Show Business

A hit show for the record: Tim Rice’s new musical has arrived everywhere, except onstage. By Richard Corliss

Here comes Chess, the biggest new musical hit of the international theater season. A colourful satiric pageant about the political and romantic gamesmanship attending a world chess championship, the show has won raves from European critics for Lyricist Tim Rice (Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita), Composers Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (of the Swedish pop quartet ABBA) and the piece’s star, Elaine Paige. Chess has spun off two top-of-the-pops singles: The ballad I Know Him So Well resided at No.1 in Britain for four weeks, and the insinuating disco rap One Night In Bangkok is a Top Five smash in half a dozen European countries. Now Chess is readying to blitz America. Two versions of Bangkok have cracked the Top Ten of the U.S. record charts. Next year the omnipotent Shubert Organisation is expected to bring the show to Broadway.

Just one element is missing from this success story: Chess has never been staged. At the moment it exists only as a two-record LP. Following the precedent he and Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber set with Superstar and Evita. Rice has released an “original cast album” of his latest pop opera before there was ever a “show.” The Chess set thus functions as an out-of-town tryout, a promotional gambit and a thumpingly successful fund raiser – so much so that Rice, Andersson and Ulvaeus will be providing most of the £1 million capital needed this fall when Chess boards the London stage. Already, the West End theaterati smells a hit. As Rice happily notes, “We’ve been offered financing, theaters, charity opening nights – dukes, duchesses, royal family coming out of our ears. It’s incredible.”

Rice’s plot revolves around the competition between an American grand master (sung by Murray Head) and a Russian (Tommy Körberg) for the chess title and for the loyalty of the Hungarian-born Florence (Paige), who is first the American’s adviser and then the Russian’s lover after he defects to the West. Indeed, the show could be called Defects, referring not just to the shifting of allegiances but to the rancorous imperfections to which every affair is vulnerable.

In its present form, Rice’s story has holes to plug and a narrative in need of streamlining, but it offers him a contemporary setting for his favourite theme: the pernicious lure of stardom, whether biblical, political or intellectual. His lyrics mix roguish wit (Bangkok contains the unlikely couplet “Tea, girls – warm and sweet – warm, sweet/Some are set up in the Somerset Maugham suite”) with the blistering bitterness of Evita. Andersson and Ulvaeus’ score ransacks melodic styles from plainsong to Puccini to Gilbert and Sullivan to Richard Rodgers to Phill Spector to hip-hop, in a rock-symphonic synthesis ripe with hummable tunes. The Shubert Organisation’s Bernard Jacobs, a man not easily given to rapture, says, “Very few scores prior to production have excited me as much as this one. None, in fact, since My Fair Lady.”

The fair lady of Chess is Paige, a petite blond in her 30s who was the first London-stage Evita. In Chess, Paige’s Florence is the captive-nation emotional pawn of two superpower egotists; the songs written for her investigate the dark, angry range where Paige’s soprano lives. The show’s best song, Nobody’s Side, has Florence offering words to the wounded (“Never stay too long in your bed,/Never lose your heart, use your head”), and Paige taunts the lyric into an anthem of cold-steel defiance. Here she evokes the clarion brass of Ethel Merman, the liquid phrasing of Barbra Streisand and the rasping energy of the Ronettes – an electrifying amalgam. Chess reveals Paige as the strongest, smartest voice in today’s musical theater.

For Rice, who studied at the Sorbonne (though not very hard) before teaming with Lloyd Webber for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1967), the Chess saga began with a two-page plot outline in 1977. But neither Lloyd Webber nor Marvin Hamlisch (A Chorous Line) was interested in composing the score. As Rice, a large, genial Londoner of 40 who looks like a relaxed Anthony Burgess, recalled in New York last week, “Then in 1982 I heard that Benny and Björn were keen to write something beyond the confines of ABBA. They wanted the chance to let rip, and I was lucky that Chess gave them that chance: male voices, an 80-piece orchestra, a huge choir.”

Now Chess is in U.S. record stores, competing for attention with Lloyd Webber’s latest composition, Requiem. In one Tower Records outlet in Manhattan, a captious music fan has written on the Requiem place mark: WATCH OUT, WEBBER – TIM RICE'S MIDDLE NAME IS SALIERI. Rice laughs off the barb; he disclaims any hostility toward his former colleague, even as he stifles persistent rumours of a reunion. “Andrew and I had eight or ten years together that were enormously successful and great fun. But now it’s been eight of ten years since we wrote our last show, Evita, and it would take time and care to start over again. Now Björn and Benny and I have built a terrific relationship. If I had an idea for a new show, I’d take it straight to them.”

The final push on Chess awaits only the choice of a director to visualise the production. “For two years,” Rice says, “our No.1 concern was to make a great record. It will be basically the director’s job to make it a great show.” Meanwhile Rice, who in his spare time helped compile The Guinness Book of 500 Number One Hits and loves nothing more than to discuss rock arcana, can take satisfaction in his biggest hit record. If its momentum carries the piece to hit status on Broadway and beyond, it may be years before Chess reaches endgame. Transcribed for ABBA World

Time · Monday, 18 March 1985 (Page 95)


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