Chess is a musical with lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, formerly of ABBA. The story involves a romantic triangle between two players in a world chess championship, and a woman who manages one and falls in love with the other. Although the protagonists were not intended to represent any specific individuals, the characters personalities are loosely based on those of Victor Korchnoi and Bobby Fischer and the oddity of the Merano championship in the musical is based on the similar oddities which occurred during the 1978 World Championship between Korchnoi and Anatoly Karpov.
Following the pattern of Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, a concept album was recorded and released in 1984, before any stage production was underway. A single from the album, "One Night In Bangkok", performed by Murray Head with Anders Glenmark became a worldwide smash and reached No.3 on Billboard Hot 100 chart in the US, while the duet, "I Know Him So Well", by Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson, held the number one spot on the UK singles charts for 4 weeks in February 1985 and won Ivor Novello Award as the Best Selling Single ('A' Side). The double album received critical accolades - "dazzling score that covers nearly all the pop bases" (Rolling Stone), "rock symphonic synthesis ripe with sophistication and hummable tunes" (Time) - and was a major commercial success worldwide. For seven weeks it remained at No.1 on the Swedish album chart, became a Top 10 hit in UK and reached No.47 on Billboard 200 in the US. It also garnered several prestigious awards, including Germany's Golden Europa Award, Dutch music prize Edison Award and the Swedish prize Rockbjörnen.
In the fall of 1984, the concert performance of the concept album by the original album cast premiered in Stockholm, Hamburg, Amsterdam, Paris and London. The first theatrical version of Chess opened in London's West End in 1986 and played for three years. The Broadway production followed in 1988 but was badly received by most critics and didn't attract large audiences that resulted in its closing after just eight weeks. Perhaps, the shifting political winds in the Eastern Bloc blunted the relevance of the plot and contributed to the quick demise of the show on Broadway. A touring production in 1989 actually brought a writer along to continue updating it as current events warranted. It got mixed reviews. Chess is occasionally produced by regional theatrical companies, sometimes merging elements from both the London and Broadway versions. Chess-Baltimore, a version that opened on March 19, 2004, was based on the Broadway version.
A new version, in Swedish, premiered in Stockholm, Sweden in February 2002 and ran through June 2003.
"Chess" came seventh in a BBC Radio 2 listener poll of the "Nation's Number One Essential Musicals" (wherein Nation refers to the United Kingdom). 
The studio album
The world chess championship is being held in the northern Italian town of Merano. The brash American champion relishes the crowd's affection, while his Russian challenger and Molokov, his second (actually a KGB agent), watch with curiosity and disdain on TV. The opening ceremony features an arbiter insisting on holding the proceedings together, US and Soviet diplomats vowing their side will win, and marketers just looking to make a buck. The American storms out of a rules meeting, leaving his second, Florence, in an argument with the Arbiter and the Russians. She later scolds him, but he insists that she, a child emigre who escaped Hungary during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, should support him. Instead, she reflects that "nobody's on nobody's side". The first game of the match goes badly, with dirty tricks nearly evolving into a brawl. A meeting to smooth things over goes badly and strands the Russian and Florence together, where they quickly develop feelings for one another. As the matches continue, the American flounders and blames Florence, who leaves him. The Russian wins the championship, then defects to the west. Answering reporters' questions about his loyalties, his "Anthem" declares that "my land's only borders/ lie around my heart."
A year later, the Russian is set to defend his championship in Bangkok, Thailand. The American is already there, chatting up locals about the nightlife. Florence and the Russian are now lovers, and worry about the situation. Molokov, meanwhile, has trained a new protege to challenge the Russian. The American interviews the Russian on TV and makes obvious attempts to rattle him, even declaring that the Russian's wife (Svetlana) is being allowed to leave the USSR to attend the match. She and Florence both reflect on their relationships with him. The American goes to the Russian with information about Florence's long-lost father, claiming that instead of being a hero as she believed, he was a collaborator. The Russian, and later Florence, dismiss him, unwilling to hear what he has to say. He reflects on his life and his obsession with chess as a way to escape an unhappy childhood. In the deciding game of the match, The Russian manages an exceptional victory, and realizes that it may be the only success he can achieve - Svetlana castigates him for wallowing in the crowd's empty praise. Both acknowledge they are doomed to care only for themselves. Later, he and Florence reflect on their story that seemed so promising, and how they "go on pretending/ stories like ours/ have happy endings."
Broadway cast album
The American version has different settings and a completely different Act 2. In particular, the entire show is about one chess tournament, not two. Act 1 handles the first part of the tournament, which is held in Bangkok, while Act 2 handles the conclusion, and is held in Budapest. The Russian is named Anatoly Sergievsky, while the American is Freddie Trumper. In addition to Florence, Freddie has a business agent named Walter, who constantly tries to enlist Freddie for commercials and endorsements, but Freddie has no interest in making money... only in winning the tournament.
The world chess championship is being held in Bangkok. At a press conference, the brash American challenger, Freddie Trumper, relishes the crowd's affection, while the current Russian champion, Anatoly Sergievsky, and Molokov, his second, watch with curiosity and disdain. During the match Freddie accuses Anatoly of receiving outside help via the flavor of yogurt he is eating, and Freddie storms out, leaving his second, Florence, in an argument with the Arbiter and the Russians. She later scolds him, but he insists that she, a child emigre who escaped Hungary during the 1956 uprisings, should support him. A meeting to smooth things over goes badly and strands the Russian and Florence together, where they quickly develop feelings for one another. Freddie was supposed to attend, but got sidetracked by the night life, and arrived very late to see Anatoly and Florence holding hands. When he later accuses her of conspiring against him, she reflects that "nobody's on nobody's side", and decides to leave him. As the matches continue, the American flounders, finishing Act 1 with 1 win and 5 losses; one more loss will cost him the tournament. Anatoly surprises everyone by his defection at the end of Act 1. Answering reporters' questions about his loyalties, his "Anthem" declares that "my land's only borders/lie around my heart."
Eight weeks later, everyone is in Budapest to witness the conclusion of the tournament. Florence is elated to be back in her hometown of Budapest, but dismayed that she remembers none of it, not even what happened to her Father, since he had to leave her in 1956. Molokov offers to help and starts 'investigating' Florence's father's fate. As Anatoly and Florence listen to a local Hungarian choir, he meets three friends from his hometown, which pleases Anatoly, but local CIA operatives are suspicious...why would the Soviets allow people to leave Russia just to see a friend? Even Svetlana, Anatoly's wife, has been flown into Budapest to see her defecting husband. She wishes the best for Anatoly, and decides not to inform him that as a result of his defection, Svetlana lost their apartment, her brother was denied access to medical school, Anatoly's own brother has also been forced to move to a smaller apartment, and back in Moscow Anatoly has been falsely accused of embezzling...all information Anatoly learns from Molokov. Molokov no longer has an 'official' role, and is officially in Budapest merely because of his love of chess. Unofficially, he badly wants Anatoly back and has no hesitation in exerting pressure or veiled threats. He also makes an ally in Freddie's agent, Walter, for unknown reasons. These threats strain Anatoly's relationship with Florence, and she shares her Anatoly-related woes with Svetlana. The threats also degrade Anatoly's ability to play chess, so that Freddie starts winning games until they are tied 5-5...the next game will decide the match. Freddie reminisces about his childhood to a sexy female reporter, and eagerly anticipates winning the match, being totally oblivious to Anatoly's troubles. Molokov then informs Florence that they have found her father and they can see him tonight! While she does not remember her father, and she does not recognize herself as the baby in the photo her father shows her, he still convinces her through a Hungarian lullaby. As the scene rises on the final game, Anatoly is missing, and no one sympathizes...there have been so many shenanigans in the tournament that no one wants to hear any more excuses. All are prepared to concede the match to Freddie when Anatoly wanders in and proceeds to play. He has not slept all night. During the game he realizes that despite all the family that he has brought harm to, by his defection, he cannot hurt his true love, Florence, by depriving her of her father. He chooses to recant his defection, and makes a tactical error. Freddie immediately takes advantage of the blunder and proceeds to win the game...and the tournament, becoming the new world champion. Anatoly returns to Moscow a broken man. Florence is waiting for her father so they can leave for America when she is approached by Walter. He confesses to her that the old man is not her father and her father is most likely dead. It seems that the Soviets struck a deal with Walter, a secret CIA agent, that if they managed to get Anatoly back, they would release a captured American spy. Their initial attempts at getting Anatoly back, by using Svetlana, and other family members had failed, and they had finally succeeded by using Florence. As the curtain closes, Florence has left Freddie, been lost by Anatoly, and lost the father she never had, and she realizes that her only borders lie around her heart.
The "Chess In Concert" album
This is a recording of a concert performance (not a full stage production) in Gothenburg, Sweden in 1994. The songs and lyrics are largely identical to the studio album, with the addition of "Someone Else's Story" (from the Broadway version) and "The Soviet Machine".
The Danish tour album
In late 2001, a 2-CD album of the Danish Tour of Chess was released. The tour followed the London version of the musical, and the first release of the album had the complete London score (minus small portions of underscoring). Later pressings are missing several tracks (as noted).
The 2002 Stockholm Version
Actor's Fund of America Concert 2003
Presented on September 22 2003 in New Amsterdam Theater, Broadway. Directed by Peter Flynn, choreographed by Christopher Gattelli and musical directed by conductor Seth Rudetsky.
Chess premiered in the Prince Edward Theatre in London on 14 May 1986. It was originally set to be directed by Michael Bennett, but he withdrew for health reasons that would later turn out to be AIDS. The show was rescued by director Trevor Nunn, who shepherded the show on to its scheduled opening, albeit with considerable technical difficulty. Premiere of the musical provoked a mixed verdict from the critics and, according to Variety magazine, "one of the bigger West End mob-scenes in recent memory". Most of the naysaying notices had comments ranging from "far too long" and "shallow" to The Guardian's conclusion that "a musical is only as good as its book, and here one is confronted by an incholate mess". Several London papers were on the other end of scale, including Daily Telegraph which said the show "compels admiration", while The Times noted that "it turns out to be a fine piece of work that shows the dinosaur mega-musical evolving into intelligent form of life." Some writers, notably Frank Rich and Ken Mandelbaum, have pointed out that final product was hampered by the starkly different styles of Bennett, who was creating a flamboyant, elaborate, and stylish show, and Nunn, who was more attuned to realism and grandiosity (an example being Nunn's addition of dozens of chairs, desks, tables, and other realistic elements to the otherwise stylized, high-tech set).
In London, Chess was a massive physical production, with estimated costs up to $12 million. It expanded the storyline of the concept album, adding considerable new recitative. The show brought back principals Elaine Paige, Tommy Körberg, and Murray Head, and added Siobhan McCarthy as Svetlana, John Turner as Molokov, Kevin Colson as Walter, and Tom Jobe as the Arbiter. It attracted several other West End stars, such as Anthony Stewart Head, Grenia Renihan, David Burt and Peter Karrie, in its three years.
West End production won a London Critics' Circle Theatre Award for Best Musical and received three Laurence Olivier Award nominations: Best Musical, Outstanding Performance by an Actor (Körberg) and Outstanding Performance by an Actress (Paige).
Chess closed in London on 8 April 1989.
After London, most of the creative team were dissatisfied with the state of the show. Tim Rice proposed a new version for Broadway, but it was panned by Trevor Nunn, who instead brought in playwright Richard Nelson to recreate the musical as a book show. After some controversy over bringing in principals from the London cast, Nunn brought in new, younger principals (after having disqualified Paige from playing Florence by insisting on writing the character as an American). The story changed drastically, with different settings, characters, and many different plot elements, although the basic story remained the same. The changes necessitated the score to be radically altered as well, and comparisons of the Broadway cast recording and the original concept album reveal the extent of the changes.
The first preview on 11 April 1988 reportedly ran as long as 4 hours; by opening night on 28 April, it was down to 3 hours 15 minutes. Many critics, most notably Frank Rich of The New York Times who wrote that "the evening has the theatrical consistency of quicksand", panned the show strongly, however, a few reviewers, from Time and New Yorker in particular, praised it very highly. Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner William A. Henry III wrote in Time: "Clear narrative drive, Nunn's cinematic staging, three superb leading performances by actors willing to be complex and unlikeable and one of the best rock scores ever produced in the theater. This is an angry, difficult, demanding and rewarding show, one that pushes the boundaries of the form". San Diego Union Tribune critic Welton Jones also liked the music in the show but overall had a somewhat different view of the Broadway production: "Chess has one of the richest, most exciting scores heard on Broadway in years. Just about every type of theatrical song from opera to country and western to black rap is represented, invariably to fresh effect. Sadly, the music has been encumbered with an overwritten book and an uninspired staging that blunts its edge and wastes too many of the opportunities offered".
Although the musical had developed something of a cult following based primarily on the score as heard on the concept album, the Broadway production never sustained a large audience, and closed on 25 June despite further cuts for time and good word of mouth reviews. According to Gerald Schoenfeld, co-producer of the show: "the musical had been playing to about 80 percent capacity, which is considered good, but about 50 percent of the audience have held special, half-priced tickets. If we filled the house at 100 percent at half price, we'd go broke and I haven't seen any surge of tourist business yet this season. The show needs a $350, 000 weekly gross to break even, but only a few weeks since its April 28 opening have reached that....You have to consider what your grosses are going to be in the future". (USA Today, June 21, 1988)
Nelson's book is a frequent target of scorn from critics and fans alike, though it has its supporters. Many subsequent attempts have been made to fix its perceived problems. Nonetheless, Nelson's book is still used in many American productions, because a contractual stipulation prevents the London version, which to many was the source of the show's popularity and appeal, from being performed within the United States.
Despite mostly unfavorable reviews, Broadway production picked up several major award nominations. It got five nods from Drama Desk Awards: Outstanding Actor in a Musical (Carroll), Outstanding Actress in a Musical (Kuhn), Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical (Goz), Outstanding Music (Andersson and Ulvaeus) and Outstanding Lighting Design (Hersey), plus two Tony Award nominations for Carroll and Kuhn in Leading Actor in a Musical and Leading Actress in a Musical categories. None of the nominations resulted in the win, but Philip Casnoff did receive the 1988 Theatre World Award for Best Debut Performance. Broadway Cast recording of the musical was nominated for Grammy Award in the category Best Musical/Show Album.
In 2001, in an interview with San Francisco Chronicle, Tim Rice admitted that after the "comparative failure of Chess, his all-time favorite, he became disillusioned with theater." "It may sound arrogant, but Chess is as good as anything I've ever done. And maybe it costs too much brainpower for the average person to follow it", he said (San Francisco Chronicle, July 22, 2001).
Around the world: 1990 - 2002
Chess was now a mixed success from a smash hit album - in other words, fertile ground for those seeking to "get it right," even though historical conditions and the fall of the Soviet Union severely compromised the timeliness of the story. The first major attempt at a revival was the American tour, which ran from January - July 1990. This tour, which starred Carolee Carmello, John Herrera, and Stephen Bogardus, was well-staged by Des McAnuff, who was brought in at the eleventh hour when Trevor Nunn declined to be involved. Robert Coe, the playwright who worked with McAnuff on revising the show, restored most of the original song order from London and deleted the new songs written for the Broadway version, but had only 4 weeks to complete what was essentially a Page One re-write. (Only a single page of Richard Nelson's book was retained.) The seven-month-long tour was not a major success, but did enjoy many sold-out dates and garnered some positive reviews. (At the Miami Beach opening of the American tour, Tim Rice shook Coe's hand and told him, "Thank you for saving my show" -- from the radical, unsuccessful Nelson alterations made for the Broadway production.) A separate tour in the United Kingdom, starring Rebecca Storm, was a smash.
Also in 1990 was the production at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, Illinois, near Chicago. Directed by David H. Bell and starring Susie McMonagle, David Studwell and Kim Strauss, it was a far more successful reworking of the Nelson script, most notable for giving Florence her father back in what is called a "compromise ending." Bell's version has been successful in Sacramento and Atlanta as well. Tim Rice also had his say in a wonderful 1990 production in Sydney, Australia, where Jim Sharman directed a rewrite done totally by Rice. It starred Jodie Gillies, David McLeod, and Robbie Krupski, and was a critical and popular success. A later Australian production opened at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne in 1997, with Barbara Dickson taking the lead role of Florence (not Svetlana as she had sung on the studio cast album). Co-stars included Derek Metzger and Daryl Braithwaite.
Chess was, even in 1990, trying to keep itself modern; the ending of the Cold War was noted in all versions of the show. Once the Soviet Union fell, the modernisation attempts died out, and the clock was set back; Tim Rice's 1990 rewrite that played a brief run Off-Broadway went all the way back to 1972, though much like the US Tour and Sydney versions, it settled into the dustbin of history. The Chess mania that had swept the world more or less died down to a diet of occasional productions of the Broadway and London versions for the next decade.
In 1995, the Los Angeles production of 'Chess" at Hollywood's Hudson Theater starring Marcia Mitzman (who played Svetlana in the original Broadway production) as Florence and Sean Smith as Anatoly garnered glowing reviews. For their performances both Mitzman and Smith each won Ovation Award and Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award.
In late 2001, rumours began to fly about a new production in Stockholm. Written entirely in Swedish, with lyrics and book by Björn Ulvaeus, Lars Rudolffson, and Jan Mark, it tried to streamline the story back to its basics from the rather convoluted tale that had sprung up. Featuring two new musical numbers ("Han är en man, han är ett barn" and "Glöm mig om du kan") and focusing on material from the concept album, the Stockholm version turned the show on its head. It was filmed for Swedish television, and has been released on a Swedish-language DVD. The Original Swedish Cast CD "Chess På Svenska" peaked at No.2 on Swedish album chart.
The Stockholm production was nominated for eight national Swedish Theatre Awards Guldmasken and won six of them, including Best Leading Actress in a Musical (Helen Sjöholm), Best Leading Actor in a Musical (Tommy Körberg) and Best Stage Design (Robin Wagner)
There have been rumours of a new production, and Tim Rice has mentioned on several occasions his desire to bring a translated version back to London and / or Broadway, but no firm announcements have been made thus far. On June 2, 2006, the show (London version) will open in Estonia: "Vanemuine", the second biggest opera/ballet/musical company in the country, will produce a newly translated (Mart Sander) Estonian version, directed by Swedish director Georg Malvius.