‘Superstar’ Lyricist Tim Rice Ponders His Career, Theater’s Future, Live Action Remakes & Technicolor Dreamcoats – Deadline Q&A

‘Superstar’ Lyricist Tim Rice Ponders His Career, Theater’s Future, Live Action Remakes & Technicolor Dreamcoats – Deadline Q&A

October 7, 2020

Sir Tim Rice has written lyrics for some of the most beloved and successful musicals of the past century, from Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat to Chess, Evita, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, but these days he’s doing a lot of talking. Like everyone else in the theater industry (or any industry, for that matter), Rice has a bit more time on his hands these days, and he’s using some of it to revisit his long career and many collaborations in a witty and addictive new podcast.

Get Onto My Cloud, on the Broadway Podcast Network, finds Rice in a warm and chatty mood, regaling listeners with anecdotes from his career, his collaborations with Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber (Superstar, Dreamcoat, Evita, et.al.), Elton John (The Lion King, Aida), Alan Menken (Aladdin, 2017’s live-action Beauty and the Beast), ABBA’s Bjorn and Benny (Chess), and Freddie Mercury (on the Queen frontman’s 1988 solo album Barcelona).

“I find [the podcast] quite useful and quite entertaining in the sense that I’m playing stuff of mine I hadn’t heard for years,” Rice tells Deadline in a typically chatty interview with Deadline. “It definitely did spring out of being stuck and not being able to do an awful lot else in my work.”

In this interview, Rice reflects not only on his career in theater and film – like that possible alternative title for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat – but on the crisis facing the theater industries in New York and London as they struggle through the COVID-19 shutdown. He shares his thoughts on Webber’s campaign to reopen theaters, reveals which of his projects were interrupted by the shutdown (a possible Broadway revival of Chess?), ponders what Mercury might be doing today had he lived beyond his tragically brief 45 years, and provides his take on all those live-action remakes of animated classics like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. 

And no, the winner of three Oscars, four Tonys, five Grammys and one Emmy will not offer an opinion on the disastrous 2019 film Cats, Tom Hooper’s flop adaptation of Webber’s modern classic stage musical. To find out why, read on.

Get Onto My Cloud is available on Apple/iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, iHeart, TuneIn, Deezer, Player.FM, Pocket Cast, Podcast Addict and other podcast services.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length. 

DEADLINE: Is the podcast a sort of response to being under lockdown?

TIM RICE: Yes, I think it is. A friend of mine started up a podcast. He’s quite a well known cricketer in this country, a sportsman, and I thought, well, why don’t I do that? I find it quite useful and quite entertaining in the sense that I’m playing stuff of mine I hadn’t heard for years and thinking oh, that wasn’t bad, or that was awful or whatever. So, it definitely did spring out of being stuck and not being able to do an awful lot else in my work.

DEADLINE: So the podcast prompted you to rethink your past work?

RICE: It has. The [episode] that I was most intrigued by was the one on Freddie Mercury. I did a couple of songs with Freddie and they were quite complex things. And to be honest, I hadn’t heard them very often in the 25, 30 years since we wrote them. In the process of putting my podcast together I listened to them several times and I was quite intrigued by them. I mean, they’re not commercial songs by any stretch of the imagination, but it reminded what a great performer and, above all, a writer Freddie was. I think he had the ability and the potential to become a really sensationally good theatrical or operatic composer. And that was something that I hadn’t realized quite so fully until I replayed the stuff.

DEADLINE: Did you know him well?

RICE: Marginally well. Tragically, I didn’t know him for as long as I would’ve liked. I was getting to know him quite well and we got on very well. He was a very charming, polite fellow and very relaxed. I imagine it was difficult for him to relax unless he was pretty certain that the people with him weren’t just fans or after something. It was a great privilege to get to know him.

DEADLINE: Which of your stage productions have you reconsidered or rethought as you have been doing the podcast?

RICE: I did a show called Blondel in England, which ran in the West End for something like a year, and has had one or two productions since. But I suddenly thought, this is something which could work again. It’s a humorous show and it should’ve done a bit better than it did.

But of the big ones like Superstar and The Lion King you think, well, I’m not sure whether I would’ve done anything different even now. I mean, there are one or two lines in all these shows that you think wasn’t a very good line. And certainly with the second movie of The Lion King I felt that the music wasn’t really taken advantage of. I mean, it was very well presented in many ways, but on reflection I was a little bit disappointed with the treatment of the music in the second film. When I played a couple of the songs that we wrote for the second film, I thought well these aren’t bad songs. I think maybe there was some politics or arguing between who was going to write this song, that song and the other, I don’t know.

DEADLINE: Do you think the live action remakes of the animated films work, specifically in terms of the music?

RICE: I would say that I haven’t seen a live action version of any great animated film which is better than the original. I think one or two of them run close. I think Beauty and the Beast was probably the best of the live action ones. But the others, I mean, basically these films are made because the basic stuff worked the first time around and it’s still a good story, great characters and good songs. But it’s always difficult going back to something, and I think musically they’ve suffered, except possibly Beauty. I think with Beauty I would’ve used a song called “A Change In Me,” which was in the original [1994] stage show, but there’s always a desire to get new songs in. I suppose people think in terms of Oscars and all that.

But Aladdin [directed by Guy Ritchie, 2019] had a lot of new stuff in it, which didn’t really make an enormous impact. And Lion King didn’t really have much new stuff in, and actually, to be honest, that might’ve been a good thing. I mean, I think the live action [remakes] bring the work to a new audience and if it’s well done, I think that’s absolutely fine. But to be blunt, I think it’s very hard to improve on something as good as the original Beauty or the original Aladdin or the original Lion King or the original Jungle Book. They’re all pretty hard acts to follow. All the live action ones, they’re all good films, but they are up against quite a heritage.

DEADLINE: I suspect the Cats film could have a negative impact on the future of remakes.

RICE: Well, I haven’t seen Cats the film. Actually, I haven’t even seen Cats the show, to be honest.

DEADLINE: Can that be true?

RICE: I haven’t. I saw bits of it when I briefly had a song in it. I went to one or two rehearsals and previews and saw bits of it, so I can’t really judge. But it would seem to me from what I’ve read and the little extracts I’ve seen from the film that it probably is not as good as the stage show.

DEADLINE: That is very safe to say. Is it true that Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat was briefly called Joseph and the Amazing Eastmancolor Dreamcoat?

RICE: Well, it wasn’t actually ever officially called that, but when Technicolor, in the very early days, rang us up and said “You can’t use ‘Technicolor’,” our agent, very astutely, said, “Fine, we’ll call it Joseph and the Amazing Eastmancolor Dreamcoat.” And the guy said, “Well, hang on, we’ll get back to you on this.” And surprise, surprise they said, “Oh, it’s all right as long as you give us a credit by saying it’s a trademark.” And that’s what we did.

DEADLINE: What were you working on when the pandemic hit?

RICE: Just before lockdown I almost literally had my bags packed to go to New York, because we had been starting pretty thorough work on redoing and relaunching Aida through an American tour and through Germany and then into London, because Aida, which did pretty well on Broadway, has never yet been to London. And we were contemplating new material. We wouldn’t have needed a lot in the song department, but a few changes here and there. It was really something I was looking forward too, but that’s been put on hold, so goodness knows when we’ll get back to Aida. And I was also working on a revamping of From Here to Eternity, a show that ran in London four or five years ago. It got very nice reviews, but didn’t do very well commercially, so we were in the process of investigating a US tour, and also a UK tour, which I think would’ve gone on, without any doubt.

Those are the two main things I was working on just as the ax came down. Since then I’ve written a couple of songs with a very popular English songwriter called Gary Barlow, which was commissioned by a hugely popular singing star from China. And those songs are in the work well, so I think we’ll probably get them out in England in some form or another soon. And then I’ve just been doing the podcast and thinking about other projects. I’m not desperate and thinking, my God I’ve got to get something out by next week, but I’ve certainly been quite busy. I’ve gotten to the stage in my career where you do look back a bit, and it’s almost like you want to get your retaliation in first so when you snuff it, if somebody’s rude about you, at least you’ve got your defense.

But I feel terribly sorry for people who are 25 and were just getting going, or just about to start getting going in a big way like we were at that age, and then suddenly nothing happens for however long it’s going to be. The only consolation is it’s not happening for anybody else either, so in a sense it’s fair for everybody. But it’s a terrible thing for all these actors and writers and stagehands and the people behind the scenes. It’s awful. Jesus Christ Superstar has been playing in London live for the last month or so at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park where it’s been a huge success. It happens to be a good production, which is a relief, and it’s been hugely popular and got great reviews. But it’s playing to about 300 or 400 people as opposed to 1,500, which it played last year.

DEADLINE: You’ve said in your podcast that Chess was the most heartbreaking of your productions. Why is that?

RICE: Well, I wouldn’t say heartbreaking – it’s only a show – but there were an awful lot of things that went wrong with Chess, some of which were totally beyond our control, and it was rather badly produced, as opposed to artistically directed. And I was one of the producers, so I’m blaming myself here. It was just, time and time again, having things not quite go right with it, and it was very frustrating. The original director Michael Bennett got ill, and sad to say, later died. We were well into getting the production going when he felt he couldn’t go on. Obviously he was far more important than the show, but that almost became a sort of symbol for the show’s run of appalling luck.

And it was a complex show and a lot of people didn’t get it, I think. But it’s become a sort of cult thing. I think the score is as good as anything I’ve ever been involved with. I think with a little luck the show will resurface after all this is over. We were in the process of looking quite seriously at a return to Broadway before all this happened. It was done in the Coliseum in London not that long ago and it was a very big success.

DEADLINE: Are you still in touch with collaborators and producers during the pandemic?

RICE: We’re still in touch, but in practical terms there’s not much we can do. And in the case of Aida, Elton’s farewell world concert tour has been completely hit on the head, and I’m sure he’ll resume it but now all the [Aida] dates for 2021 will be 2022 or even later.

Also for From Here to Eternity, which I mentioned earlier, we’ve been having conversations with English producers and our American producers quite regularly, and we’re slightly marking time now. We can’t just say, “Let’s start rehearsals in March” because we might not be able to. We think it is basically ready to go into preproduction, but half the point of preproduction is to find out what’s wrong with it and you can’t really find out what’s wrong with it before you go into preproduction. So, not a lot is happening, but anything that was seriously considered before the lockdown is still being seriously considered.

DEADLINE: Are you generally optimistic or pessimistic at this point about the future of theater? Sir Andrew [Lloyd Webber] has been talking a lot about the need for additional government funding to keep the West End and live entertainment afloat. What are your thoughts on that?

RICE: Well, I admire what Andrew’s doing. I mean, he’s fighting a bit of a difficult battle. It’s true that the theater desperately needs some sort of funding and support, but then again so do hundreds of other industries. I would not like to be in the government at the moment. It’s very difficult to know what they should support and what they shouldn’t, but everyone in the entertainment or the hospitality business is taking a major hit. And what Andrew’s doing brilliantly, more so I think than trying to get a big grant from the government, is proving how safe a theater performance can be. He tried it out with the Palladium, with an audience who are socially distanced. They had to sanitize their hands when they came in, and this, that and the other. That’s obviously a sensible thing to try out.

As for optimism, I think long-term – we could be talking two years from now – I think things will get back to normal. And it might have the effect of sharpening a few people’s minds by saying we’ve just got to make sure we get the really best stuff out there quickly. It might mean for a while people won’t take risks, which is perhaps a pity, but on the other hand it might mean people might not waste time on stuff that they shouldn’t be wasting time on. But I think ultimately things will come back, though if you had asked me that question in February or March I would’ve said by about September or October it will all be normal. Well, it ain’t, so I’m very wary about saying anything now.

DEADLINE: What do you miss the most about bout going to theater?

RICE: It’s not just the show. It’s the excitement, even after all these years, of actually sitting in the theater with other people waiting to see something you hope will be good. And it’s the social interaction, the chance to discuss afterwards, preferably over a decent nosh and a nice glass of wine or two or three. I just feel very sorry for the younger people who really haven’t yet had a chance to show what they can do. In the last six to nine months, we might’ve had two or three new megastars emerge in different fields, be they on stage, backstage, writing or whatever. One looks forward to that all coming back.

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