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'Chess' Moves on Public Television

LOS ANGELES – Tim Rice has been playing the "Chess" game for more than 25 years, and the lyricist will go another round as PBS "Great Performances" serves up "Chess in Concert."

"I think, at last, we're getting it right," Rice told the 5,000 audience members who packed London's Royal Albert Hall to see pop singer Josh Groban and Broadway stars Idina Menzel ("Wicked") and Adam Pascal ("Rent") head up a concert production of the musical in May 2008, which was recorded for the PBS presentation on Wednesday (check local listings).

At the start, Rice ("Jesus Christ Superstar," "Evita") and co-composers Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson (the songwriting half of ABBA) appeared to be making all the right moves.

"Chess" was inspired by the 1972 chess match between American Bobby Fischer and Russian Boris Spassky.

Rice said he didn't have any great fascination with the game itself but was intrigued that "each side had the wrong guy.

"The Americans, who from our point of view in the West, who were meant to be the good guys, had a real bum in Fisher," he said. "And the Russians, who were meant to be the bad guys, from the West's point of view, had a really nice guy in Spassky."

Rice imagined the two players as fictional characters in a love triangle that served as an allegory for East-West tensions. He wrote the book and then teamed with Ulvaeus and Andersson, who were seeking a diversion from ABBA (to which they ultimately never returned).

A "Chess" concept recording was released in 1984, delivering the American pop-chart smash "One Night in Bangkok," as well as a British chart topper, the duet "I Know Him So Well."

Menzel recalled that, as a young theater fan, hearing "Bangkok" on the radio was heartening. "It's so rare that you ever have a single from a musical," she said.

A West End production was unveiled in 1986 to mixed reviews, but propelled in part by ABBA-mania and the hit singles, ran for three years. A much-altered version of the show, complete with a hefty new book, opened on Broadway two years later, was widely panned and closed in just eight weeks.

"I was very depressed by it," Rice said. "But there was something about the music of 'Chess' that made me think, sometime later, 'I've got to pick myself up,' as the song says, 'and start all over again.'"

"Chess" took on its own life, with dozens of productions around the globe — many cobbling together elements of the West End and Broadway versions and often adding their own new spins. Among them was a 2003 Actors Fund of America benefit concert for which Groban was approached to star.

"I thought to myself, 'Well, if I haven't heard it at this point, it probably isn't that good,'" Groban said. "And when I put it in the CD player, I remember specifically, I was sitting in traffic and I remember sitting there with my mouth wide open, chilled — thinking to myself, 'How have I not heard this brilliant music?'"

The Actors Fund production got Rice to thinking that an official version of "Chess" should be declared and documented, and "Chess in Concert" was born. But it's not likely the endgame for the musical.

"I hope not," the 64-year-old Rice said. "I think, and I hope, that it will come back to Broadway and/or the West End as a show, but I very much want it to be based on the score that this concert is.

"But it takes time," he said, with a smile. "These things take time."

Copyright 2009 Associated Press.  All rights reserved.  This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. 

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