For this week’s song lyrics Sunday we are showing off music that was used in musicals or operas.
I have chosen to use the song one night in Bangkok from the musical chess.
This is one by favourite musicals, and I actually had the pleasure of seeing it for the first time in London last year with a great cast.
Chess is a musical with music by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of the pop group ABBA, lyrics by Ulvaeus and Tim Rice, and a book by Rice. The story involves a politically driven, Cold War–era chess tournament between two grandmasters, one American and the other Soviet Russian, and their fight over a woman who manages one and falls in love with the other. Although the protagonists were not intended to represent any real individuals, the character of the American grandmaster (named Freddie Trumper in the stage version) was loosely based on Bobby Fischer, while elements of the story may have been inspired by the chess careers of Russian grandmasters Viktor Korchnoi and Anatoly Karpov.
Chess allegorically reflected the Cold War tensions present in the 1980s. The musical has been referred to as a metaphor for the whole Cold War, with the insinuation being made that the Cold War is itself a manipulative game. Released and staged at the height of the strong anti-communist agenda that came to be known as the “Reagan Doctrine”, Chess addressed and satirized the hostility of the international political atmosphere of the 1980s.
As with other productions such as Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, a highly successful concept album was released prior to the first theatrical production in order to raise money. In the case of Chess, the concept album was released in the autumn of 1984 while the show opened in London’s West End in 1986 where it played for three years. A much-altered US version premiered on Broadway in 1988 with a book by Richard Nelson, but survived only for two months. Chess is frequently revised for new productions, many of which try to merge elements from both the British and American versions, but no major revival production of the musical had been attempted until a West End revival in 2018.
Chess placed seventh in a BBC Radio 2 listener poll of the UK’s “Number One Essential Musicals”.
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Lyricist Tim Rice had long wanted to create a musical about the Cold War. During the mid-1970s, he had discussed writing a musical about the Cuban Missile Crisis with his usual collaborator, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, but that idea never came to fruition. In the late 1970s, Rice got the idea to tell his Cold War story through the prism of the long-standing United States–Soviet chess rivalry; he had earlier been fascinated by the political machinations of the 1972 “Match of the Century” between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. However, when Rice wanted to start working on the new musical in early 1979, Lloyd Webber was already well underway with his own independent musical Cats. (Premiering two seasons later in the West End, Cats became one of the most successful musicals of all time and was also the first one to employ a huge engineering staff to supervise its many technical elements, a paradigm which would be adopted for Chess in numerous capacities during its development.)
Subsequently, American producer Richard Vos suggested to Rice to work with Andersson and Ulvaeus instead, knowing that they were looking to develop and produce projects outside of ABBA. An ardent fan of the group, Rice agreed. He later wrote that he felt no reservations because “there is a sense of theatre in the ABBA style”. With Vos also in attendance, Rice met with the two in Stockholm for the first time on 15 December 1981 in order to discuss the concept, and they quickly signed on to the project.
All through 1982 and ’83, the three men worked on the music and lyrics. Rice would describe the mood of particular songs he wanted, then Andersson and Ulvaeus would write and record the music and send the tapes to Rice, who would then write lyrics to fit the music, and send the resulting tapes back to Andersson and Ulvaeus and so on.
Some of the songs on the resulting album contained elements of music Andersson and Ulvaeus had previously written for ABBA. For example, the chorus of “I Know Him So Well” was based on the chorus of “I Am An A”, a song from their 1977 tour, while the chorus of “Anthem” used the chord structures from the guitar solo from their 1980 ABBA song “Our Last Summer”.
Ulvaeus would also provide dummy lyrics to emphasise the rhythmic patterns of the music, and since Rice found a number of these “embarrassingly good” as they were, incorporated a few in the final version. The most well known example is “One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble”. One song, which became “Heaven Help My Heart”, was recorded with an entire set of lyrics, sung by ABBA’s Agnetha Fältskog with the title “Every Good Man”, although none of the original lyrics from this song were used.
Partly to raise money in order to produce the show in the West End and partly to see how the material would fare with the public, it was decided to release the music as an album before any stage productions were undertaken, a strategy that had proven successful with Rice’s two previous musicals, Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita.
Owing in part to the different countries in which the lyricist and composers resided, recording on the album musical of Chess began in Stockholm in early November 1983, with Andersson recording the many layered keyboard parts himself along with other basi he c work at their usual Polar Studios, and choral and orchestral work then recorded in London by The Ambrosian Singers along with the London Symphony Orchestra. The album was then sound-engineered and mixed back at Polar by longtime ABBA sound engineer Michael B. Tretow.
The double LP, often referred to as a concept album or album musical, was released worldwide in the autumn of 1984. Liner notes included with the album featured a basic synopsis of the story in multiple languages along with song lyrics and numerous photos. The music on the album was described by The New York Times as “a sumptuously recorded… grandiose pastiche that touches half a dozen bases, from Gilbert and Sullivan to late Rodgers and Hammerstein, from Italian opera to trendy synthesizer-based pop, all of it lavishly arranged for the London Symphony Orchestra with splashy electronic embellishments”. The album featured Murray Head, Tommy Körberg, Elaine Paige, and noted actor Denis Quilley in the role of Molokov. A single from the album, “One Night in Bangkok”, with verses performed by Murray Head and choruses performed by Anders Glenmark, became a worldwide smash, reaching #3 on the US Billboard Hot 100. The duet “I Know Him So Well” by Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson held the #1 spot on the UK singles charts for four weeks, winning the Ivor Novello Award in the process as the Best Selling Single (‘A’ Side).
On 27 October 1984, a concert version of the album was premiered by the original cast in London’s Barbican Centre and then performed in Hamburg, Amsterdam, and Paris with final presentation on 1 November in Berwaldhallen in Stockholm.
In 1985, music videos were filmed for the songs “One Night in Bangkok”, “Nobody’s Side”, “The Arbiter”, the ballads “I Know Him So Well”, and “Pity the Child”, featuring the performers from the album, directed by David G Hillier and produced by Nick Maingay. These were released together in a VHS video entitled Chess Moves.
The original concept album received critical accolades, with Rolling Stone raving that the “dazzling score covers nearly all the pop bases”, Kurt Ganzl’s Blackwell Guide to the Musical Theatre on Record telling readers about the “thrilling exposition of an exciting piece of modern musical theater occurring before the event” and Time declaring that the “rock symphonic synthesis was ripe with sophistication and hummable tunes”.
The album became a Top 10 hit in the UK, West Germany and South Africa, reached #47 on the US Billboard 200, #39 in France, #35 in Australia, and for seven weeks remained at #1 on the Swedish album chart due in no small part to the composers’ Swedish heritage. The recording also received several prestigious awards, including the Goldene Europa from Germany, the Edison Award from the Netherlands, and the Rockbjörn from Sweden.
The American – Murray Head
The Russian – Tommy Körberg
Florence – Elaine Paige
Molokov – Denis Quilley
The Arbiter – Björn Skifs
Svetlana – Barbara Dickson
What the hell? Let’s throw in the other hit I know him so well because it is so good.
I hope you enjoy!