Tim Rice: France and the musicals

The Lion King is the longest running musical in Paris - a victory in a country where such shows struggle, says Tim Rice

26 January 2010

SIR Tim Rice is one of the world’s best-known lyricists, with hit musicals like Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Evita and The Lion King.

He is also a Francophile who regularly comes to France and has fond memories of student days at the Sorbonne just before he got his big showbusiness break.

However getting the French to take to musicals is not an easy task.

You studied at the Sorbonne in Paris as a young man, why was that?

I didn’t go to university in England and was heading for a law career, which I wasn’t that enthusiastic about. My parents felt I should have gone to university, and if I wasn’t going to then at least, as a friend was doing it, I should go to the Sorbonne and sample a bit of university life. I enjoyed it enormously and did a few months’ course in French Civilisation, in French. I didn’t go to many lectures,
but got through on the strength of my A-levels. I lived in Rue de Verneuil, which is where Serge Gainsbourg had a house and today it’s like a shrine to him. The area in 1963 hadn’t been gentrified
as it has now and it was delightful, a little bit Bohemian. Now it’s very posh, and the hotel we stayed in, which was a bit ropey, is a very plush block of flats. Every time I go to Paris I wander down that street and remember old haunts. It’s the other side of the river from the Louvre and you can walk almost anywhere interesting from there.

Are you often in France?

I go to France more than any other country but I don’t have a lot of work reasons to come - although I came for The Lion King, which has been running in Paris for a couple of years, which is unusual for Paris as the Parisians are not known for their enthusiasm for musicals. The Lion King has done quite well though it’s not a mega smash. Perhaps it is partly a language problem - they feel that American or British musicals translated are a bit second-hand but a show like The Lion King has a shot at doing well because the spectacle is so important. Superstar didn’t do particularly well
here, but then neither did Les Mis [originally written, in French, by a French team, based on a Victor Hugo classic, and a huge worldwide hit], so blimey... It’s really not a country that is associated with musicals. Northern Europe has more of an appetite for them - you can get years of a run in Germany but in France, Spain, Italy you might get six weeks.

Are there some successful French musicals?

There was a very successful one called Starmania [a futuristic story by French singer-songwriter Michel Berger and Quebecois lyricist Luc Plamondon] and I thought it was really good. I translated it into
English and made an album with some big stars like Cyndi Lauper, Céline Dion and Tom Jones and it did well in France ironically, though not really in England - there was one hit single with Cyndi Lauper [The World is Stone]. Starmania was mega-successful in France, the only French musical that has been really big in France, but we couldn’t get it off the ground in the UK. It had some lovely songs, but the storyline was a bit strange. I directed a version of Superstar in Paris, which was fun, but not a huge success.

What did the French make of it?

Well they had heard the story before... It wasn’t a total failure, it played for a few months and Anne-Marie David was very good as Mary Magdalene. It was interesting and I think a couple of songs were hits - it probably did as well as any average musical usually does here, but nothing like in America or Australia or Scandinavia.

Did France inspire any of your songs and have you worked with any well-known French people?

I did a spoof French song in Joseph called Those Canaan Days and [Disney’s] Beauty and the Beast is set in France [and based on a French fairy tale] and I have just written a couple of songs with [American composer] Alan Menken for a new film version and one of them mentions the setting in France. I worked with Richard Anthony, who was a big pop star here in the 1960s.

Are there any other French tales you would like to bring to life?

Asterix maybe. I used to enjoy Tintin too as a kid.

How did you start writing lyrics?

I was writing tunes to try to sell my voice and one got recorded - in 1965 - so I had my name on a record, which was quite a big deal in those days as not many records got made. Though the song wasn’t a hit it helped me to meet Andrew, who was trying to do the same thing, but he was better at music than me, not very good at words, and I was better at words, not very good at music. He
was interested in theatre, which wasn’t something I had really thought about, but I liked the idea and it worked.

When was the last time you worked with him?

I’ve written quite a lot of stuff with him over the last ten years, but mainly album tracks no one’s ever heard of. The last notable thing was a song for the Evita movie, which won an Oscar. We might do something again together but he’s always running off and doing his own schemes, as am I.

How would you describe your working relationship with him?

It was great while it lasted. He’s been ill lately, but he’s on the road to recovery, and I saw him in hospital and we had a laugh together. It’s fine.

Could you have imagined, starting out with Andrew, what it was all going to lead to?

I don’t think anyone, unless they are a complete egomaniac, ever imagines great success. I never really thought the writing would lead to anything, but amazingly it did.

The first success was Joseph, written for a school production

Yes, and it is probably going to be the thing that will last the longest of our stuff, even though it wasn’t the first thing we wrote. The first thing was The Likes of Us, which didn’t do anything, it wasn’t good enough to be performed. We wrote Joseph for a school and it slowly spread to other schools, and while that was happening, an agent heard Joseph and liked it and offered us full-time salaries for
three years, so we had three years to make it. We did Jesus Christ Superstar, which took off like a bullet as a hit record and led to shows and that led to Joseph getting more popular because the spotlight was on us.

What are some of the things you’ve enjoyed most apart from working with Andrew?

I enjoyed working at Disney in the 1990s with Elton and Alan Menken, but to be honest you enjoy the first things most because it’s all new.

What is the secret to good lyric writing?

A good grasp of grammar and say something that people identify with. If you can’t speak good English and don’t know the rules, then you can’t break them - if you do know how to write good English then you can play around with it with confidence. A lot of people in the pop world don’t really have a great grasp of how language works - they may have great instincts and write some wonderful stuff, but their work wouldn’t work brilliantly in the theatre where you have a different set of rules.

How does the process work?

The first thing is to work out the story and decide what each song is going to say, each song must advance the story - with a musical the most important thing is the story, even more than the music.
That’s usually my job. The composer writes music inspired by it, then I do the words. Sometimes, with Elton, it has been: story, words, music. The key thing is get the story right. Once you know what you are writing about, then you can do it, you can’t stick songs in at random.

You are high up in the Sunday Times Rich List. Is being wealthy how you expected and what has it taught you?

It’s taught me I’m very lucky. It changes your problems a bit but really doesn’t make a lot of difference I don’t think, though it’s hard to tell. I didn’t have a lot of money as a kid, though we were quite comfortably off and I had a happy childhood. When I first made money it was a luxury to me to be able to buy albums and hard-back books. It means you can lead a comfortable life but you mustn’t take it for granted - it can all end tomorrow - and it’s nice to be able to help other people sometimes.

Any tips for young people interested in this business?

Live performance is the way to sell a show - if you’ve written something for the theatre get it performed at any level, like we did with Joseph. You can see if it works and is dramatically strong and if it’s good it will progress. But there are no rules and people who have made it have often had an odd route to success - you can’t say: the way to do it is take a book idea to a book publisher and if he doesn’t like it play him a record and if he doesn't like that hope he’ll introduce you to somebody... It’s just strange; but get a good education is my best tip.

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