Sir Tim Rice Reveals Secrets from His Lifelong Career in Musical TheatreBlank Mobile Sir Tim Rice Reveals Secrets from His Lifelong Career in Musical TheatreBlank
Sir Tim Rice Reveals Secrets from His Lifelong Career in Musical Theatre

Sir Tim Rice Reveals Secrets from His Lifelong Career in Musical Theatre

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James Rampton chats to Sir Tim Rice about his life, career and forthcoming UK theatre tour My Life In Musicals – I Know Him So Well.

Q: What great news that you are touring the country with your terrific new show, My Life In Musicals – I Know Him So Well. What made you want to go on the road?

A: I've done quite a few shows like this, mainly for charities. And then I was offered a fairly regular gig on a cruise liner, and I really enjoyed doing that. The show would be me chatting, introducing the songs, most of which I’m very happy to say are quite well known, and telling what are, I hope, amusing entertaining stories about how each song happened. I had a live band and two female singers and two male singers who between them would bash out the vocals. It was tremendous fun.

Q: What happened next?

A: We did a trial run of four dates in England in February last year, and they went pretty well. So, the producers recklessly said, “We'd like to put together a longer tour,” which is what's happening in April. I’m really looking forward to it!

Q: Do you get nervous before going on stage?

A: If I'm honest, I don't really get nervous. Obviously, if something begins to go slightly wrong, which hasn't really happened, then you suddenly start panicking. But it's not as if I have to remember any lines. It's meant to be a sort of fireside chat with songs that most people will know. If you're straightforward and not trying to be too clever, and you've got great singers and a great band, which I have, then it works.

Q: Are there any occasions where you get nervous?

A: The only time I got quite nervous was last February when I was worried about falling over because I had just had a new hip put in. The doctors had said, “Don’t do anything for six weeks,” and I was doing the shows just under four weeks after the operation. Some of the theatres on that brief tour were on a rake, so I had to be careful there. I found this quite smart stick - I was able to brandish it at times. I even did some conducting with it. As I wielded my stick like a conductor, I'd say, “Right, lads, let's go with this one.”

Q: I understand that you sing during My Life in Musicals – I Know Him So Well

A: That’s right. I sing when I talk about I Don't Know How to Love Him, which is a romantic song from Jesus Christ Superstar. Its original title was Kansas Morning. The tune existed way before the show. Andrew and I wrote it hoping to get a hit record with it. Music publishers quite liked the song, and they said, “We'll send this out to various artists,” but it never got recorded. And the reason it never got recorded, I now realise, is that the words were not really good. They were a bit stupid. But the tune was fantastic. It's quite encouraging - and I talk about this in the show.

Q: Tell us more

A: So, I perform this song Kansas Morning, which is the same tune as I Don't Know How to Love Him, just to give an example of a really bad lyric I've written. I make the point that a bad lyric can kill a good tune. But if you have a good lyric and a good tune, then both can shine. Equally, if you have a great lyric and a tunesmith doesn't come up with a great tune, that could also kill the song. But the key thing is that both halves have got to be good. For example, The Beatles’ song Yesterday was originally called Scrambled Eggs. That would not have been very commercial!

Q: Do you enjoy interacting with your fans at the shows?

A: Yes. It’s really nice to meet people. I wouldn't say I’m like the Rolling Stones would be after a show! But you always get a very nice group of people coming round backstage. They always seem to dig up photographs and record sleeves either that I've never seen, or that are from early 1970s. Some of it is really interesting. At the shows we did in February, we got everyone standing at the end and singing along to Any Dream Will Do. It’s lovely that stuff I wrote half a century ago is still hitting home.

Q: Is it a very gratifying experience to hear an entire audience singing along to your songs?

A: I'm glad they know the words as that's the only bit I've done! Although funnily enough, almost the most popular bit of Any Dream Will Do is when everybody goes, “Ah, ah, ah, ah” - that's the one bit I didn't write! But yes, it's a very nice feeling. I tend to think I'm very lucky. I've had very good tunes, but also most of the stuff that's gone well has come from a very good initial idea, which in turn usually means a great story. And if you have a great story, like Jesus or Joseph or Eva Peron or Hamlet for The Lion King, it inspires you to write something better than if you were just writing a random, out-of-context song. I'm not very good at that because I keep thinking, “Why am I doing this, other than in the hope of getting a hit, which is not really the best reason to write something?” I like to have a character in a certain situation.

Q: Can you give us an example?

A: A song that's become very popular is Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina. If I'd sat down to write a lyric for that wonderful tune and the idea of Eva Peron had never existed, for a start I would not have come up with Don't Cry for Me, Argentina, which is an interesting title. Also, I would not have come up with a song which is really a kind of political statement doubling as a love song. It’s a very dishonest, cynical speech. One critic at the time said, “Well, that song is just a string of cliches.” And I thought, “That’s exactly what it's meant to be”. It was written not as a pop song, but as an insincere political speech. It was an interesting song for me in that it's a combination of rather corny emotions – “Please love me” – and manipulation of the audience at the same time. And I would never have come up with that without a story to start with.

Q: When you’re working on a musical, is the story always paramount, then?

A: Yes. When we were creating Evita, for example, both the composer and the lyricist had to say, “Right, in this scene Evita is trying to seduce Peron. Therefore, we don't want an oom-pah-pah song. We want a sinuous tune.” I think Evita is Andrew’s best score, and time and again he would come up with a melody and ideas for orchestration which would suit the storyline at that point. So, story is always king.

Q: Is that the secret to writing successful musicals?

A: Yes. I think with any great musical, you've got to have a great story. That’s the key. Look at Oliver! It's such a great story, and Lionel Bart wrote wonderful songs. He wrote the words and the music - quite an achievement! All the great musicals - My Fair Lady, West Side Story - have terrific stories. Even Mamma Mia which, of course, has such wonderful songs, has a very good story. It's tongue-in-cheek, but it really works. You set out your stall of what the story is and what the characters are going to grapple with at the beginning. If you can get that settled in the first five or 10 minutes of the show, then it absolutely works.

Q: You have still had some success with pop songs, haven’t you?

A: Yes. I've written quite a few individual songs and some of them, even if I say so myself, are nice songs. The best ones have something to hang the song on, like The Winter's Tale, which I wrote with Mike Batt for Christmas. In that case, you're writing a song about Christmas, so wasn't just, “I love you, darling” or “I miss you.” It was rather a sad song with a Christmas setting. It got a lot of airplay and was a very big hit for David Essex, who interpreted it brilliantly.

Q: Can you put into words what it is like working with a great composer like Sir Elton John?

A: It’s amazing because I gave him the lyrics and he composed the music from them on the spot. Sometimes when I have written a lyric without a tune, I have got to be very careful not to get too long-winded. But if you've got a tune ready, it keeps you precise. You've got to say something in nine syllables, and it's nearly always better to say something in nine syllables, rather than in nine words, or nine sentences. But Elton just took the lyrics, and it worked. On Circle of Life, he made it even better. He just got it immediately. He instantly understood that the lyrics needed a fairly dramatic musical interpretation.

Q: Did he request any additions to your original lyrics?

A: Yes. He did ask at one point for an extra line. He was building up this wonderful crescendo, which eventually ends up in, “Circle, circle of life.” I wasn’t normally present when he wrote the tune, but on this occasion, he said, “Come along to the studio.” Had I not been there, I don't think the song would have been quite as good. So, when Elton asked for one more bar to get to the climax in the best way possible, off the top of my head, I suggested, “On the path unwinding”, which is a nice phrase and probably a subconscious lift from The Beatles’ Long and Winding Road. But it worked so well. It was extraordinary. It was perhaps a stroke of luck, but it completed the song perfectly.

Q: Is it quite a moving experience for you to see your wonderful words taken into another dimension by the music?

A: Yes, it's very exciting. When you finish a lyric at home at 2am, you don't know if the words are wonderful or just trite or wrong or unoriginal. You don't really know because you've had no other opinion. But if a great composer like Elton approves of them, wants to work with them and comes up with a great melody - be it a light-hearted thing like I Just Can’t Wait to Be King or something more serious like – you think, “Well, it must have something because Elton is brilliant at what he does, and he's been around quite a long time.” So that's really the clue.

Q: Of all of the marvellous songs you’ve written, do you have a favourite?

A: That’s very difficult. It is like being asked who your favourite child is! It sounds very arrogant to say so, but there are quite a lot I like. I would not say any one of them is the best, though. I like High Flying, Adored from Evita, and Heaven on Their Minds from Jesus Christ Superstar works well, too. Anthem from Chess is good as well. That song was sung in English at the Nobel Prize annual dinner in Stockholm some years ago. It was great to see it sung by a very large choir and orchestra in front of all those Nobel people. Nobody invited us to the show, mind!

Q: Do you have a favourite song by someone else, perhaps that you wish you'd written yourself?

A: Oh, there are lots, but The Boxer by Simon and Garfunkel is pretty high on my list. I love a lot of rock and roll songs like Summertime Blues. I think Gee, Officer Krupke from West Side Story is brilliant, and most of My Fair Lady is wonderful, too. Great artists like Elton have so many fabulous tunes. My favourite Elton song is Sacrifice. I love that.

Q: What did you do before you became a writer?

A: I did a couple of summers working at a petrol station. At the end of one stretch, the forecourt manager asked if I would fancy becoming a car salesman because he thought I had some potential. But I thought, “No, I don't think this is the career for me. I don’t think I’m ever going to have a life in cars.”

Q: How did you first meet Andrew Lloyd Webber?

A: I'd had one pop song recorded by a group called The Nightshift - Jeff Beck was in their lineup for a while. I wrote the music as well as the lyrics. But the song was not a hit. So, I was looking at other opportunities. Then this publisher I knew said he was working with a young man who was very talented and wanted to write for the theatre and maybe I would be interested in working with him. And so, I went round to see Andrew, and that was it really. We immediately hit it off. It was pretty clear to me that he was really rather good. I didn't know much about theatre, which was perhaps a plus because I wasn't completely tied down by a feeling that I had to do a show in a certain way. I didn't know enough about it. But I think the combination of my ignorance and his expertise in the area worked quite well. I'd always wanted to write. I enjoyed writing songs and poems and things. Mainly I was just an amateur, though. But Andrew already had a show in mind. The idea didn't work out in the end, but it was enough to show us that we could work together. We were very lucky. We found each other, and it just worked. You can't really audition for it. All you can do is actually write a show.

Q: What is your most treasured possession?

A: It’s probably my collection of Wisden cricketers’ almanacs. I've got a complete set, which I'm quite pleased with. I bought them for 750 quid quite a long time ago, and they've turned out to be very good investment, although I'd never dream of selling them.

Q: You have an abiding passion for cricket. What is it that you love about the game?

A: A lot of theatre people love it. It is quite theatrical. It usually features one or two stars, who change throughout the game. The batsman is the star for a while, and then it’s the bowler’s turn. Sometimes a big player will leap unexpectedly into the action. But it's a bit like a play where you have one or two leads, and everybody else is involved, but you're not quite sure how the new player will feature.

Q: What other aspects of the game do you relish?

A: I love the fact that after five days it can end in a draw – Americans in particular can’t understand that. A Test match is like a soap opera happening for real in the background. Sometimes you go to the ground to watch it. Sometimes it's on the radio or telly in the background. It doesn't matter if it's 25 minutes of not much happening or even two hours of not much happening because that's what life is about. It's nothing happening and then suddenly, it’s, “Wow, what was that?”

Q: What else is appealing about a draw in cricket?

A: When most of us are on our deathbeds, we probably wouldn't think, “My life has been a fantastic triumph from start to finish.” Nor would most of us think, “My life has been an absolute disaster, everything’s gone wrong.” Most people at the end of their life would think, “Well, I had a few ups and downs, but I’ve come out even-Stevens, a draw.” Cricket is the only game where after a long period of play, you end up with a draw as the result – and I always maintain a draw is a result. In so many really exciting games of cricket, the batsman is holding out the end, even though his or her team is on paper coming a distant second. But after all that, it's a draw, and that’s great. By contrast, if Arsenal are playing some totally unknown team, and they're eight-nil up with three minutes to go, you know who's going to win. It won't be a draw! Cricket is unique in that.

Q: What other hobbies do you have?

A: I read a lot. I swim a bit. I enjoy watching Pointless, but I don’t stay in every day to watch it. Funnily enough, I've just recorded five Countdown programmes, which go out in February. They say, “Welcome to our Valentine's Day programme,” and you think, “Hang on, it's only December!”

Q: What are you working on now?

A: We had a show some time ago in the West End called From Here to Eternity. We got quite good reviews, but it only ran for six months. But an American director did it a couple of times in upstate New York, just because he loved it, and it went rather well. So, we have done a little bit of rewriting on it, and it's opening in Milwaukee in February. So that'll show if it has any potential in America. If it works, great. Also, Michael Eisner, my old friend from Disney, and I are trying to produce a series on King William IV, who is an unknown king who has not been covered before.

Q: What do you think you would have done if you hadn't been such a wonderful and successful lyricist?

A: I probably would have ended up as a record company executive. But by now, I would be out of a job because records don't really exist anymore!

Q: Is there one phrase you would use to sum up your career?

A: An accident!

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