If you’ve been around Broadway or in the West End over the past four and a half decades, you’ve heard the words of Tim Rice. It’s fairly inescapable, in fact. Since bursting on the scene in the early 1970s as half of the team that spawned Jesus Christ Superstar (the other half being composer Andrew Lloyd Webber), he has rarely been absent from the world’s largest stages. On several occasions, he has had three shows playing simultaneously on Broadway. (Currently, he has a mere two: Aladdin and The Lion King.)
Often, these recent productions have been revivals of his earlier works, such as his Evita and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Lately, however, his attentions have been consumed by a new piece, a musical version of James Jones’ famous World War II-set novel From Here to Eternity. The story follows the G Company—four of its troubled and mischievous soldiers, in particular—before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The show, written with composer Stuart Brayson, and co-librettists Donald Rice and Bill Oakes, had its world premiere in London in 2013. Currently, its enjoying its North American premiere at The Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival in Auburn, New York. Rice talked to Playbill.com about the new production and the musical’s future.
Congratulations on your new production of From Here to Eternity at Finger Lakes. Are you pleased with it?
Tim Rice: I’m very pleased. I’ve always believed in the show, and we didn’t quite get it right in London. I think we’re probably now well on the way to getting it right. I’m very pleased with what we have now. I think it could be made even better. But this is what these productions are for really.
Can you tell me how this version differs from the London production?
TR: Well, the London production was a little bit of a mess in some respects. It’s always a bit of a challenge with a totally new piece to know how to pitch it. We had some excellent people working on it, but it was too long, and we didn’t really explain the story clearly. Also, we were playing to a British audience, who are not naturally as receptive, because we very much had an American story. I think they didn’t quite get it. It could have been explained better. I think we assumed, in a way, that our countrymen, particularly the younger ones, knew more about the war than they actually did. Whereas, over here, you don’t have to talk very much about it, because people know. We changed a couple of songs. We’ve changed the book quite drastically, and we made the story, in my view, clearer. Of course, we changed the director, the set, all these things—basically started from scratch. In essence, thought, it’s the same story, the same characters, and the same songs; we changed just two songs for scenes that didn’t quite work. Really, this is, I think, in many respects, the direction we should have gone in the first place. But it takes time to work these things out. It’s tricky to get going with something new.
In bringing this story to the stage, did you draw on the book, the movie or both?
TM: The book, basically. We had the rights to the book, as, indeed, the film people did. We didn’t have the rights to the film, but it’s basically the same story. We have a fairly different approach to it than the film. The film was much more censored. From that point of view, it was much more valuable to go back to the book than the film. We had to go back to the source anyway.
You’ve written a great many musicals at this point in your career. Do you think From Here to Eternity is anything like any of the shows you’ve written before, or is it a thing apart?
TM: It’s not quite like anything I’ve done before. For starters, it’s a brand new composer. And it was his idea, actually. He came to me with the songs. At the beginning, I was really only interested as a producer. I had other things going. I got the rights for him from the James Jones estate, though then I wasn’t even sure if I’d be writing it. I was really keen just to get Stuart on the road. But then, I thought, “Hang on, this is a really good story. It’s got some wonderful music.” He asked me if I could help with some of the lyrics. He had written most of them himself. Suddenly I was writing some new songs with Stuart. I would say four or five of the original songs survived.
How did the Finger Lakes production come about?
TM: Yes, they came to us, actually. Brett Smock, who runs the Finger Lakes Festival, came to us and said, “I’ve seen the London production. I think it’s got great potential.” He was so genuinely keen to do the piece, without making great promises. He quite obviously genuinely loved the work. So we said, fine, let’s do it, let’s give it a go. It will be a great testing ground. We were quite genuinely pleased by the standard of cast and chorus and all the background team he produced. It was all quite professional. And I think the quality or the production and administration were up to Broadway standards.
I assume there are no immediate future plans yet for the show.
TM: They’re not, I’m afraid. We’re hoping that it will go on to, if not straight to Broadway, at another high profile theatre. That would be a good next stage. We could make one or two things. We could do a little more fine-tuning, which is always needed.
You always have one or two productions running on Broadway at any given time. Do those productions keep you busy? Or do they run on automatic pilot?
TM: They tend to run on automatic pilot. With Aladdin, I’ve just got three or four songs in it. I’ve only seen it once, to be honest. Frankly, it was very good, but there’s very little I can contribute to it. With The Lion King, which I’ve got much more of the score in, the real work was getting it going when it was a film. I’ve seen The Lion King in many countries in many languages.
Do you have any idea how many different productions of your works are being done in the world at any given time?
TM: I have no idea really. Probably every week we get nine or ten applications for Joseph or Evita. Some of them are for schools. Some are for touring productions. Some of them are for quite big productions in obscure places, from New Zealand to Siberia. The shows do seem to have a lasting quality. But then there are also shows like Chess that are done a lot in America. It’s great. I’m very fortunate. But I don’t really try to keep pace with it all.
You mentioned that, at first, you just wanted to be a producer for From Here to Eternity. Is that a branch of your career that keeps you busy?
TM: Well, it does for this show. I don’t really much like producing. As a writer, you hand in your stuff and you go. Being a producer is a bit of a constant headache. You have to keep your eyes on things all the time.
You live in the U.K. Do you think Brexit will have any impact on the theatre business in London?
TM: No. I don’t think so. Much of the theatre world is saying what a disaster it is, but I can see how it would be. If the average man on the street wants to see a show, he’ll go. With something like The Lion King, which is primarily written by two British composers, people in Germany aren’t going to say, “Well, I’m not going to go to that anymore.” And British popular music, which means absolutely nothing to the E.U., will still be played if it’s good enough. I don’t think it will have any effect at all. But then, I don’t know. And neither does anybody else.