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Tim Rice reflects on stages of a life in theater

With revivals of 'Jesus Christ Superstar' and 'Evita' on Broadway and a return to the theater with in-the-works musical 'From Here to Eternity,' the lyricist comes full circle.

April 01, 2012|By Patrick Pacheco, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Lyrist Tim Rice.
Lyrist Tim Rice. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

NEW YORK — Oh, to be ignorant again. At least that's what Tim Rice is thinking as he looks back on his 26-year-old self.

"It's a great advantage not to have a clue as to what you're up to," he says. "My son Donald, who has just finished his first film, said something I wish I'd said: 'You should make the most of your inexperience because you'll never get it back.' And it's true."

What has put Rice in such a ruminative mood are the Broadway revivals this season of his two early shows with Andrew Lloyd Webber,"Jesus Christ Superstar" (1970), which opened March 22, and "Evita" (1979), which opens Thursday. Their simultaneous arrival is coincidental. "Superstar," directed by Des McAnuff, comes to New York via the Stratford Festival in Ontario and La Jolla Playhouse; "Evita," directed by Michael Grandage, was a 2006 West End hit.

Rice says that at the beginning of his collaboration with Lloyd Webber, "We were naive.... There was so much on 'Superstar' that we didn't intend. I mean there were things that we did which were innovative, but some of them were forced on us because we couldn't get anybody to do the show," he says. "'Evita' was much more sophisticated. That doesn't make it better, but it does make it different. We knew what we were doing."

In the course of an interview, Rice toggles between the shows from the vantage point of tremendous success. At 67, Rice has seen other shows he has worked on, including "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," "Chess,""The Lion King"and "Aida" enter the musical theater canon.

He has three Oscars on his mantel, two for his work on the animated films "Aladdin" and "The Lion King," and one for the film version of "Evita." He has a knighthood and a lordly lifestyle that includes a mansion in Cornwall, England, and his own amateur cricket team, the Heartaches, named after the Elvis Presley song "That's When Your Heartaches Begin," and reflecting his love of early rock 'n' roll.

Yet there is nothing "Sir Tim" about Rice as he sits in a lavish hotel suite, his lanky frame casually jutting out from a plush couch. When a photographer enters the room, he wryly comments, "I'm the ghastly material you're going to have to work with, I'm afraid."

But there is also a sharp intellect, cultivated at Lancing College in Sussex and the Sorbonne in Paris. And a confidence, initially cultivated in what Rice describes as a loving and happy upper middle-class household in Buckinghamshire. "Confident? Yes, in most aspects, but I hope not arrogantly so," he says. "I'm not far off 70, after all. But I'm not confident in the sense that I assume everything will work."

That insecurity was present when he and Lloyd Webber began work on "Superstar." The title, inspired by an ad for a Tom Jones concert, was so off-putting that no theatrical producer in London or New York would touch the show, and so they first made the now-classic concert recording. When the songs, especially "I Don't Know How to Love Him," became global hits, Broadway came calling.

"The word 'superstar' is now overused, but then it was quite new, and I thought, well, if that belonged to anybody, it would be to a man called Jesus Christ. That's how you stumble into these things," he says.

Asked which of the lyrics in either show most closely reflect his own philosophy at the time he wrote them, Rice muses for a while before answering, "Heaven on Their Mind" from "Superstar" and "High Flying Adored" from "Evita."

"Heaven" is sung by Judas in "Superstar" as he realizes that the messianic fervor inspired by Jesus is likely to get them all killed. "I am frightened by the crowd/ for we are getting much too loud/ And they'll crush if we go to far/ If we go too far…."

Jesus' relationships wtih Judas, Mary Magdalene and the frenzied crowds are almost erotic in nature. "That I think is what Des' production does so brilliantly," says Rice in describing the strong and differentiated bonds. Their respective energy "percolates to all the other characters."

Though Rice notes that the role he'd most love to play is that of the conflicted Pilate — "a play about his life would be terrifically interesting" — Judas' "What's-it-all-about-Alfie?" stance would be his take. "If I were brave enough, yes," he says, putting himself in that time and place. "'Hang on. We don't need this absolute hero worship of Jesus. We need to cope with being an occupied country.'"

His identification with Eva Perón, the charismatic and power-hungry first lady of Argentina who died young in 1952, stemmed from them both becoming internationally famous by age 26. "What happens now?/ Where do you go from here? For someone on top of the world/ The view is not exactly clear.…" The success of "Superstar," says Rice, had generated anxiety and doubt as to whether he would ever have another hit. "How do you follow it up? That became quite a problem," he recalls.

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