It’s the second week of term at Associated Studios and we are all looking forward to today’s industry talk with the brilliant lyricist and patron of our school, Sir Tim Rice. While we get to workwithindustry professionals every day of our training, it’s especially exciting to learn from someone who has created some of the most successful musicals of ourtime.
We have prepared questions and start off the conversation by asking where Sir Tim Rice finds inspiration and what gets him excited about new projects.
He explains that it’s the story that is most important; it has to grip you, which is why he prefers writing about real events and people. For example, he listened to a radio program about Eva Peron – who wasn’t as well known in this part of the world then as she is now – and out of this lucky incident grew the idea for Evita.
For The Lion King, on the other hand, he was approached by Disney with the concept of a film about a lion with a mean uncle – ‘Hamlet in fur’ – he will add later that working in a new medium or with new people brings with it new inspiration. Change is good.
His first collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, worked, as he says, because it’s funny and light-hearted. When it was first performed at a school, the children loved it immediately. It’s easier to sell something funny when you are first starting out; the dramatic and hard-hitting stuff can come once you are more established. Create something that is easy to put on.
Sir Tim then tells us how and when his love for writing began.
He first created funny little comics at the age of five or six and enjoyed writing at school but never considered writing for the theatre until he met Andrew Lloyd Webber. Sir Tim was more interested in the songs themselves than musicals as a whole; one of his inspirations was the song ‘Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud’. Before meeting Webber, he had actually been writing a novel and a few songs of his own which he showed to a literary agent. The agent wasn’t interest in either, but he introduced him to Webber who had already written around seven musicals by the age of seventeen and was looking for a lyricist. Sir Tim was studying law at the time but decided to write lyrics in his spare time and that is how their collaboration began.
Eventually, they were offered a contract by David Land after he’d come across the recording of Joseph – shows such as Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar followed.
However, Sir Tim has also collaborated with other composers, such as Alan Menken and Sir Elton John. He speaks fondly of both of them. Menken was already well-established when he and Sir Tim started working together. He replaced the great playwright and lyricist Howard Ashman after his passing and had to write the lyrics for songs such as ‘A Whole New World’ within a very short time. In his opinion, writing lyrics for a show takes a lot longer than writing the music; there’s more of them, less leeway for repetition. So, while Menken often works on four or five projects simultaneously, Sir Tim prefers to only work on one show at a time.
His collaboration with Sir Elton John was different from the others in that he had to write the lyrics first and Sir Elton would then compose the music. Together, they created The Lion King and the musical Aida.
Of course, he also collaborated with ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus on the musical Chess. Sir Tim explains that while Benny wrote most of the tunes, Björn would draft ideas and some of the lyrics, and Rice would take it from there.
Our principal Leontine then asks if Sir Tim is working on any new shows. To this he replies that there is a UK tour planned for his show From Here To Eternity – a collaboration with Stuart Brayson – which he wants to do some rewrites for as he feels that they haven’t yet gotten the show quite right yet. This ties into a question asked by our singing teacher Scott Harrison who wants to know how Sir Tim values success; does he have a favourite show? The answer is that it’s almost like choosing between your children; you cannot pick a favourite. However, he adds, his more successful shows somewhat take care of themselves; it’s the ones that are struggling like From Here To Eternity and King David that he feels more protective of.
Since all of us students are training to become Musical Theatre performers, we are all hoping for some industry advice as well. We ask Sir Tim what he wants to see more of in performers and he explains that while a good voice is essential, what’s more important is to stand out. As an example, he tells us about Elaine Paige’s first audition for Evita; she said she had not prepared ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’ and sang ‘Yesterday’ by The Beatles instead. That’s how they remembered her. Of course, you shouldn’t walk into an audition unprepared, but it’s good to do things differently – be funny! Sir Tim assures us that if we are good, we will make it eventually. We should take whichever part we are offered because that will get us into the room and into contact with all the directors, writers and producers we need to know in order to further our careers.
Going into more detail, we ask what Sir Tim expects of artists who tackle his work specifically and if it ever happened that an artist added a new dimension to a song he had written.
The answer is that getting the words right is essential. To Sir Tim, the writing and performance are the most important elements of any show. You do not need to have the best singing voice; what’s crucial is getting the story across to the audience. It’s performers like Elaine Paige, David Essex and Murray Head who managed to bring something unique, something of their own to the parts they were playing. They found the truth in the words.
Following on from this, we ask how a performer could bring something new to a song that is already very well-known. Sir Tim advises us to put ourselves in the character’s circumstances – and to be funny, if possible. We should choose songs that are neither too obscure nor too obvious, get into contact with your audience and not be boring. We should convey sincerely what we have to say about this world through our performance.
Finally, we ask a few questions about writing itself – does Sir Tim have any advice for someone only just starting out as a writer and how did he deal with writer’s block? The answer is that, in the beginning, it is always good to keep it short as people are more likely to pick up a novel that is 300 pages long than one that is twice that length. For overcoming writer’s block, he recommends doing something different, trying something new. A change is as good as a rest!
Listening to Sir Tim Rice’s wisdom was truly special and from speaking to my classmates afterwards, I know that we all learnt a lot and highly appreciated him taking the time to talk to us. He was incredibly kind and patient and, I am sure, inspired all of us with his words.
Many thanks to Sir Tim Rice, our principal Leontine Hass and the whole team at Associated Studios for making this very special Industry Talk happen!
Written by Freddie L. Haberfellner