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Mark Shenton meets the multiple Oscar, Tony and Ivor Novello Award winning English musical theatre and movie musical lyricist.
The names of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice are, of course, forever bound together in musical theatre history, like those of Gilbert and Sullivan. Though they created their a trilogy of smash hit shows together from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar to Evita, the last of those first actually opened nearly 40 years ago.
Those shows have created, of course, an enduring legacy -- Joseph, their first hit collaboration, has been touring the UK constantly in Bill Kenwright's record-breaking production for some 36 years now, and its currently to be seen with X-Factor winner Joe McElderry in the title role (resuming in Southend from September 5, and playing at venues around the UK including Woking and Richmond near London, as well as Manchester and McElderry's native Newcastle over Christmas).
As Tim Rice recently said to me in a public interview held in late June at London's Union Theatre, "I've always said that 50 years after I've snuffed it, with will probably be in about 51 years time, Joseph will still be going strong!"
Meanwhile, both Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita will be back in London this summer -- the former at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre from August 11, reprising last year's Olivier award winning production by director Timothy Sheader and choreographer Drew McOnie that stars Declan Bennett in the tittle role and Tyrone Huntley as Judas, and for which he is full of praise: "I don't normally plug my own stuff, and there have been some productions I've seen over years where you think I don't know how we got away with this one -- but when I saw this one at Regent's Park last year I thought, yes, it's great production and it works."
Evita will also return to play at London's Phoenix Theatre from July 28, starring Emma Hatton in the title role. He still remembers the original opening night at the Prince Edward Theatre in 1978 with particular fondness: "That night was the high point of my career -- it's a show that we did entirely off our own bat, based on my bonkers idea, and Andrew wrote the most brilliant score for it. Everything worked. We didn't get rave reviews all the time -- I'm sure you gave us a good one, except you were only about four at the time!," he says, turning to me.
Actually, I was 15 -- so although I never reviewed it, I did see it and it remains an indelible production.But it also marked the end of an era, as their writing partnership mostly dissolved, apart from a couple of reunions to write additional songs for the film version of Evita and a stage version of The Wizard of Oz.
Lloyd Webber, of course, went on to write Cats: "Andrew wanted to do a show which didn't need lyrics, viz Cats -- I think he preferred to write with a dead lyricist, so I had nothing to do with that show though I briefly had a vague flirtation working on Memory, then Trevor Nunn [the director of Cats] found a brilliant better lyricist called Trevor Nunn, so I ended up having nothing to do with it. But I was quite keen to do something in the theatre again. I had met a composer called Stephen Oliver in Australia in 1977 -- about the time we'd just written Evita but before its was done on stage."
Oliver, he says, "was much more Benjamin Britten than Andrew Lloyd Webber. He'd written several classical operas, so I dragged him downmarket!" The result was Blondel, a musical that premiered at the Old Vic in 1983 before transferring to the Aldwych. That show is now back in a new revised version at Southwark's fringe Union Theatre to July 15, which is where this interview was conducted.
In fact, it was also a project that Lloyd Webber had originally worked on too, in an earlier version that was called Come Back Richard, Your Country Needs You. "It also had a song Saladin Days, the title of which survives today in Blondel -- but the tune of it became Herod's Song in Jesus Christ Superstar."
Of his former writing partner's ability to re-use tunes in this way, he says, "I don't blame him. If I wrote tunes, I'd recycle them, too! If you write a great tune and the piece that it's is in doesn't work, you can put it into something else, but if you have a great lyric and the show doesn't work, it's very hard to change it -- if Evita had flopped, the tune for Don't Cry for Me Argentina could have gone into Cats or Phantom, but I would have struggled to put the lyric into The Lion King."
After Blondel came Chess, written with Abba's Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus and it remains very close to his heart; he's just returned from a table reading of a new version of it that he's hopeful ("maybe very hopeful," he adds) could reach Broadway in about 18 months time. It's got a new book by Hunger Games movie writer Danny Strong and will be directed by Michael Mayer.
"The story of the show is a catalogue of how not to produce a musical at times", he admits now, of the original stage version that he himself co-produced. "There's a book in it which I'll write one day! We did have a lot of genuine bad luck, too. There were too many chiefs and not enough Indians. If you have something that everyone thinks is going to be a hit, you have a problem -- everyone comes in on it, without mentioning any names, thinking what can I get out of it? Rather than something that people don't know is going to work, where they think what can I put into this?"
He also comments,"I wish I'd been a lot tougher and more ruthless when Chess was happening. Writing an original musical is a very difficult thing to do, and in a way I wish I had stuck to telling the life story of someone famous. With Jesus Christ Superstar, you don't have to worry too much about the plot – not only was it written for you, but everybody knew it anyway! Likewise with Joseph and even Evita to a certain extent, though she certainly wasn't as well known here before the show."
He was stung by its failure, so much so that he says, "I didn't want to do musicals or theatre anymore. The thing about the earlier shows was that nobody tried to change them too much – that could be because they were much better works, you might say, but it has always struck me how strange it is that the longer you are in this business, the more people want to tell you how to do things!"
Instead, he signed on as a writer for Disney's reinvigorated animated feature section, and the rest is history. "The 90s were like the 70s again – everything I did was a massive hit." He would win his first Oscar for writing an additional song for Aladdin (A Whole New World), wrote extra songs for a stage version of Disney's Beauty and the Beast, and joined forces to work with Elton John on the score for The Lion King, later brought to the stage (now the single most profitable entertainment in any genre in history, having earned over $7billion and counting so far).
Elton John was his suggestion: "The biggest favour I ever did Disney was suggesting Elton -- he made it different from their previous films, adding that rock feeling to it." He would reunite with Elton for Aida that premiered on Broadway in 2000 and won them the Tony Award for best score ("we were so convinced it wouldn't win that neither of us turned up!"), but is yet to be seen in the West End.
Meanwhile, Rice has still not given up writing musicals -- "despite requests, I'm carrying on", he jokes -- and in 2013 he premiered a new stage version of From Here to Eternity. It opened a few months before Andrew Lloyd Webber premiered Stephen Ward, "but we ran twice as long," he notes, though both in fact closed on the same day. For some, it marked the end of an era; but the obituaries were premature. Lloyd Webber has gone on to write School of Rock, his biggest hit in years; and Chess is on the way back for Rice. And this summer, Rice will have five shows playing in London when the returns of Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar join Aladdin, The Lion King and the fringe production of Blondel.