Tim Rice – 1980 Interview

The following interview with Tim Rice took place in 1980 when “Overtures” was just a printed magazine.  It is an insight to the time and environment that he was working in at that time.

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Introduction: Tim Rice, lyricist, record producer, personality, interviewer, singer, D.J. and one of the strongest forces in the Musical Theatre has written but three Shows – all of which, at the time of writing, are still in production either in London, New York or somewhere throughout the world.  What is it that makes these shows the most popular, maybe with the exception of Annie and A Chorus Line, that have been written in the last decade?  The following tells the story of a talented man with an ear for the music of today and one who acknowledges the Beatles as a musical influence in Mr. Rice’s own words.

I was never really interested in the Theatre until I met Andrew (Lloyd Webber); the only shows I remember seeing before I was twenty were Salad Days and My Fair Lady.  It wasn’t that I was anti the Theatre, it was just like caviar, something I couldn’t get into.  I wasn’t living in London and I spent what money I had on records and the cinema.  When I joined EMI I became an assistant to Norrie Paramor, the record producer, who at that time was producing hits with Cliff Richard, The Shadows and Frank Ifield.  I learnt a great deal by going along to Norrie’s recording sessions.  If anything, I wanted to be a pop singer but I was rather half-hearted about it.  I was keen but somehow I thought that I shouldn’t be doing that sort of thing.  But, in order to be a pop singer I had to make a demo tape and rather than sing other people’s songs and get unfavourably com­pared to the originals I wrote songs for myself. One of those songs was published and recorded by a group – it wasn’t a hit but I thought that I was getting better response from my songs than from my voice.  At this time I had my first thought of a book of hit singles – the publisher did not like the idea but asked me what else I did.  I told him that I was a song writer and he suggested that I meet Andrew, another unknown he knew.  Andrew and I met in March 1965, he was only sixteen or seventeen, and he sat down and played some musicals and tunes that he had written at school.  I knew then that this guy was a racing certainty to make it and I was quite staggered that he asked me to write lyrics with him. I thought for a long time that I was lucky to be in on the bandwagon, though funnily enough I think he may have taken longer to make it with anybody else.  I happened by sheer fluke to stumble across a style and ideas that helped his music.  Now he’s in the position that he can do what he likes; he’s got the name and the talent.

When we started to write together, Andrew was already interested in the theatre and he got me involved.  We were writing in a totally different field to anybody else, all our songwriter contemporaries were writing for records, for groups and trying to emulate the Beatles.  We were doing something rather weird; writing for the theatre is totally different than writing lyrics for a pop song.  Our first collaboration was the Dr. Barnardo story.  We worked on it but the problem with our Barnardo was that it really was an un­original piece.  It was a bit like Oliver! and we were copying, we didn’t have that many ideas of our own and although I had never seen Oliver! I had the impression that our show was almost a tribute to that great score.  We did not have an original style, and that is often the fault of musicals that don’t make it, they are trying to copy someone else’s style.  One or two of the tunes have re­appeared, some in Variations, Andrew’s Paganini album.(1)

Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat was written for a school, and in a sense it did not matter that much.  That is not to say we were not trying, we were, but we were just asked to write something for an end of term concert and Joseph seemed as good an idea as any. Norman Newell, who produced the new MFP recording of the score, asked me to play the Narrator on the record.  Actually I didn’t think I could sing it, but it was just in my range, though I had a bit of trouble with the really high notes – I’m not a great singer.  I’ve played Pharaoh before, on stage, but never the Narrator. (2)

I think that Jesus Christ Superstar was a good idea, though the trouble was that it got blown out of proportion to its importance.  It seems that with all our stuff people say it’s the greatest thing or the worst, of course the truth is somewhere in the middle.  I still feel that the establishment theatre do not really rate us.  For a start there is always something a bit anti musical and on top of that we have done it all the wrong way, we’ve had hits in the pop charts.  It’s a pity that cast albums do not sell, and it’s a pity that the theatre has distanced itself from what is going on.

I feel so often that the musical theatre is on its own, the theatre in one place and the radio in another.  Everything should be one.  The biggest kick I ever had was having a No.1 hit single.  That was great because it meant that I’d got this song over to virtually the whole country.  I buy every single that hits the charts in England.  I like country music which I find relaxing – I like all sorts.  Donna Sumner is a particular favourite of mine, she is contemporary and she knows what is going on.  In my opinion most musicals could have been written in the 1940s, which doesn’t mean that the tunes are bad, or that the idea is bad, they just haven’t absorbed what’s been going on lately.  I have a sneaky feeling that Stephen Sondheim does not really like the Beatles, that might be unfair, but Sweeney Todd could have been written in 1910.  That’s certainly not saying it’s bad.  Superstar and Evita are of their time, they acknowledge the electric bass guitar and we have been influenced by the Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley.  Probably this is one of the reasons why we have been successful.  The bulk of our market is our age group and they have been brought up with the same influences.  There is a great divide at about the age of 40, most people over that age will never understand Rock and Roll. (3)

I think that we were possibly wrong to call Evita an opera, purely because it gives the impression that we are trying to equate our­selves with Mozart and Puccini.  Technically it is an opera, though I really think of it as a musical, it’s just that we have dispensed with the book.  It is a contemporary piece that I do not think could have been written earlier than it was.

When we staged Evita in London we were so lucky.  For my point of view we got the perfect Evita and the perfect Che.  David Essex played Che to perfection; he played it how it was written in my mind.  He had the arrogance, he indicated that Eva was a big star, but he knew he was a bigger one.  Eva had to be attractive, she has to win you over, which does not mean that we have to approve of what she did.  The whole point of Eva Peron is that she is a very beguiling figure.  I admit that by just reading about her, I half fell in love; even though I knew she was a nasty piece of work and that the Peron regime was vile.  I found that I was making excuses for her and that was the effect I wanted Eva to have on stage.  There have been some changes made for the American production.  There was a two minute cut in the bedroom scene which did not matter as I think that scene was a little boring, it’s now over quicker.  But there was a change at the end that now I wish I had not agreed to because I do not like it, and unfortunately it has been put into the London production.  The very end used to have David Essex coming on saying , the choice is yours, you can either be very sad that a young person has died or be glad that she is no longer around to cast her evil spells – they may not be the exact words but the last line was ‘but I won’t tell you what to say’.  This made people feel uneasy, people like to come in and know what opinion they should form at the end and here was the leading bloke saying ‘I don’t care about Eva Peron, I don’t care one way or the other and I really don’t care what you think’.  Hal (Prince) got very nervous about it.  Now they come straight out and say what a nasty woman Eva was and this does not help the piece.  It is a dangerous subject in a way, of course I’m not condoning Peronism I’m just telling a story and you cannot tell the story without making Eva a real person.  The whole point of Che was not to come on and say what a rotten old bastard Eva Peron was, which is how it is now.

I was a bit surprised how bad the Broadway reviews were for Evita and to be honest I thought that was the end of the Show.  I had thought we would get one or two blasts.  We had pretty good notices in L.A. and very good ones in San Francisco with the same show and the same company.  We came to New York and they really had a go at us.  But they really did not review the piece, they reviewed Eva Peron and said what a nasty woman she was – and then blamed us.  Evita is now very much a success in America with both the New York and L.A. productions grossing $M per week.  The film is now a definite project and Robert Stigwood has been over here to work out a deal let’s hope they make a better job of it than they did for Superstar.  I would love Essex and Paige to do the film. (4)

I’m not really working on anything at the moment.  I’ve spent the last year being busy on a lot of very minor things like the Guinness Book and Radio and TV, which I enjoy very much but it is very much a side line.  Unlike Andrew, being a words man you can’t write random lyrics very easily.  You can’t just sit down and write one and hope that it will fit the next show, but you can with a tune.  I’ve got to have a really good idea to get me going and they are hard to find.  I need a story theme that people can identify with immediately. I have some possible ideas and I’m sure I’ll come up with a good one, but you’re never sure till you’ve got into them.  I was with the Eva Peron story for five or six months before I was convinced it would work and then I had to convince Andrew. (5)

Andrew has asked me if I’m interested in working on the Sunset Boulevard Musical, which by no means is a definite project, but I have my doubts about adapting something that is already very good and I really do not know a great deal about America and Hollywood.  It seems ground well trodden before.  I wrote about Argentina without knowing a great deal about the place, but then neither did anyone else. But since Evita I’ve had letters from Argentineans saying how accurate it is – I’ve never had one saying how wrong it all is, not from an Argentinean anyway, maybe from a left wing Labour MP.

I feel very strongly that the American Musical Theatre is in a very duff state, much worse than ours.  With the exception of directing and dancing, I think we’re way ahead over here and this includes performers.  The standard of people who auditioned for Evita in London was much higher than in America.  We have this latent inferiority complex.  People still think the only ones that can do musicals are Americans, this is silly and it’s not true!

 

Notes

  1. The Doctor Barnardo musical was called The Likes Of Us which was heard on the radio in a concert version recorded at the Mermaid Theatre in 2005 and a recording was issued of a live Sydmonton production (Really Useful 987834).
  2. The MFP (Music For Pleasure) studio cast LP was issued in 1979 reissued on CD EMI Compacts for Pleasure CC 242.
  3. As the interview was in 1980 so the ‘40’ should be read as ‘77’.
  4. The Stigwood film of Evita was not made.  Eventually it was filmed in 1996.
  5. The next Tim Rice show was Blondel in 1983 followed by Chess in 1984.