PLAYBILL BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Tim Rice, Lyricist of Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita and The Lion King

By Jared Eberlein
21 Apr 2012

Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber
Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Songs by theatre lyricist Tim Rice — the wordsmith of "I Don't Know How to Love Him," "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina" and "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" — are heard in three Broadway shows at the moment. It seemed like a good time to catch up with Rice.


You've read, no doubt, that composers Andrew Lloyd Webber and Alan Menken have three shows each currently playing on Broadway. But so does Tony, Grammy, Golden Globe and Oscar-winning lyricist Tim Rice — with the revivals of Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, plus the long-running The Lion King.

Whether you performed in a high school production of Joseph and Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat or took the grandchildren to see the 3D re-release of "The Lion King" last summer, you know the work of English-born Rice. In the 1990s, the Disney animated films "The Lion King" and "Aladdin" catapulted the lyrics of "A Whole New World," "Hakuna Matata" and "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" to worldwide fame. The film work led Rice back to Broadway — where his Joseph, Jesus Christ Superstar, Chess and Evita songs had already been popular in the 1970s and '80s. In the '90s, his work was heard in the Broadway stage musicals Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, King David and Aida.

Rice talked to by phone from England in recent days. He spoke candidly about his long career, his new musical version of From Here to Eternity, using religious texts as source material and a solution to the popular and problematic Chess.

Your projects have often used the same source material — The Bible. Superstar is currently running alongside a myriad of other spiritually driven musicals on Broadway. Why are these themes so popular in musical theatre?
Tim Rice: I suppose, it's a very important part of everybody's life. And one can write about religion without necessarily following it. Sister Act, for example is a comedy. It's a very enjoyable show, but I wouldn't have said it was particularly reliant on people understanding the Christian faith. None of these shows are setting out to preach any sort of message. They're primarily telling a story. Superstar, for all its faults or naïveté is really trying to tell a story of how somebody such as Judas Iscariot or even Pontius Pilate or Herod would've reacted to somebody saying he was God. Or at least having other people claim he was God.

You've come back to that well as recently as last year for the Bush Theatre's Sixty-Six Books in the U.K. Was that pure coincidence?
TR: With the Bush project, I was asked, along with 65 other people, "Would I be interested in writing a poem or something about one particular book of the Bible?" I really didn't know which book I was going to get. I enjoyed doing it because I think the Bible is a source of great stories. And I got Chronicles II, which is a book I didn't know very well. Although I did discover it contained the story of Solomon and Sheba and ended up with Cyrus the Great of Persia being kind to displaced Jews, which I thought was a lesson for today.

But I didn't go back to that particularly. I agreed to do it because I thought the Bible's bound to have a good story, but it wasn't something I thought, "My God, I must get back to do the Bible." It just happened they rang me up. But I do think the Bible is a fascinating, endless source of stories and I always enjoy dipping into it and reading the odd chapter that I haven't read before.

Josh Young and Paul Nolan in Jesus Christ Superstar.
photo by Joan Marcus

Before Superstar, I'm told, you had initially wanted to do the story of King Saul.
TR: Absolutely. I had always wanted to do King Saul. I thought that was a fascinating story. In a way, it's what we did with King David many years later.

Why the shift from Saul to David?
TR: King David was a commission. Michael Eisner of Disney was approached, I believe I'm right in saying, by an Israeli entrepreneur who was keen to have King David as a piece commissioned for the 3,000th anniversary of Jerusalem. Alan Menken and I had discussed King Saul, because that had always been one of my ideas that had been bugging me. When we heard about this idea to do King David's story, we thought "well that's great," because King Saul is very much at least the first half of David's story. So we jumped at the chance. And I feel, in a way, with King David — which hasn't really been done much apart from being on in a concert at the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York — we've almost written two musicals: Part One is the story of David and Saul — and that's the musical that really intrigues me — and Part Two is the story of David, Absalom and him coming to terms with death and looking back on his life.

We do intend to go back to King David, and maybe just look at the first half and do a normal-length musical rather than an incredibly long sob-opera. It's a fantastic story, in the way that Saul, in particular, feels he was misled by God and indeed by Samuel, the Prophet, who claimed to be the representative of God. And it's a tragic story of a gifted man who was completely upstaged by an even more gifted man.

We're having a kind of Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber retrospective on Broadway right now.
TR: Just what you need.

In seeing these revivals of Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, were there moments when you said, "I can do better than that"? Or, "I was pretty smart for a young writer"?
TR: My son who's just starting out in the film world — he's got a movie coming out in the Tribeca Film Festival — made a very good point. He said, "You've got to make the most of your inexperience because you won't have it for long." And in a funny way I think that's what we did with Superstar. We didn't quite know what we were doing and consequently we didn't feel there were any rules we had to obey. When I saw Superstar last week, I thought alternately "Oh, that is a great line," and then, "My God, that's awful." [Laughs.] Though I think — more than most shows — Superstar doesn't really benefit from a close line-by-line analysis. I think some of the lines stand up to it, but I think it's sort of an inexperienced explosion of ideas and enthusiasm. And if you take it at that, it works. If you start saying, "What is this compared to Stephen Sondheim?" It doesn't compare to Stephen Sondheim. It's almost a totally different animal.

With Evita, it's in some respects much more conventional. There are very few lines in Evita I would change. There are quite a few I would change in Superstar. That doesn't mean to say one is a better show than the other, it just means it's in a different stage of one's career. If I were writing Superstar now, it would be totally different. And it probably wouldn't be as good, even though the lines would be more sophisticated.

Read about the Broadway career of Tim Rice in the Paybill Vault.


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