Nearly five years after it was written, "Chess" has found its way to Broadway.
The musical has survived the illness and death of its first director, Michael Bennett; technical and set problems that nearly capsized the London opening, and a confusing flurry of on-again, off-again announcements about its New York production which fed speculation that "Chess" had been checkmated for good."It has been slow, but I don't think that really matters," says Tim Rice, the man who wrote the lyrics and co-authored the new book for the $6 million musical, which mixes a love triangle with a U.S.-Soviet chess match.
"It's very important to get things right. This time, it's just a regular ordinary panic," Rice laughs. "But every show goes through that."
The other day, before the first Broadway preview, the genial, 43-year-old Englishman was sipping coffee in a Madison Avenue hotel, happy that the postponements are in the past.
"The only reason `Chess' has been delayed, in all honesty, was because of the tragedy of Michael Bennett," he says. "When Michael got ill, we lost our director with 12 weeks to go before the London opening. We had this enormous set and show and no one quite knowing what to do with it."
Trevor Nunn, the man behind "Cats," "Les Miserables" and "Starlight Express," stepped in to supervise the West End production. He was up against an expensive and recalcitrant computerized set involving scores of television monitors.
The tinkering by technicians was frantic but everything was finally made to work. The show, which opened in May 1986, became a sizable hit and is still running.
"Trevor had saved us, but he then was totally booked up for the best part of two years," Rice says. "We thought it was best to wait for him for Broadway."
While the show waited, Rice and others refined the show. Several new songs were added to the score, which has music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, two members of the rock group ABBA. Playwright Richard Nelson came aboard to help redo the book. More spoken dialogue was added.
"`Chess' is not based on anything else," Rice says. "It's not an adaptation of a classic or a piece that has no story whatsoever. It's not meant to be just a spectacle. It's meant to be a story."
The expensive London set designed by Robin Wagner was jettisoned for New York. The English production on Broadway would have cost $12 million and required a two-year run just to pay back its investment. But there were other reasons that Wagner reworked his design.
"I think we got carried away in London with the set, which was fantastic, but which took away from the plot," Rice says. "It made a lot of the situations seem unreal. You'd see songs that were being sung in some futurist bathroom, and what we were just trying to do was tell a story about real people."
"Chess" is Rice's first Broadway musical without Andrew Lloyd Webber, his partner in three consecutive Broadway successes "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Evita" and "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."
Rice commuted to Sweden during much of 1983 to work with Andersson and Ulvaeus on the score. Recording sessions began in Stockholm and London late that year with a cast Elaine Paige, Tommy Korberg and Murray Head that would eventually appear in the London stage version.
Releasing the show on record was a tactic Rice and Lloyd Webber had used to great success with "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Evita." It allows songs from the show to find a public.
When "Chess" was released as a two-record set in late 1984, several numbers proved popular, particularly "One Night in Bangkok."
"In America, they played it as a disco record and it was a massive hit," Rice says. "I doubt whether many people who bought the record understood it came from a show."
Another song, "I Know Him So Well" was a No. 1 seller in England and the rest of Europe, but fared less well in the United States, Rice says, because American radio stations just wouldn't play it.
Helping put "Chess" on stage has only been a small part of Rice's current activities. He runs a cricket team, writes books on the sport as well as on pop music, supervises a publishing company and occasionally performs as a singer and actor.
Rice has a book about cricket and art paintings about cricket coming out in the fall. He's an enthusiastic booster of the game, which mystifies most Americans.
"American football is instant and very easy to understand once it's explained," he says. "Cricket (one game) can take five days and even then you may not have any results. To be honest, it's more like chess than any other game.
"The great thing about cricket is the social side of it," he adds. "Long tea intervals, sandwiches and sitting on the lawn in deck chairs."
Rice also has a passion for pop music, a sound he heard first as a child in Tokyo.