The Shubert Organization announced yesterday that it plans to present the American premiere of "Chess," a widely anticipated musical by British playwright and librettist Tim Rice, at the National Theatre during the 1986-87 season.
Already a bestselling RCA record album, "Chess" will be staged first in London at the Prince Edward Theatre in April 1986, according to Bernard Jacobs, president of the Shubert Organization. The American production, all but certain to be a major theatrical event, will follow at the National in December. It will probably have a 12-week engagement here, before going on to Broadway.
"Chess" recounts the battle between an American and a Russian for a world chess title and for the woman they both love. On a broader level, it is about the political intrigue between the United States and the Soviet Union. "Because it deals so thoroughly with international politics, the CIA, the KGB and the rivalry between the two superpowers, it is only fitting that it should open in Washington," Jacobs said yesterday. Since 1980, the New York-based Shubert Organization has managed and operated the National Theatre for the nonprofit National Theatre Corporation.
The music for "Chess" is composed by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, the founder and cofounder of the Swedish pop group ABBA. Michael Bennett, the Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning director, will stage both British and American productions, which will have scenery by Robin Wagner, costumes by Theoni V. Aldredge and lighting by Tharon Musser. This is the same creative team that worked with Bennett on "A Chorus Line," "Ballroom" and "Dreamgirls." Jacobs said that the American production is likely to cost "in the neighborhood of $5 million," nearly twice the price tag he anticipates for the British production.
"Chess" follows a path taken by "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Evita," the long-running musicals Rice composed with Andrew Lloyd Webber, which also started out as albums before being turned into stage musicals. Two of the "Chess" songs -- "One Night in Bangkok" and "I Know Him So Well" -- have enjoyed considerable success worldwide as singles, and both songs have spawned videos, which helps to provide "Chess" with a predisposed audience.
Calling the National Theatre "the most important theater in the United States outside of New York City," Jacobs said that a Washington premiere would give the show the kind of international launching it deserves. "We want to create all the excitement we can. I would assume representatives of every important government would be present at the opening."
"It's going to be very complex and we don't want to open it cold in New York," Jacobs added. "But the show will be established in London, then re-created for America. So I wouldn't call the Washington engagement a tryout. It's a presentation."