“Chess,” the rock musical about a Cold War tournament of the board game, seemed like a sure thing ahead of its Broadway debut in 1988: The initial concept album — with music written by half of ABBA — had been a critical and commercial success in Europe, and delivered a bona fide American radio smash in “One Night in Bangkok.” Meanwhile, the original show was in the middle of what would be a nearly three-year run in London’s West End. But the Broadway version — heavily retooled from the original — was largely panned, closed after just two months and was nominated for only two Tony Awards.
Now, the story is getting another shot. A new version of “Chess,” directed by Michael Mayer (Broadway’s “Spring Awakening”) with a new book by Danny Strong (who co-created Fox’s “Empire” and wrote HBO’s “Game Change”), debuts at the Kennedy Center next week in a semi-staged concert version. Raul Esparza and Ramin Karimloo star as the rival players inspired by Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky.
The mastermind of the original show is lyricist Tim Rice, 73, who created “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Evita” with Andrew Lloyd Webber and wrote the songs for Disney’s animated film “The Lion King” with Elton John. We checked in with Rice via email to discuss his latest big move, which he hopes leads “Chess” back to Broadway.
This is one of two major revivals of “Chess” this year; the other is in London’s West End. Is it the current political climate that invites its comeback?
Nothing to do with political climate, as far as I’m concerned. It’s a period piece set in the late ’70s, early ’80s. People can draw modern parallels if they like, I suppose. Fans seem very pleased that it’s coming back in a major way. It was the enthusiasm of Danny Strong, [producer] Tom Hulce and Michael Mayer that got it back on the rails.
What was the origin of the piece?
I was intrigued by the Fischer/Spassky [world championship match] in 1972 and the way it was taken over by Cold War manipulators. Also interesting were the domestic and personal aspects of the players. I play chess badly but chess wasn’t an inspiration. Politics and passion were.
How does recording an entire work as a concept album first, as you did with “Chess,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Evita,” help or hurt the resulting stage production?
It depends if it’s any good, which the original “Chess” album was. It gives the writers a chance to create the score (words and music) without distractions of the complexities of theatrical production — which certainly come later.
Do you think “Chess” has been given its best shot on Broadway?
Obviously not its best shot. The original Broadway show was not good — although not as bad as that bloke on The New York Times [critic Frank Rich] stated. It’s only had one run, and after zilch at the Tonys, the plug got pulled.
Do you think “Chess” will ever become a film, as many as your works have?
I hope “Chess” will hit the big screen. It seems a natural to me. Good venues, tunes and politics.
It opens here on Valentine’s Day. Is it more of a love story than we give it credit for?
I didn’t notice the date. It is a love story though. Lotsa good love songs.
Kennedy Center, 2700 F St NW; Wed. through Feb. 18, sold out.
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