GREAT PERFORMANCES: CHESS IN CONCERT. 8 tonight, Channel 39; 10 tonight, Channel 12.

TIM RICE would be the first to acknowledge the long and, er, checkered history of his musical "Chess."

"It was a success in London, and then for Broadway I'm afraid we got it wrong. We changed it too much. But the music never went away," the celebrated lyricist ("Jesus Christ Superstar," "Evita," "The Lion King") told reporters in January at a PBS event to reintroduce the 25-year-old show to the U.S.

Recorded last year in London's Royal Albert Hall and presented tonight by PBS' "Great Performances," " 'Chess' in Concert" proves to be worth the wait, even if its Cold War backdrop seems far away.

"Chess," a collaboration between Rice and ABBA's Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, begins in 1979 in Merano, Italy, site of a chess tournament between American world champion Frederick Trumper (Adam Pascal) and Soviet challenger Anatoly Serviesky (Josh Groban), a setup Rice said was inspired by the 1972 meeting in Iceland of American Bobby Fischer and Russian Boris Spassky.

That face-off "is what really got me interested in the idea that the Cold War could be fought almost anywhere as a kind of surrogate fight in a sort of strange way, and that was the entire appeal," Rice said.

"And of course poor old [Garry] Kasparov just got himself into a lot of trouble in Russia with his outspoken views. So Russia perhaps isn't the wonderful place that it was meant to become as soon as the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain came down," he said.

Idina Menzel ("Wicked") is Florence Vassy, who's there with Trumper as both his "second" - in chess, a cross between coach and sparring partner - and his girlfriend, but who finds herself unexpectedly drawn to his rival, a situation that turns up the heat in "Chess."

Along, of course, with the music, which is so well known in the theater world, Rice said, that songs like "Anthem," "Someone Else's Story" and "I Know Him So Well" have become popular audition pieces.

"They all think, well, this show was a flop. I'll do this for my audition piece because nobody else will do it. Consequently, auditioning for 'Les Miz,' you've got nine people doing 'Anthem' on the trot," he said.

(The cast album was released on CD yesterday.)

"Chess," Rice noted, preceded ABBA's "Mamma Mia!"

"They didn't write the songs of 'Mamma Mia!' before 'Chess,' but the concept of the show 'Mamma Mia!' came out of 'Chess' because the girl who was my [assistant] at the time, Judy Craymer, that's how she met Bjorn and Benny," he said. "She was working on 'Chess' in London, and she got to know them. And after the 'Chess' production was over, she stayed in touch with them and came up with this wonderful idea of putting together all their old songs in a brand-new show."

The connection ultimately helped "Chess," he said, "because people who suddenly realize that [Andersson and Ulvaeus'] pop songs were actually a lot better than just being pop songs have now gone back and thought, well, hang on. What else have these guys done?"

As for "Chess," "I had this idea for a musical about chess and love and life and everything, you know, the complete meaning of everything. And I thought maybe these guys would be the people to do it, because Andrew [Lloyd Webber] was off doing 'Phantom' or something," Rice said.

"I went over on a very cold day in 1981 and met Bjorn and Benny. I'd never met them before. Because I was genuinely a fan, we got on very well, and I think they'd heard of me. And I suggested the idea and, quite quickly, they said, yes, we'd like to have a go at that . . . and then shortly after that, ABBA broke up, so maybe that's my fault. And I do apologize to ABBA fans if they wanted the group to continue," he said.

More than simply a concert but less elaborately staged than most musicals, this latest game of "Chess" is a splendid showcase for its stars - Groban fans are probably already swooning - the music and even its secondary players. (Clarke Peters, ubiquitous since the end of "The Wire," pops up here in a pivotal role.)

Rice doesn't seem to miss the original, much less the Broadway version.

"I kept saying to people, it is an opera; it should not have a book; we don't want the chat," he said.

"It's just - it's there. It's there emotionally in the music. And after about 20 years of very strange versions floating around America in particular . . . about two years ago, I said I really want to do a concert of 'Chess' and get the best possible singers and just do it as if it's an opera, and that was what we did." *

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