Picture the scene: a wedding reception where the wine is flowing freely and the dancing is uninhibited.
Amid it all a merry Tim Rice is lapping up the special occasion when his revelry is disturbed by an aspiring songwriter, demo tape in hand, who is hopeful the knighted lyricist can give him that vital boost on the ladder. And when he’s done, there’s another. And after him, yet another.
Sound far-fetched? Maybe. Except this isn’t fantasy. It’s Rice’s reality. And one, it seems, he embraces.
“People often hand me tapes,” he says, chuckling. “Usually at weddings I get two or three people saying, ‘Would you listen to this”. And I will always listen. It’s a bit rude not to. And I don’t get so many that I can’t. Though if people know they are going to meet me at weddings I can get a lot.”
He adds: “Quite often you play one song and think ‘forget it’. Or maybe it’ll be about Rasputin, the monk – you can write a musical about anything except that.”
That Rice will readily accept a demo tape from a stranger is testament to his good nature. When we meet in a central London office he’s jolly, patient and warm. He might be the nicest man in West End theatre.
Someone who’d definitely say so is Stuart Brayson, the composer who has worked with Rice on the new musical From Here to Eternity.
Brayson was one of those strangers who handed Rice a demo tape. “Stuart came up to me in the street when he was 17,” Rice says. “He gave me a cassette and asked if I would listen to it. I thought it was bound not to be very good, but I took it and had a listen. And I thought it was terrific – they were pop songs. So I kept in touch with him and I financed a couple of demos for him.”
Brayson, around that time, was part of a band called Pop. But he stayed in touch with Rice, and kept on sending him ideas.
“Many years later he began sending me musicals – on CDs,” Rice says. “Most were ones he’d written the words and music for, and sung it all. He sang every part. They were interesting and I knew he was good, so I made a point of giving him a fair listen.”
It’s great to bring old shows back, because they are good. But sometimes you think, let’s not do another jukebox musical. Let’s not bring another show back immediately. Let’s do something new
As we now know, one of the ideas that Brayson presented Rice with was From Here to Eternity. It was an idea that Rice immediately saw the potential in. First, there was the “great story” – based on the book by James Jones. Then there was the music from Brayson, songs that Rice thought were “pretty good”. He decided Brayson’s idea was worth supporting. And so he initially forked out $40,000 to secure the rights to the book.
In fact, by the time a deal was struck with the Shaftesbury Theatre, Rice reckons he had spent over £250,000 on legitimate budget expenses.
“I had faith in it,” he says. “I certainly had nothing sent to me by anybody else that was as good. Stuart has a great talent, and not that much had happened for him. It needed that kick up the bum.”
When Rice had made the decision to take From Here to Eternity he set about assembling a team to make it a reality. Already a producer himself, Rice enlisted Lee Menzies as a co-producer, while Bill Oakes was hired to write the show’s book. The in-demand Tamara Harvey was chosen as the musical’s director.
Rice also became the show’s lyricist – although he never set out to take on this role. “I was just helping Stuart out initially,” he says. “I had not thought I would do another musical. I had been working on other things, in other fields. But when From Here to Eternity took off it became something that was going to happen, despite me not really pushing it.”
So when Oakes restructured Brayson’s piece, and the production needed eight new songs, Rice ended up doing the lyrics. “I rewrote the ones that survived but kept one or two marvellous lines,” he says. “It’s true to say, without any criticism, that Stuart’s lyrics were not quite as theatrical as they should be.” Clearly Rice, having penned the words for shows such as Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar, has the judgement and authority to make this claim.
He says From Here to Eternity will be spectacular visually, but not over the top: “I am confident it will look wonderful. You can look wonderful as Evita did all those years ago without ludicrously large sets.”
A comparison with Evita arises again when we discuss the differences a lyricist faces penning songs for a show that is completely sung-through – as Evita is – compared with something like From Here to Eternity, which has a book broken by songs.
“With a storyline for Evita or Superstar, where it is quite basic, or very well known, you don’t have to worry as much about explaining,” Rice says. “Nobody knew Eva Peron but it was a pretty clear story – a Cinderella story. It’s a story about people in politics, but not about politics.
“From Here to Eternity is complex and I don’t think sung-through it would be half as clear and involving.” The songs in this case are more about “what is in the characters’ heads”. The story could exist regardless of the songs “but it would not be as powerful”, he adds.
But what about the songs themselves? How important is it for an audience to know them before they come and see a show? Gone, after all, are the days when a concept album might precede a show, as was the case with Evita or Jesus Christ Superstar.
“With Superstar we only did a concept album because nobody wanted to do the show,” he explains. “And we hit on a good wheeze, as it’s good if you can get the music out there first.” But he says those days are gone: “Nowadays people download stuff that is not particularly theatrical.”
He adds that his music publishers are trying to get the songs from From Here to Eternity covered by popular artists. “I don’t see the likes of Rihanna and Jessie J covering a song from this show,” he laughs, “though I wish they would”.
If artists like that were to cover these songs, interest in the show would no doubt rocket. Rice says that From Here to Eternity has a “tolerably good advance, but nothing sensational”. He hopes word of mouth will help drive interest, but knows that audiences who see one or two shows a year are likely to target long-runners such as Les Miserables. “Theatregoers from out of town will play it safe and get tickets for Les Mis because they know it’s a great evening out,” he says.
But surely the fact the name Tim Rice is above the show’s signage will help? “It obviously helps a bit,” he says. “But the days of even Andrew Lloyd Webber’s name automatically selling something new…” he trails off, adding: “If you put on something new, it can be a tough sell. And especially, unfairly, if other people involved aren’t known. No one has asked me about Stuart. It’s a case of ‘We’ve not heard of him so we’re not interested’.”
Here he reflects on the industry, and suggests the “establishment isn’t as encouraging of new projects and writers” as it could be. “It’s great to bring old shows back, because they are good. But sometimes you think, let’s not do another jukebox musical. Let’s not bring another show back immediately. Let’s do something new.”
Yes, something new, something original – like Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar were all those years ago. Perhaps the controversy surrounding these musicals’ topics helped them. Rice and Lloyd Webber faced criticism for Evita, with some claiming he and Lloyd Webber were guilty of “glamorising a nasty piece of work” in regard to the Argentinian first lady.
“I say, no, she glamorised herself,” he answers. “She was glamorous. And if you cut the glamour, there’s no story.” The musical also sparked a massive surge in the number of books published about Eva Peron.
When Rice was researching her, he says there was very little material on her. Now, there are endless biographies, but only one, Rice recalls, mentioned the musical.
Not that Rice needs the publicity for Evita. It remains ever popular, and Don’t Cry For Me Argentina is never short of performances.
Which leads me to ask, sensitively, what Rice actually meant by the title of that song. After all, it comes at a point in the show where no one is actually crying for her. And what exactly does she mean by “The truth is I never left you,”?
Rice chuckles, and says: “It’s an interesting thing, and to be honest it does not quite make sense. The line was written for the opening scene, when her ghost says it, and it made sense. It is a great line. What became the song Don’t Cry For Me Argentina was meant to be a string of insincere, political cliches. I tried a few titles, awful titles, like It’s Only Your Lover Returning. But it was awful.”
He adds: “Andrew said, ‘Stick Don’t Cry For Me in for now and we can change it later’. But because it’s such a good line, it worked. It kind of makes sense. It’s like, ‘Don’t worry about me, I am worrying about you’.”
It’s wonderful to have this clarified by the show’s lyricist – a man whose understanding of musicals, what makes them work and how to write them, runs very deep.
So what does he think of the musicals around today? Does he like what he sees? Rice admits that he is concerned about the lack of composers and writers from the UK – citing the fact many scores today are written by people from other countries (Tim Minchin – Australia; Boublil and Schonberg – France; Shaiman and Wittman – USA. You get the picture).
“A really good musical is comparatively rare,” he says. “If you get more than one a year you are lucky. I thought Once was very good. It had not been hyped, it was just a good story, beautifully performed, with a nice new songs.”
Clearly, then, Rice is keen to see more original shows in the West End with From Here to Eternity certainly helping his cause. It marks his first full musical since 2000’s Aida, which he penned with Elton John – a show, incidentally, he is still hopeful will come to the West End.
The good news is, Rice is currently working on another new musical, about Renaissance writer Machiavelli. And Tamara Harvey is keen to work with him on it.
“Tamara has read the book, and likes it,” he reveals. “And if From Here to Eternity goes well, we may do that next.”
He pauses, adding with a chuckle: “On the other hand, I may say I never want to do another show ever again.”
The laugh suggests he’s joking. One would hope he is.
From Here to Eternity is previewing at the Shaftesbury Theatre, London, until October 22, and then runs until April 26