The Story of 'The Story of Chess'

The Story of 'The Story of Chess'

The cast and crew of CHESS: The Musical in conversation with William Hartston, Technical Advisor on the original production and international chess master.

How did you come to be involved?

It was a mutual friend of mine, and Tim Rice, then a very close friend of Tim’s who was a PR man I’d met on various occasions, and he had heard that Tim had this idea that he said that he’d always wanted to, he’d toyed with the idea of doing a musical based on the Cold War. And his original idea was the main characters should be Khrushchev and Kennedy, but he said there was the big problem that the two never met. But then the 1972 World Chess Championship Bobby Fischer against Boris Spassky, on which this is really based. I was telling him about all of the sedition and evilness in the chess world, he loved it. Like Fischer, who was described at the time as the only American who could make the whole world love a Russian.

Is the world of chess really as scandalous as the show purports?

There was a lovely moment, when there had been one review of the show that was I think in the Observer, it was very negative, and it had said that the whole plot is implausible. And just after that, I travelled to a chess Olympics in Greece and the captain of the American women’s team had run off with the leading player of the Russian women’s team, which was practically what had happened in the musical!

I was writing for the Independent in those days and I’d written a piece which was the front page, basement piece the next day about this. This extraordinary thing saying that it was in complete parallel with Chess The Musical. And Tim was delighted by the peace and they took out an advert in which they juxtaposed my piece with the original review, with the word, ‘Implausible?’ above it.

Photo by Paul Ashley Photography

What makes Cambridge such a special place for Musical Theatre?

The musical talent in Cambridge is fantastic. It always has been, it’s great. Part of my job now is opera critic and it’s lovely looking at the sleeve notes and seeing in the programmes, how many people have been to Cambridge. It seems to be a factory for producing conductors.

You wrote the book [Chess: the making of a musical] as well

That’s very interesting. While it was going on, when I’d written the thing and the manuscript was with the publishers, I got a very icy letter from Trevor Nunn, saying that I was in this unique position of being both the biographer of the thing and a technical advisor. And as a result, I was in possession of a lot of information which would normally be closely guarded and he said, as a result, your account of the making of the musical has been rather unfair to some people among whom I would include myself. But I had a lovely tea and biscuits with him afterwards.

Photo by Paul Ashley Photography

What’s your favourite song from the show?

My favourite song is [Endgame]. Have you noticed that while I was writing the book? I found it very difficult to get to get a conversation with Benny and Björn and because they were so busy composing all the time. But there was one moment when, when Benny sat with me, for about 10 minutes and gave me a rapid tour of the music of the thing and I was hugely impressed especially when he was getting all the right notes in the right order but with a different rhythm. Changing the rhythm of ‘bit by bit the pieces fit’ in the introduction to ‘One night in Bangkok’ with a completely different rhythm but the same notes, it’s a nice thing.

CHESS: The Musical opens at the ADC Theatre on Tuesday 01 November. Don't miss out and get your tickets now from

CHESS: The Musical

Tuesday 01 to Saturday 05 November 2022, 19:45

Saturday 05 November 2022, 14:30