“He’s been an enormous fan of ‘Chess,’ ” says Jeffrey Finn, the Kennedy Center’s vice president of theater producing and programming. Finn says Strong has been talking about the show for some time with lyricist Tim Rice, who came up with the original “Chess” idea in the 1980s.
Michael Mayer, of Broadway’s “American Idiot” and “Spring Awakening,” will direct. The cast includes Raul Esparza as arrogant American chess master Freddie Trumper, Ramin Karimloo as the Russian Anatoly, Karen Olivo as Freddie’s Hungarian-born lover Florence and Ruthie Ann Miles as Anatoly’s estranged wife, Svetlana. Broadway veterans Bryce Pinkham, Sean Allan Krill and Bradley Dean are also featured.
The concert will mark the debut of Finn’s Broadway Center Stage concerts at the Kennedy Center. The spring series, patterned after City Center’s popular “Encores” series, also will include “In the Heights” and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”
“Chess” debuted in 1984 as a concept album with music by ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus and lyrics by Rice. The song “One Night in Bangkok” became a pop hit for Murray Head, who was in the cast as the show made its 1986 London debut. “Chess” ran three years as a sung-through show in London, where Finn first saw it. The musical managed only 68 Broadway performances with a book by playwright Richard Nelson in 1988.
Over the years, “Chess” has been produced with lots of variations, including a streamlined version of the Nelson book at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., in 2010 that revealed “a soul-satisfying melodic energy,” Post critic Peter Marks wrote. “This freshly renovated version of the musical, gutted of much of its satirical focus on the game of chess itself, now plays more like an old-fashioned love story, set against the backdrop of a tense chess competition in the midst of the Cold War . . . Yet it would be a stretch to declare that ‘Chess’ is now a great musical. It’s merely a great listen.”
Finn, a longtime New York producer whose credits include a tour of “Chess,” says: “It has such great potential. It’s great that it has such a remaining level of fan interest. It’s such a unique score, and I do believe this new book is going to be something special.”
Underscoring how there always seem to be “Chess” projects afoot, the English National Opera is reviving it at the London Coliseum April 26-June 2, and earlier this year Rice said he would like “Chess” to be on Broadway in 2018. “My agenda is strictly for the Kennedy Center,” Finn says. “I’m very excited to see what this new version is with our audience.”