Tim Rice, an English writer with an impressive resume, has written lyrics to successful musicals such as Jesus Christ Super Star, Evita, Aladdin, Lion King, The Road to El Dorado and many more more.
He found a new idea for a story during the frenzied media publicity of the World Chess Championship game in 1972. The finalists were the American player Bobby Fisher and Russian player Boris Spassky. It was portrayed as a Cold War Battle. Rice, a lover of both the game and the drama, took to the writing table; the musical Chess had begun it’s journey.
A collaboration meeting with the famed songwriters from the Swedish group Abba, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, was orchestrated by New York theatre producer Richard Vos. The Swedes took interest in the project.
Together they wrote the music to Rice’s lyrics of We Know Him So Well and One Night in Bangkok and released a single. It was an instant success and topped the charts. This propelled the original idea of CHESS the musical into a business deal in 1982.
The Three Knights Ltd. was formed and the work begun to fine tune the story and write the music. It took 2 years to complete the initial project. Well received in London, it ran for four highly successful years.
In 1988 Chess was staged on Broadway. However, New York critiques disliked it and the U.S. audience lost interest. The show was discontinued after only eight weeks, despite the popularity of the music.
The problem could lie in the story line, or in the portrayal of the American chess player who was loosely based on Fisher. He was perhaps considered a trouble maker who fought for better conditions and prize money for the players. His role in Chess is characterized as arrogant and rude.
Americans don’t like to consider such behavior to be “American.” The portrayal might work in Europe, but not nearly so well for a Broadway audience. We like our heroes. After all, in real life he won the tournament and raised the standard for chess players all over the world.
This Broadway blunder has not stopped this production from moving forward. Consequently it has been picked up by various theatre companies and schools. It is a historical piece, noteworthy for its story and certainly the music.