theartsdesk Q&A: Lyricist Tim Rice | Theatre reviews, news & interviews
theartsdesk Q&A: Lyricist Tim Rice
The lyricist on the grandmaster version, plus life with and without Andrew
Sir Tim Rice (b. 1944) will always be inextricably known as Andrew Lloyd Webber's original - and best - lyricist. They met in 1965 and promptly wrote a musical - The Likes of Us - which has never been professionally staged. Of the three which have been, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat turned 41 this year. After Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, lyricist and composer parted company when Lloyd Webber started working with T S Eliot. In 1984 Rice went on to collaborate with the male half of Abba on Chess. Though close to his heart, the show has never taken definitive shape. Until now. After 25 years, Rice has come up with what he regards as the final grandmaster version of Chess.
It was performed last year at the Royal Albert Hall with Josh Groban, Idina Menzel and Marti Pellow. Chess in Concert is now released as a highlights CD, a full-length CD, and a DVD. Tim Rice talks here about playing with Chess, working with Lloyd Webber, Elton and Disney, and his long life in lyrics.
JASPER REES: The first question anyone asks a lyricist is the obvious one. Which comes first, the words or the music?
TIM RICE: If it’s a musical – ie not just a one-off song – the first thing you have to get right is the story, which is the most important thing of all, much more important than either the words or the music. Then the music, which one hopes is inspired by the story, and then I will put the words to the music. Except Elton John. All those great songs he’s written over the years have always come from a lyric. When I suggested to Disney that Elton was the perfect man for The Lion King and eventually they got him, when Elton first rang me up, I said, “What tunes have you got lying around?” because I knew that all composers have got tunes lying around. In fact I suspect sometimes that all composers write their entire repertoire when they’re 18. But Elton had no tunes. He said, “I have never written a tune unless I have a lyric.” I wouldn’t claim to have observed him for long enough but come to think of it I’ve hardly ever seen him tinkle away too much on his tod.
The one song that is borne out by that is the tune from The Likes of Us, the musical you first wrote with Andrew Lloyd Webber as teenagers, turning up in The Woman in White.
I did spot that one. I’m sure they all do it. If I were a composer I think it would be madness if you have a great tune that doesn’t work in one situation... You can usually put it into another, whereas you can’t do that with lyrics. I would have struggled to have got the words of "Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina" into The Lion King had Evita flopped, but the tune would have been fine.
Do you find yourself writing differently with different composers?
I suppose I would think not really. I tend to change. If I had a style it would veer from romantic to funny depending on the situation. But I guess working with the lyrics first with Elton might have made me change but certainly not consciously. I always try and write stuff that is understandable and would probably make sense if read. I quite like just as an experiment reading the words of a song to see if it’s plausible. Obviously there are some times when you say things like “You I love”, although I try and avoid that sort of thing. You might think they’re not very good but by and large you could read Chess as a play and 90 per cent of it if you managed to not emphasise the rhymes would work as a spoken dialogue. So that’s what I try and do.
Even “Poor poor Joseph, what you gonna do?”
Well there are exceptions of course. You could, if you killed the rhyme. “Things look bad for you.” It is a good example. Joseph was written when I was very young. It was written for a school. But you’re right, a lot of it … “I was wandering along the banks of the river when seven fat cows came out of the Nile” – it’s conversational.
There’s a couplet which is always cited as being…
The only example of my wit? “Pyjamas” and “farmers”. It is a very good couplet. I didn’t notice at the time. I just thought it was a gag.
Is it a weight round your neck? Do people always bring it up?
No they also bring up, “Walk across my swimming pool.” And that’s about it really. There’s some good stuff in Chess but people don’t know it well enough.
Joseph established you as an extremely witty lyricist.
I’m not sure it has. It’s not a weight round your neck if people think that. I think that by hanging around for so long in any business you get a bit of grudging respect in the end. The fact that we haven’t gone away, annoying that it is. But most of the critics who loathed us have gone away themselves. Time has struck. The grim reaper has taken its course.
Those three shows with Andrew Lloyd Webber have all been successfully revived. Will you ever do more than write the odd song together?
We’ve written more than just one song. If Andrew is doing an album with some singer, like Connie Fisher recently, he’ll quite often ring up and say, “I’ve got a nice tune, would you like to do a lyric?” I’ve done that. I’ve done one for three or four of his recent albums. But they’re just nice pop songs. We did do, I thought, one of our best ever songs for Evita the movie, which actually won an Oscar, called “You Must Love Me”, which Madonna sang beautifully. And that was nice. I would rank that one up with… it fits into the canon, if you want to use a pompous word, pretty well. The problem is if we did something that wasn’t as good as those three, and it almost certainly wouldn’t be, people would say, “Ah well we always knew they were never any good.”
Why wouldn’t it be?
I don’t know. I think it’s quite difficult to come back to a partnership. It’s like trying to get married again, I suppose. I see Andrew a lot. We’re obviously going to be friends until one of us kicks the bucket. But I don’t know whether or not when you’re young you have the great ideas. What we need is a great idea. What anybody needs is a great idea. And the ideas Andrew has worked on since Phantom haven’t appealed to me particularly. And most of them he’s suggested. “Would I be interested?” Not all of them by any means. He wanted me to get involved with Phantom but (a) I was working on Chess and (b) I wasn’t sure it was going to be the whole show and I wouldn’t want to do bits of a show. But also even Phantom, it’s a brilliant show, but it didn’t really interest me desperately.
So he hasn’t asked about Phantom 2?
Not directly. But I think it would be wrong of me to get involved with Phantom 2 because I had nothing whatsoever to do with Phantom 1 and I thought Charles Hart did a great job. He’s been slightly airbrushed out of the publicity but I wouldn’t look any further than Charles Hart.
'You have two graphs in your life. One is enthusiasm. The other is expertise. When they cross you are at your peak.'
Are you saying that when you’re younger you have a more determination and hunger?
A lot more. I’ve always said, if I may give you my boring thesis on this, which is very short, you have two graphs in your life. One is enthusiasm. The other is expertise. When they cross you are at your peak.
And they crossed in…?
Evita. For us. I’m not saying that enthusiasm is nil, because after all I’ve got many years ahead of me, possibly, or at least a few months, and I think technically, certainly with lyrics – perhaps lyrics in a way don’t date so much in some respects. Or maybe theatrical language is not hugely different from what it was in 1970. Music might have changed a bit more. I don’t know. Maybe not. But I just wonder whether we could recreate the magic. I’d like to do something original which I instigate. And Chess was the last big one I instigated. Then I went to work with Disney, which I loved. I had a great time. People say, “How can you work for a huge conglomerate?” I wasn’t. I was working for a fairly small group of people, most of whom are still good friends of mine. And I was working for their theatrical division which really hardly existed when I joined it. And I did four shows with them and they were all big hits. And then I thought, “Well I’ve kind of done that.” Then I came back. I had been working on a brand new idea of my own and I’ve been working on getting Chess back. It has been something that gnawed at me. When I was working on The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast and all that jazz I didn’t really have time.
If the expertise goes up, is there a point at which you would like to haul yourself in front of the public with an entirely new musical? It’s now incredibly rare for a new musical not to be based on a massive movie franchise.
The last time I did an interview, it focused on the fact, and I still believe it’s true, that the tragedy of musical theatre, and I blame largely the producers for this, is that there are no new totally original musicals being written. Or if they are they’re not being put on. Musicals tend to be a cash-in on a big film. What I’m not saying is that these shows are necessarily bad. What I’m saying is the one thing they lack is new young writers. Stiles and Drewe have done pretty well but they’re not that young now. Since me and Andrew there’s not been anyone who’s come up and knocked us out of the way. Not even in America. People who’ve had big hit shows are either guys without me and Andrew, Elton or Abba or the French geniuses who wrote Les Mis, and they’re either our age or foreign or both. Where is the great 25-year-old writing a great musical? It just ain’t there. I got into trouble for saying I didn’t really fancy going to see Lord of the Rings. I didn’t say it was bad. I just said it’s something where I think, what is the point when there’s been a very good film on it?
What trouble did you get into?
Some critics said, “He’s sounding off.” Well obviously it’s a golden opportunity for people to say, “His own shows are crap.” One or two critics said that. They weren’t so much critics as gossip columnists. But I wasn’t knocking that one. All I said was I would rather go and see something new and young and fresh.
Is it lack of opportunity, or is it that the art form is slightly rickety?
I don’t know. People still love good musicals. They’ll go and see revivals of old ones. And Joseph, whatever else it may prove, proves there’s an audience out there for a nice evening out in the theatre. Joseph’s 40 years old.
What did you make of Rent?
OK. I enjoyed it in New York and didn’t like it here. I thought it was OK but it wasn’t a great score. It wasn’t as good as Andrew’s scores. It was OK. It sounds awfully patronising but for a first effort it was pretty good. And it’s been a big hit. But my complaint was that there were no British ones.
And you don’t have the slightest glimmer of optimism?
Who knows? Even 20 years ago, when I remember doing the Vivian Ellis Prize, I said, “Whatever comes round the corner next will be like we were - totally unexpected.” Whatever you think of our stuff, we were doing it in a weird way. We harnessed the arrival of the record album as the biggest form of entertainment, as it was in those days. It was forced upon us really because nobody wanted to stage it. I mean we were hailed as marketing geniuses. But it was really an act of desperation. The whole thing about Superstar was a lot of luck. Because we did a record we had to make it short, which was great, we had to cut out the book, which was great. Originally we thought of it as Jesus sits down at the Last Supper, “Hi guys,” a bit of chat, which would have been awful. It would have probably opened out of town, the orchestrations would have been very conventional. They said, “Oh you can’t have a rock band in a theatre,” because that hadn’t really been done. It had been done for Hair but Hair was a bit freaky. So when we went onto record as a last resort we made it rocky. The only outlet we thought was getting played on the radio so it had to be much more contemporary. It was always going to be contemporary but Andrew was able to be completely free with exciting contemporary rhythms. And it was short. There was no book. And it came out before the show. All these things were new. But it wasn’t our brilliance. We were just lucky. It’s like the Beatles. The Beatles were brilliant – I don’t want to sound like I’m comparing myself with the Beatles – but the Beatles and the Stones half the time didn’t know what they were doing. They just did it and what they did was brilliant. And they were running three weeks behind their image all the time. And to a certain extent that happened to us, not in such a big way. In the theatre world we didn’t quite know what we were doing but it looked as if we did.
Do you have great nostalgia for the early 1970s?
Yes, mainly because we were young, successful, travelling the world. I mean what was not to love? I knew at the time. I thought, “It will not get better than this in career terms.” And it didn’t.
Is the expertise graph line still going up?
In the sense that I read a lot and I learn new words I suppose it might be.
When you sat down without any music and a blank piece of paper to write “Circle of Life”, was there a brief?
I probably spent more time on The Lion King with the script guys helping and chipping in in all the meetings about the storyline. And the songs were a big part of the storyline. Between us all we decided on what the song had to say. I’ve got a very interesting tape of my original lyric of “Circle of Life” which was more specific about different animals. It was a bit like a Noah’s Ark type song and it didn’t really work. And Elton wrote a tune which was quite pretty but it was a sort of dum-pi-dum-pi-dum, and that was clearly hopeless. So we went back and I did it again and wrote a much more serious lyric and that was one of the tunes I witnessed Elton writing. He took it in the studio and just played over and over again, singing. And it was fascinating. And he came out within an hour and a half with a really good tune. And in fact on that one it was a good job I was there because he said, “I tell you what, I want one more line, just one more phrase really.” Normally he’s great. He never complains about words. He might just say, “I couldn’t fit one extra verse in.” But he’s the least interfering composer of all time, with the possible exception of Tchaikovsky who I’ve been working with. That’s for other reasons. But there was a line “on the path unwinding”. It has a big build-up, it’s a leap of faith and all that. Then he said, “To get up to that circle at the end we need one more phrase.” And I said, “On the path unwinding.” I’m not quite sure it made sense. It doesn’t rhyme. The whole thing is a leap of faith. You don’t always have to have rhymes. You can over-rhyme. I’ve done it a lot. Funny songs need to rhyme. Serious songs need rhyme but not every other word. In fact sometimes what’s really annoying is when you’re writing a lyric and you find that by mistake you’ve rhymed. And it says exactly what you want it to say, but there’s a rhyme. And if there’s a rhyme and if you have a rhyme in that verse you’ve then got to go back and put one into the other. I have on occasions booted out something because it rhymes. But that’s just a chance happening.
If on your gravestone it says, “Here lies Tim Rice. He wrote ‘Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina’,” would you be happy with that?
I like ‘Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina’. I’m quite pleased with the lyric. The main criticism of that was that it was a string of clichés and I was going, “That’s just what it’s meant to be.” It was written not as a pop single, it was written as a scene in a show. If you listen to Gordon Brown, he says nothing in a string of clichés. It’s just him. I mean he’s particularly bad at it. Talk about facing challenges and all this crap makes me yell at the TV or the radio. And I wanted Eva Perón to say nothing but in a way that sounded fantastic. Beautiful tune, wonderful orchestration, a beautiful woman looking great. But when she says, “I love you and you must love me,” it’s meant to be clichés. We never thought it would be a single. We thought, “This is great.” We weren’t being falsely modest. But six minutes, long, can’t dance to it, all about Argentina. But as soon as the record people heard the finished thing they said, “It’s a number one.” And they were right. When I worked on Evita back in the Stone Age I spent about a year working on it on my own because Andrew was not absolutely certain he was going to do it because he was working on Jeeves, which I had bailed out of. Had he said, “I don’t want to do Evita,” I might have done it with somebody else. I might not have done it at all. I don’t know.
Are there any shows you regret?
Blondel didn’t work very well although we had a nice revival of it. It’s getting there. There are quite a few school productions happening. I went to see it at Charterhouse the other day and it was very good. It was nice to go to a school show which wasn’t Joseph and see students enjoy it. This show has certainly got it 20 per cent closer to what it could be. I’m trying to shorten it. It’s very educational and there are some very funny lines in it but the first two scenes are all wrong.
Have you got the permission of Stephen Oliver’s estate?
I’ve spoken to his brother and to those who control his estate and they were quite happy with whatever alterations I made in the show.
And a new composer?
I’d rather not do that because the score was very nice, but if I felt further down the line, Andrew or somebody wanted to write a tune in the style of Stephen Oliver then I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if it meant getting the work known better. But I’m not sure that’s the problem. Again it might be my fault that it’s not quite right. The early part of the story was a bit wrong. I think the problem which came to me like a blinding light at the Pleasance Theatre in Islington was that in the opening scene Blondel is made to look a bit of an idiot. By the time you’ve found out that he isn’t, the show is almost over. I think he should be much more the innocent and not have the mickey taken out of him by everybody.
Was there a specific reason why you and Andrew Lloyd Webber stopped collaborating?
The principal reason was that he wanted to do Cats, which was a huge hit, so a very good decision. With pre-existing words. Simple as that really. That took up, as all shows do, a fair amount of time, by which time I’d decided, having had two big hits with big shows and Joseph was just beginning to take off commercially, that it would be nice to do another Joseph. So I then went to Stephen Oliver and we did Blondel and then I think he did Starlight Express, or was it Phantom? That didn’t really appeal to me, that one. Tastes changed. And Starlight was a big hit in London. But I can’t remember now. I’m sure if I’d said, “I want to do Starlight” he would have said, “Great.” But I don’t think I did because by then I’d had the idea of Chess and I did actually approach Andrew for Chess but he wasn’t that interested. So I thought I’ll try and do it with somebody else.
Have you always as a pair had it in the back of your mind that you might do something?
I’ve never said it won’t happen. It’s a bit like Led Zeppelin getting back together. Hang on, that was very successful.
Does it feel like there’s an element of unfinished business?
I’m not sure I would say that now. I think when Phantom was at its peak and Chess was having problems, I thought probably it was a big mistake from my point of view and clearly apart from anything else people quite understandably were going to think our success is all down to Andrew. And I suppose being vain and human I got a bit pissed off at that point. Not with Andrew particularly but with myself, that I should have stuck with him, I should have done Starlight and Phantom. And indeed Tell Me on a Sunday was another thing he did.
Is that what you thought at the time?
Yes. But not all the time. Once I got into writing Chess properly I thought, “I’m glad I’m writing this, it’s nice to write with other people.” When I look back on it some time after that I think, “Actually I’ve had great experiences.” I’ve worked with Elton John, I’ve worked with Bjorn and Benny, I’ve worked with Alan Menken. These are great guys. They’re all up there with Andrew. We’re not talking desperation. And Andrew has worked with Don Black and a lot of different lyricists. The answer to your question is I probably thought when we were writing, “We’re going to be Gilbert and Sullivan, we’ll do ten shows together, fifteen maybe.” And then I probably thought, “It’s a pity that we haven’t.” Now I think maybe it’s best for both of us and we’re good mates. I’m not sure we could have kept it up. Who knows? Because we do have very different tastes in theatre. There’s no doubt about it. A lot of the stuff Andrew has done has not been my cup of tea. And I don’t go to the theatre that often. I’m not a theatre animal. I think if I’m any good at all it’s because I’m slightly aside from it. I don’t like my own first nights, I don’t like the whole theatrical milieu other than as almost like a fan. I don’t feel natural in it. I don’t know why.
Were you steeped in theatre when you started?
No. The only time in my life I went to theatre a great deal was in the first eight to ten years I met Andrew, which included our early success. I still go probably more than the average person, but there’s a lot of stuff I haven’t seen whereas your true theatre person will probably have seen everything in the West End.
Who do you look up to as a lyricist?
Probably more in the rock field than in the theatre field. Jerry Lieber, Eddie Cochrane, Chuck Berry. I’m talking lyrics. Having said that, I greatly admired in my youth – and still do - Oscar Hammerstein and Alan J. Lerner. I just loved My Fair Lady and I loved Gigi. And I’m a strange animal because when I met Andrew in ’65 I had barely been to the musical theatre. I think I had seen Salad Days when I was about nine and I had seen My Fair Lady and that was it, but I knew the scores because my parents had the records. The average kid would have gone, “Oh wow, fantastic.” I just liked the record. It was the fact that the label and the cover and “it’s interesting how Columbia Records show division has a different-coloured label to Columbia Records pop”. That was what was interesting to me. And I just played the records over and over again. I would play Elvis and I would play My Fair Lady. And it’s still true today. I still in a way prefer listening to the music than necessarily going to see the show. In terms of admiring lyricists I greatly admired Alan J. Lerner, I greatly admired Oscar Hammerstein, I thought Stephen Sondheim’s work in West Side Story was fantastic. I also probably assumed when I was very young that good words in a show on an LP were a given. They were part of the deal. It didn’t cross my mind when I played a new show album that it would be bad. I found only later on that my parents only bought the good ones. So I didn’t sit through some of the more dire efforts.
No book has been pushed and pulled more than Chess.
This has often been the root cause of its problems. I began to feel after we’d had the original London show and Broadway – Broadway was a disaster – that the basic problem was we hadn’t stuck closely enough to the original record. We had a lot of problems that were just bad luck, with Michael Bennett getting ill and pulling out of the show having cast it and set everything up, and we had huge sets going in. Trevor Nunn came in and did a very good job in getting the show on by opening night, but there were so many last–minute panic alterations. We didn’t quite know what Michael Bennett was going to do completely, and then Trevor put in his own things and we ended up with a bit of a hybrid in London. It was quite successful in London, but obviously it wasn’t quite right, but it was a hit, which was a relief. But when we went to Broadway the decision was taken - in retrospect it was a disastrous decision - to bring in a spoken book and completely start from scratch and it didn’t work.
Why was that decision taken?
Well I’m not quite sure. You’d have to ask Trevor Nunn. It was primarily his decision. We all went along with it. I’m not trying to get out of it. I was a bit wary about it but the feeling was the book in London hadn’t completely worked and we were going to make subtle alterations in London but we never got round to it. Instead we ended up making a drastic change in New York. I suppose it might have worked but it didn’t. And then since then, because the score is so strong, everybody’s wanted to do it. They love the songs. And it’s kind of been a free-for-all with every director who’s done it all over the world. I’ve just seen a version in Estonia, which was completely different. It had all the songs, and it was a great show, but it had no real resemblance to the original story. It was in Estonian with, interestingly, English surtitles. So I was kind of watching an English translation from the Estonian which in turn had been translated. Some of it was quite similar. It’s always on. It’s a highly successful show, but we’ve never had in my view the definitive correct version, and I’ve always felt – and it took me a year or two to realise this – that the original album was much closer to what it should have been onstage than we thought.
So for the concert performances…
I went back to the original album, which hasn’t got much wrong with it in my arrogant view. We keep one or two things that, on the tortuous route, worked. There’s a wonderful new song which we wrote for Broadway called “Someone Else’s Story”, which actually is now 20 years old but it was clearly a song that worked really well and gave an extra song to the secondary female character making her nearly as important as the first. There was also a song for a Russian diplomat or politician. That is in it. And we kept some of the sung libretto that we used in London but what I’ve tried to do is to clarify the story and cut out one or two slightly confusing side issues.
How come the show started as a record anyway?
We recognised when we did the record that the record wasn’t quite ready for theatre, which was true of Evita. The Evita album was changed by ten or 15 per cent for London, but we got it right. I think because of the problems of changing directors and Trevor having about six weeks to work on something that was massive, and he did a great job in getting it on, we never quite knew what Michael Bennett had in mind because he never got to the opening day of rehearsals, and I think that clobbered us from doing a decent book story that really worked well for London. So we were always going to change the record, but the changes got out of control, and instead of going back to the record and saying, “Let’s pretend London didn’t happen,” we tried to improve a bit on London and it got worse and worse. I’ve seen some versions where I haven’t a clue what’s going on. The good thing is that every five minutes a cracking song comes up.
Do the composers Bjorn UIvaeus and Benny Andersson still get involved?
They’ve given it their hundred per cent blessing but they don’t really have much to do. They’ve done an awful lot with various versions over the years. They did a very good version in Stockholm which in many respects was the most successful version of them all. But again that was nothing like the original record.
Do you always turn up?
It depends. I don’t go to every one. I didn’t have to go to Estonia. But I like the country, I like the people and they’d done three or four of my previous shows very well there. I don’t want to sound patronising, but it’s quite encouraging if somebody from London involved in the show comes out. That’s quite unusual. So I think it was nice for them. It was great for me.
The story means more to them anyway.
That’s why Bjorn and Benny were a good choice. Although Sweden was nothing like Estonia it was much nearer. The big bear was on their door. I approached them but I heard by chance from a theatre producer in New York in 1981 who came to me about some other musical idea which wasn’t of any interest to me, but as a throwaway line he said, “Have you heard of Arba?” I said, “No.” I thought he was talking about a tree. He said, “No, no, Arba – 'Dancing Queen', 'Waterloo', 'Fernando'.” I said, “Abba!” He said, “Yes, Arba.” He said, “I understand the boys from Arba want to do a show.” I thought, “Wow!” because I thought their music was sensationally good, and indeed their words. Luckily we had a fortunate coincidence in that the chap who was our music publisher in Scandinavia was Stig Andersson, who also looked after Abba. So I’d been to Stockholm with Superstar and Evita and I knew Stig so we rang Stig Andersson and said, “We understand your chaps are interested in the theatre. I’ve got a good idea for them.” I didn’t know at that point that Abba were coming near to the end of their run and they kind of thought, “We want to move on from Abba.” I met them in late ‘81 for the first time and we got on well and we began writing it six months later. And they did say, “It’s quite close to home for us. Russia is only down the road.” I have to say the score they delivered and working with them was a delight.
Were you the prime mover in the latest revival?
I am with this one. For starters Benny and Bjorn have been so busy with Mamma Mia, the film particularly. For the last five or ten years I’ve thought I’ve really got to pull my finger out and do a version of Chess that I like in English. Maybe the show is doomed never to be as big as Phantom or Evita but I know it’s as good as those. And certainly musically and from my point of view I’m very happy with the lyrics. Maybe it’s too complex and it’s not what musical should be about, although I think musicals can be intelligent and I think this is an intelligent musical. But I just know we didn’t get it right in London and it was just because we had the terrible disaster of the director contracting a fatal illness just before the show was ready to go into rehearsal and that is quite a handicap. There were lots of other mistakes we made but they weren’t in the actual writing of the score and I felt, “This score is good enough to work.” I think we suffered a bit from the fact that people don’t expect the story of a musical to be that complicated. Even something like Superstar, everybody knows the story. Evita was a pretty clear story. Young girl takes over politics, dies. And I think the problem with Chess was that it was very hard to hear what was going on half the time. It had too much choral stuff. There were one or two technical mistakes. Nowadays if we were doing it again it would be much clearer, if only technically. I remember the second time around with Evita recently I heard every word, which I hadn’t the first time. It’s unfinished business, absolutely.
Is it a problem that the Cold War is long since gone?
No, I think it’s absolutely an improvement. The gap in time now between now and the events in Chess, 30 years roughly, is exactly the same between Evita and Eva’s life. And I think one of the problems we have, particularly in New York, and this was an absolute major problem, is that we made the mistake of making it set today, and it should have been set then ten years ago. But it’s much harder to do something ten years out of date than 30. And because it was set today, we’d wake up in the morning and go, “Oh no this Berlin Wall has come down, this is terrible news,” because it completely changed the fifth scene. I remember saying at the time, “This is insane, it just doesn’t work.” And one of the reasons it crumbled in New York was it was set in 1988. It was insanity, just when the whole thing was coming apart. It was too close. People thought, “We don’t want to know about it.” But now you can go back to the Cold War. Some people, with the problems we face today, think we should be back in the good old Cold War, at least we knew where the enemy was. But no I think having that gap of another ten, 20 years on is actually a big plus. It’s set in 1975, or '79, it doesn’t really matter, it’s in the Seventies. People don’t have to wear flares. This isn’t a fashion parade. These aren’t people who are showbizzy. Half of them are Russian anyway. So I think it’s a big plus.
Has it always gnawed at your gut?
It’s always frustrated me because I genuinely get an awful lot of people saying to me - in America particularly and it was a disaster on Broadway - "Chess is my favourite piece of yours.” If people want to be just polite, they’ll say, “Oh we love Evita.” Or “I love Cats”, which is even worse. I had nothing to do with Cats. And they say, “‘Memory’ is the best song you’ve ever written.” And I say, “Thank you very much.” But so many people, particularly in the business, say, “I love the songs in Chess, it’s my favourite piece.” It makes me think it must have got something that hasn’t quite been fulfilled. A lot of people, Andrew and people like that, say, “We’re fed up with songs from Chess, because that’s what people do in auditions.” There’s a couple of songs in particular that really test people. If you can sing “Pity the Child” you’re pretty good. It’s just an incredible range. Murray Head’s version was staggering. I’ve heard people sing it beautifully. Equally I’ve heard one or two people struggle a little. What I wanted to do before I snuff it is see if I can get the piece – I’m hoping that when this show has been done, I want to say, “Right, I’ve shown that the piece can work and this is how I’d like it to be. If you want to go on doing weird version based around the Broadway show, fine, but I, T Rice, would like to say this is the version that I approve of.”
You are in a position not to give permission?
Correct. I’m hopeful that my version will be the one that everybody eventually will want to do. I would love it if this were to lead to a fully fledged West End production, but maybe it works best in concert. I’ve seen Chess many times in concert and it goes down a storm. One of the problems I find with a lot of musicals is that directors tend not to trust the songs. They have to illustrate and often over-illustrate every song. If a song’s good and if it’s intelligent and has a lovely tune, just get the bloke or girl out in the middle and deliver it and people will get it. I don’t think it should be over-staged. In every major production there’s been too much explanation and it gets more and more complicated.
Would you take the risk yourself?
I’ve never been keen on being a producer because I don’t like someone ringing me up at 7.15 and saying, “The drummer can’t get there.” I’ve no interest in any sort of business. Every business venture I’ve got involved in, with the sole exception of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, has been pretty unsuccessful. So I would rather not.
Are you any good at chess?
Not really. I mean I can play. But I’m not a very good chess player.
Does the muse ever desert you?
It depends. I’ve had to write one or two – not a lot – maybe 20 new lines for Chess and I’ve found it very easy because I’m quite keen to do it. They’re not lines in many cases that people are going to go, ‘Wow!’ because they’re lines to link scenes. It’s a bit like when I worked on Beauty and the Beast, which was great fun and it was very successful, but by and large I was taking over the from the late Howard Ashman who was a great lyricist, he was really right up there, and the blockbusters were there already. "Be Our Guest" and the great song itself, "Beauty and the Beast", they were all there. I had good fun doing it. And with Chess I have probably written the equivalent of about one song. I can hardly say therefore that my entire approach has changed. But I enjoyed doing that. And it was quite easy. If you want to do something you can do it quite quickly.
What are you working on now?
What I want to do, which is probably an exercise in vanity, is a complete lyric book, but not just the good ones. What is interesting to me is looking back at some of the lyrics I wrote – way way back, many centuries ago. That one you quoted, “All these things you saw in your pyjamas/Are a long-range forecast for your farmers” is brilliant. The next one is appalling. “Find a man to lead you through the famine/With a flair for economic planning.” It doesn’t actually quite rhyme.
The jokey half-rhyme is fine.
Well maybe. I tried to alter one or two half rhymes. Once the thing became a big hit I thought, “I can’t have ‘district’ and ‘biscuit’.” But of course people love that line. I couldn’t change it. It’s quite funny but it should be “risk it” and “biscuit”.
And a new musical?
There are very few ideas that really grab me enough but I thought Machiavelli was a wonderful idea for a musical. Not knowing where the music was going to go, I began writing a synopsis, and then I thought, “It would be more interesting if I wrote it with all the dialogue as if it was a play.” I don’t know if I can write plays or not because I’ve never even written one. I’ve just written a full-length play. If I got hit by a bus this afternoon, you could put it on. It probably would be hopeless, and it’s the first draft, but it was always intended to include music. It tells his life story basically. It starts from the death of Savonarola. It’s a bit like Eva Perón. Nobody knew anything about Eva Perón before we did it.
Have you got the scene where Leonardo, Cesare Borgia and Machiavelli are all in the same castle?
I do have them all in one scene. What was very interesting was that Machiavelli tried to get Leonardo to divert the river Arno to cut Pisa off and Leonardo got so carried away he said, “We can put factories here and do this and this.” He was light years ahead of his time and in the end he was just too expensive, he got out of control. And it’s quite funny. There are some lovely funny scenes. Cesare Borgia doesn’t really get this screaming queen who’s got this ludicrous idea. I knew nothing about Machiavelli except we all knew the word and I knew his dates roughly. The more I research into it, he’s a fascinating character. What I have to do next is the second draft. It’s a bit long as it stands, certainly if you put music in, and to think, “What sort of music? Who could be a composer?” And then it struck me, “Do I even want music?” To be honest, as I feel I kind of stumbled into musicals by accident, maybe I should now try and be a playwright. But I probably wouldn’t be any good at it. But if David Hare can do it - he was a year below at school - why can’t I? He’s junior to me, for God’s sake.
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 7,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
Pints of blood but no real tragedy in this season opener
Ray Davies's Kinks saga has heart and soul as well as musical brawn
As Rattigan's debut is staged after 80 years, its director ponders the rise of the rediscovery
Heartbreaking Ibsen adaptation mixes naturalism and forensic examination
Tony-winning Broadway export is well-sung but unoriginal
The desperate fate of addicts and outcasts is given bracingly humorous treatment
The moment when theatre was transformed by visionary Russian directors
Like its marooned middle-managers, Tim Firth's comedy loses its way
Kander & Ebb's startling, stirring musical gets a West End upgrade
The delightfully shambolic talent show that's become a national treasure
A key moment in American race relations inspires a richly ambitious new drama
Imelda Staunton gives the performance of the year in possibly the show of the year