Thursday 9 February 2023

Sir Tim Rice In Conversation

Sir Tim, with (l-r) his Emmy, an Oscar a Tony and a Grammy 

For this week only Sir Tim Rice is hitting the road, accompanied by 8 singers and musicians, touring England from Northampton to Newcastle on a trial of his show that offers an intimate glimpse into the style and process of his writing - An Evening With Sir Tim Rice - Circle of Words.

Having seen the first show of this mini tour I then caught up with Sir Tim at home the next day where I found him reflecting on how the gig had gone the night before and very happy to talk about aspects of his career and also, revealingly, his comments on the state of lyric writing in general today.

At first sight, one of the most surprising things about this brief tour (or as Rice with his hallmark, sardonic, self-deprecation calls it, his “World Tour”) is that it is happening at all. The man is only four weeks out of having had a hip replaced, and as he amiably strolled onto the stage at Northampton’s Royal and Derngate Theatre there was only the slightest trace of a limp, his walking stick wielded much like a cricket bat! Rice adds that in a funny way he thinks the stick almost added to the gig, feeling that he could have just about done it without it but would have been permanently panicking that he was going to fall!

Rice’s delivery through the evening, speaking between the songs, was as one might expect from his various media appearances fluid, witty and perceptive. His words were also found to be kind and compassionate, showing himself to be one of the most modest mega-stars in musical theatre today.  The man is unassuming and understated, but with an eye and an ear that picks out the details that go on around him, details which so often have found their way into an acerbically written lyric or two.

Rice, with his musical director Duncan Waugh, has done gigs like this before, often occasional events and frequently put on for charity. This however is the first occasion that he’s packaging himself up commercially with, by all accounts, the box office reports for the remaining performances being extremely encouraging. Hardly surprising when one considers what the evening’s programme will have in store.  

Sir Tim has chosen the set list himself. Waugh however, with whom he has worked for a long time and knows his music well, has worked closely with him proving a great assistance in compiling the songs and in setting out their order. The evening touches upon all of his performed work from the great Lloyd Webber and Disney collaborations through to Chess, From Here To Eternity and even an extract from Aida, another co-creation with Elton John that has yet to reach London, notwithstanding its cracking run on Broadway – Rice teasingly hints though that Aida is on its way to the West End possibly later in 2023, almost certainly in 2024.

Rice’s stage show not only includes his musical theatre creations, but also given an airing are David Essex’s signature hit, A Winter’s Tale and, incredibly, the last song recorded by Elvis Presley, It’s Easy For You.

Also included in the evening’s line-up is an acoustic take on All Time High, written for the James Bond movie Octopussy. Rice’s singers for the tour are Shonagh Daly, Laura Tebbutt, Ricardo Afonso and Dean Chisnall, all highly accomplished West End performers and their interpretation of the Bond song is a gorgeous acoustic version. Rice, the next day, commented that he preferred his quartet’s take on the number to that of Rita Coolidge who recorded it for the movie some 40 years ago!

Rice went on to praise his vocalists, observing that although they are all supremely talented but not yet stars in their own right, an understated feature that clearly appeals to the modestly presented composer. He observed that if he had possibly brought in one or two star names, who would no-doubt be great, to tour with him, he may possibly put a few more bums on seats to begin with, but may well have lost something of the tour’s team spirit. 

Waugh’s tour band comprises himself on keyboards, with Tim Maple on guitars, Stan White on bass and son Rob on drums. Keeping in the spirit of that aspect of the conversation, I mentioned to Sir Tim that notwithstanding his current travelling troupe of eight, that over the years his work has provided employment for literally thousands of performers, creatives and musicians. In typical modesty, Rice quietly commented “Well. I suppose that’s true”.

Our conversation moved on to the technique of writing a show, with Rice a firm believer in the strength of the underlying narrative, or “book” of a show being an essential component of a successful musical – albeit wryly acknowledging that the success of Cats arguably suggests otherwise! Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat of course came from one of the most famous stories of all time and Rice gave a tantalising glimpse as to how that very first successful collaboration took shape.

Initially commissioned as a school production Rice commented: “I would say [to Andrew Lloyd Webber] that I think we’ve got to have an opening song which sets the scene and then we need a song about Joseph’s coat. And obviously Andrew would chip in but I would say this is what the song should be and then Andrew would say well maybe we could make Pharaoh like Elvis or whatever, - I can’t actually remember who suggested that -, but then talking through the story then Andrew would be in a position to write tunes that would fit each aspect each scene each bit of the story and then I would put lyrics to the tune knowing that the tune had that scene in mind and were suitable for what the action was so when Andrew wrote the tune he knew whether he was writing a love song or a comic song or whatever, it was all crystal clear which was great!”

Speaking of Evita, another smash-hit musical (after Jesus Christ Superstar) penned with Lloyd-Webber, Rice explained the backstory to that show, improbably based upon the life of Eva Peron and inspired by a Radio 4 programme that he listened to while driving home one evening in the early 1970s.

Over the course of a year, he was to research the show at a time he says when there was “very little information about her. There have been hundreds of books about her ever since, I think largely inspired by the musical, none of which give any credit whatsoever to the musical!”

On his researching visits to Argentina, Rice was to learn about Eva Peron and travelled to Buenos Aires for a few days just to really get the atmosphere. When he wrote the song Buenos Aires, the location itself had written the lyrics for him. Rice comments: "Rio de la Plata, Corrientes, Nueve de Julio, I mean, if you just hear them in the song, you wouldn't know what they were, but they're all places in Buenos Aires or Argentina.

And a lot of Argentines who I met subsequently when the show was on, so many of them, especially the older ones, said that we really had got Eva Peron right. Which was very encouraging. I mean, some people said to us, "Oh, you've really been too nice to her." And other people said, "Oh, you've been far too unkind to her." So we thought, "Well, we probably got it about right," because if these people are too totally opposing views, both seem to react to it.”

We go on to talk about how new musical theatre writing is evolving, with Rice remaining characteristically modest and showering praise on both Hamilton and Six!, but on probing a little deeper Rice reveals more. While he praises two jukebox musicals A Beautiful Noise [framed around Neil Diamond’s discography]  and MJ The Musical [Michael Jackson] that he had recently seen on Broadway, it is notable that there is (obviously) no new lyricist credited with those shows’ creation, and he is scathing about much of what passes for new writing today.

He says that "90% of the songs are all about Me, me, me! And they're observing themselves and saying, I'm stressed or I'm emotionally disturbed, or I'm lost or whatever. And am I a man? Am I a woman? What am I?

And frankly, one is quite often the worst person to study and analyse oneself. By contrast, I always find it interesting to put myself in the position of somebody like Bobby Fischer or Freddy Trumper, or indeed many of the women I've written songs for. 

I've never stood on the balcony in Buenos Aires preaching to 10,000 peasants, I've never been involved in a Mary Magdalene scenario. But that doesn't stop you observing and imagining. And I think once you start imagining, your imagination can take you places where you never would've gone if you just used your own experience. Most things I've written about I've never experienced, and I think that often helps make them good, whereas if you only write about yourself and your deep emotional problems and you think I'm the centre of the universe, it's usually bloody boring!”
When I suggest to Rice that much new musical theatre writing comprises self-indulgent ballad-fests, he agrees. 

Evita came from a meticulously researched study into Argentina’s modern history and the life of Eva Peron. Similarly with Chess when Rice found himself in Reykjavik not long after the 1972 chess tournament between Fischer and Spassky had taken place with the Cold War raging, that the idea for the show came to him.

A serendipitous partnering with Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus from ABBA was brokered and the rest was to lead to Chess, a show that didn’t garner the critical success of Jesus Christ Superstar or of Evita but nonetheless contains some of Rice’s strongest and most perceptive writing. Aside from the musical’s hits of One Night In Bangkok and I Know Him So Well, Pity The Child a song in the show’s second act, act two that explores the American chess player’s troubled and traumatic childhood is one of the finest examples of Rice’s genius in translating the harshness of humanity into song. On the opening of Chess, Rice had to assure his mother that the song bore absolutely no reference whatsoever to his own idyllic childhood!

Having worked with many composers over the years, Rice is well placed to observe their differing styles. “With Andrew occasionally I’d say look this is a kind of dialogue between Eva and Magaldi or whatever so it’s probably best if I write it and you then set it, and you don’t have to set its syllable to syllable. Most of the work I do isn’t done when the composer’s in the room because you’re at home. Words take longer to write than tunes! Even I could write a bad tune in about 2 minutes but running a good one is a bit of a challenge!” 

I asked Rice if, when writing for Disney in particular, is there a specific formulaic structure that the studio required? “Not really, except Disney, the producers and the directors will say they want this scene, and sometimes you would've written a song in one scene or in one scenario, and then suddenly you come into the studio the next day and they say, "Oh, that scene is now no longer there." Which can happen in animation more than it can in regular filming, because giraffes or hippopotamus don't have an agent, and so there's no complaint if they get booted out of the film! Whereas, if you said to Brad Pitt, "Brad, we're cutting your part or cutting this scene." I think it wouldn't go down too well. So, you are slightly at the mercy of the directors, as indeed you should be, but they can be and have to be quite brutal at times.”

Rice’s introduction to writing for Disney came following the tragic death of Howard Ashman who had been Alan Menken’s lyricist on notable Disney and Broadway successes in preceding years. As one might expect, Rice speaks with nothing but the humblest of respect for what Ashman had achieved, as it fell to Rice to pick up the lyricist’s pen and conclude the writing for the half-completed Disney’s Aladdin.

Rice’s contribution to that movie was significant, with his song, A Whole New World winning in 1992 what was to be the first of his three Oscars. The other two being won for Can You Feel The Love Tonight (1994 – The Lion King with Elton John) and You Must Love Me (1996 – Evita with Andrew Lloyd-Webber). Rice tells a cracking yarn about the Evita win, with the Oscar only being awarded to new songs that are included in a movie in any given year. Evita of course had been around as an album long before Madonna ever stepped up to the role, and so the winning song was especially composed for the movie by the indefatigable pair, with half a canny eye on a possible Oscar win. Their gamble was to pay off!

Above all, in chatting with Sir Tim, what strikes one (aside from his passion for cricket, he was President of the MCC in 2002) is his overwhelming charm, grace and modesty. He may write with a sharp and perceptive wit, but in person he is the complete gentleman and a man whose stories can hold you spellbound for hours.

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