The first of the delayed previews was now due to begin on Monday 5th May. The dress rehearsal that afternoon had managed to get most of the show up on its feet and running. There were problems, most of them to do with clunky movements of the stage floor or stray images on the vidiwalls, but by the time they were nearing the end of it everybody was beginning to feel slightly optimistic that there would be a fairly decent show to present to the public that evening. Then, just after leaving the stage at the end of the rehearsal, Tommy Korberg collapsed. A mix of tiredness and the stress of the dress rehearsal had caused him to faint. After spending several hours in the hospital Tommy returned to the theatre with Bjorn and Benny and announced he was fit to perform. The curtain went up at 8pm to a more than slightly excited audience.
The performance went remarkably well despite the occasional problems with the sound and the stage’s gentle jerks, but on the whole it was an impressive production. During the following few days various small changes and alterations were made, each one helping to improve the overall feel of the show, but still it was felt that the audience were not enjoying the show quite as much as they should be. It was clear they were not completely following the various twists and turns of the plot, especially when it came to The Deal, during which everybody is playing by their own rules for their own reasons. Various extra lines were added and others altered to clarify what was happening. Argument had originally been included in the show, but it was decided to cut this, possibly partly to help reduce the length, as the show was running at nearly three hours plus the interval, so it did need some trimming.
In the midst of all this rewriting and alteration another problem occurred. On the morning of Saturday 9th May, Doug Harry, the only man who knew how to operate the complex hydraulics of the stage floor, was taken to hospital with a collapsed lung. It looked like two more previews would have to be cancelled, but Dough bravely discharged himself from hospital and operated the stage during both Saturday performances.
Even after the initial alterations had been made the reaction was still not quite as ecstatic as hoped for. Something more had to be done. On the afternoon of 12th May some more rewriting began. By Tuesday 13th May the final version of the show was in rehearsal. The last thirty minutes of act two were restructured to try and create a climax at the end of the show rather than the slightly sombre and slow fade out that was occurring by ending with You And I and the chorus repeating the lines from the beginning of the show, “Each game of chess means there’s one less variation left to be played.”
The I Know Him So Well scene was the first to get a reworking. Up until then Florence and Svetlana had sung this song 'alone' in their own world while thinking about the man they loved. In this new version the two women would actually meet and sing the song as if discussing the needs of the man they both loved. The entire scene was also relocated to after The Deal, rather than before it.
Anatoly’s motives were altered slightly too. He would now return to Russia because of a sense of loyalty to his wife and family.The stirring music from the end of act one’s Anthem was to be reintroduced as the finale of the show, this time sung by Florence.
Apparently these changes were not unanimously embraced by the creative team or cast, but Trevor believed they were needed, so they were instigated. That evening the audience reaction was exactly what had been desired. The final ‘Each game of chess...’ sequence had, however, been retained, but ultimately this too was cut as Trevor, once again correctly, realised it killed the applause. Without that sequence, the rousing Anthem Reprise struck a chord with the audience and propelled them to their feet, shouting and clapping with approval.
Below are the original lyrics for the finale of the show.
And so Chess was now a fully staged West End musical and it was ready to be shown to the world’s press. Like the game it portrayed it would be in the glare of the world media. The premier night was a star studded event with an audience filled with celebrities from all areas of the entertainment world. To fans of the show though, the most important people were Bjorn, Benny and Tim and of course they were there, but an added bonus for Abba fans was the attendance of group member Frida. Sporting a new blonde hairdo, some people, not so familiar with the group, thought she was the ‘blonde’ one. Agnetha (the real blonde one) sadly was not in attendance. Never being a fan of travelling she chose to stay in Sweden.
When the curtain came down, six hundred close personal friends of the composers, lyricist and stars made their way to the Belvedere restaurant in Holland Park for a sit down meal. Afterwards there were drinks and canapés for another few hundred guests.
The following morning many of those guests rushed to the news stands to pick up the papers to see what the reviewers had thought of the show. On the whole the reviews were what the theatre world call ‘mixed’. This basically means that some reviewers raved about certain aspects of the show, while others would dismiss many of the very same aspects.
The Stage: But Chess does convincingly prove that the modem musical, which could be said to have started with Jesus Christ Superstar, has come of age.
The Times: A fine piece of work that shows the dinosaur mega-musical evolving into an intelligent form of life'.
The London Standard: The music by Andersson and Ulvaeus of Abba is relentlessly tuneful running- through the action like an operetta and already proving its popularity by heading the charts with One Night in Bangkok and I Know Him So Well.
The Mail on Sunday: One match run to 40 odd games and threatens to impinge on eternity – as does the show, giving boredom a new dimension.
The Daily Telegraph: Gift wrapped and gorgeous.
BBC Radio London: From its beautifully choreographed opening, of a chess match between pure ivory human chess pieces, to its lavish anthem of a finale, Chess is a well written and structured entertainment that is warm, emotional, intelligent and consistently watchable.
Today: Nearly a major triumph.
Tim: It all got a bit fraught, to put it mildly! But Trevor did a great job in that working against almost insuperable odds, (he) got the show together. A show that he was not 100% happy with, to the extent that it wasn’t totally his concept. But with what he was given and what he was lumbered with, he put together a pretty good show. It was a bit long and we all made, Trevor, Benny, Björn and I, some mistakes with the construction of the piece – serious mistakes. It wasn’t the show that anybody had really planned – but it worked.
Murray Head: I met Bernie Jacobs early on and he said "It’s the best music I’ve heard since My Fair Lady" and he was absolutely spot on! The music was stunning. I think what we had, was something that worked just like a book. Sometimes people read a book and say ‘it would make a fabulous film’ and it couldn’t be a worse decision. I think the album Chess had so much personality, and so much about it that was left to the imagination that by the time those that were converted by the album got to see the musical, it could never have kept the promise (of the album). I think the album demanded far too much to turn it into something visual.
Robert Fox: Considering what it's been through, the show that's on in London is remarkable, but it's not satisfactory in any way. It's a mishmash of styles and ideas.
Tim: I think the score of Chess is staggeringly good. The show itself got mixed reviews. The reason for that was 80 per cent down to Michael Bennett pulling out. Trevor Nunn did a pretty good job getting it onto the stage but he was hampered by having to work with people he hadn't chosen and he was slightly stuck with the set.
The Chess that eventually opened at the Prince Edward Theatre turned out to be much more traditional in design than had originally been envisaged. Michael Bennett had conceived a set which was going to be extremely technical, highly automated and minimalist almost to the extreme. It would certainly have been an exciting, dazzling, multimedia experience, but perhaps all that technical wizardly would have overpowered the love story that was at the heart of the piece. On the other hand it might have become an incredibly modern ground breaking ‘rock opera’ with the kind of imagery and sophistication that would have seen it go down in history as the most spectacular show ever staged in the West End. We will never know exactly what would have happened if Michael Bennett had not been struck down by his illness, so we can only imagine what might have been.