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Spend the Night in Bangkok: “Chess” Reissued for 30th Anniversary

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ChessTim Rice had been thinking about writing a musical about the Cold War for some time in the late 1970s.  Fascinated by the Soviet-U.S. chess rivalry of the time, the lyricist-librettist approached his longtime collaborator Andrew Lloyd Webber with the idea.  Lloyd Webber, however, was not available, as he was too busy developing a little show known as Cats.  A suggestion from a producer put Rice in touch with songwriters Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus of ABBA.   Looking to pursue some projects outside of the group, Andersson and Ulvaeus met with Rice in 1981 and signed onto the project.  Over the course of the next couple of years, the group worked on the musical with Rice writing lyrics (with some contributions from Ulvaeus) and Andersson and Ulvaeus writing the music.  In order to raise money, it was decided to release a concept album first, a strategy that had worked for Rice previously with Jesus Christ Superstar and EvitaChess was released in 1984, and now to celebrate its 30th anniversary, Universal U.K. is releasing Chess: The Original Recording – Remastered Deluxe Edition, a 2-CD/ 1-DVD set.

Chess tells the fictional Cold War-era story of Soviet chess grandmaster Anatoly and his American opponent Freddie.   While competing against each other, Anatoly becomes romantically involved with Freddie’s second and presumed lover, Florence.   This leads him to defect to the United States setting off political machinations and romantic entanglements (including Anatoly’s Soviet wife Svetlana) which come to a head around the concluding chess match.  Standout songs from the score include “Nobody’s Side,” “Anthem,” “Heaven Help My Heart,” “Pity the Child,” “I Know Him So Well” and “One Night in Bangkok.”

The original concept album was released in the fall of 1984.  Murray Head played Freddie and Tommy Korberg portrayed Anatoly (although they were just referred to as “The American” and “The Russian” on the album).  Florence was played by Elaine Page and Svetlana by Barbara Dickson.   The LP release featured lyrics and a basic description of the plot.  It received favorable critical notices and reached No. 47 on the Billboard 200 in US but fared even better in the U.K., climbing into the Top 10.  A couple of singles were released including “One Night in Bangkok” sung by Murray Head.  It peaked at No. 12 in the U.K. but impressively hit No. 3 on the U.S. Hot 100.  Having greater success in the U.K. was the duet between Paige and Dickson, “I Know Him So Well.”  The soaring power ballad topped the British chart for four weeks and remains the best-selling single by a female duo ever in the country.   The song was later covered by artists like Whitney Houston with mom Cissy, and a solo Barbra Streisand.

With the album’s success, Chess was brought to London’s West End and premiered in May of 1986.  The plot was expanded and several new songs and characters were added from the original album.  Michael Bennett, the theatrical genius behind such shows as A Chorus Line and Dreamgirls, was brought on to direct.  Unfortunately, he became ill while working on the show and had to pull out before tragically dying from an AIDS-related illness in 1987 at the age of 44.  Trevor Nunn, who had directed the massive musical hits Cats and Les Miserables, came onboard as Bennett’s replacement.  Nunn married his more realistic style to some conceptual elements which had already been planned for the Bennett version.  Head, Paige and Korberg all reprised their roles from the concept album but Dickson was unavailable and was replaced by Siobhan McCarthy.  The musical opened to generally mixed to favorable reviews and ran for three years.  It did not have a new original cast album recorded.

There’s more on the history of Chess, plus details on this new deluxe reissue, after the jump! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

December 3, 2014 at 11:03