With three Academy Awards and a haul of Tonys, Golden Globes, Oliviers and Grammys to his name, an estimated fortune of £150 million and a knighthood from the Queen, Sir Tim Rice can lay claim to being Britain’s most successful lyricist.
But there was a time, 30 years ago, when he feared he might be all washed up. While his erstwhile partner Andrew Lloyd Webber was enjoying huge success with the likes of Phantom of the Opera and Starlight Express, Rice’s own career had hit the buffers, with Chess – his collaboration with Abba’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus – having proved, by his own admission, ‘a disaster’ on Broadway.
Which is how, at the tail end of the 80s, he came to be ‘loitering around Disney, dropping leaden hints that I’d like to do some work in the movies’.
The strategy paid off. ‘They asked me if I’d be interested in working on this film about a lion whose father is murdered by his uncle,’ Rice recalls when Weekend meets him at his London home. ‘“Hamlet with fur”, as it was described to me.’
As work progressed on what would become The Lion King, Rice was also asked to step in and help Alan Menken complete the score for Disney’s upcoming Aladdin, following the death of his writing partner Howard Ashman, aged just 40.
‘The film was virtually finished, but there were a few songs still missing,’ says Rice. ‘One of them was the big ballad, A Whole New World which, in a way, turned out to be the biggest hit of my career. It was a number one single in America, it won the Oscar, and it was Song of the Year at the Grammys.
‘I felt rather guilty collecting the Oscar,’ he admits, ‘because really it should have been Howard’s. He was a brilliant lyricist. It’s a tragedy he died so young.’
Having been granted his wish of a career jump-start by the genies at Disney, Rice went on to win another Oscar, with Elton John, for The Lion King (a third would follow a decade later). It also served as his re-entry into musical theatre, thanks to stage versions of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, plus Aida, another collaboration with John. ‘Suddenly I was involved in three simultaneous Broadway shows, which I’d never achieved before.’
Rice’s association with the House of Mouse continues to this day – hence Weekend’s audience as part of promotional duties for the West End version of Aladdin that opens this month.
Looking back, he says, a taste of failure was just what he’d needed at the time. Had he let success go to his head? ‘It’s hard not to,’ he admits. ‘I never really thought “I’m the greatest”, but I might have felt it was all a bit easy – that if I just wrote something, it would work. That’s a bit of a danger.’
Growing up in Buckinghamshire, Rice had dreamed of being a pop star, before deciding he was probably too posh. ‘I wasn’t that privileged,’ he stresses. ‘Certainly we were comfortably off, but only in a 1950s, middle class way. I’m not pleading poverty, though: I had a very happy childhood, and I went to a good school [St Albans]. That was my real privilege.’
Instead, he joined EMI Records as a management trainee, helping create hits for the likes of Cliff Richard and The Shadows (they’re all still friends, and he’s furious at Cliff’s recent treatment by the police and media).
By this time, he had already been introduced to an ambitious teenager called Andrew Lloyd Webber. ‘He was only 17,’ says Rice, ‘but he was determined to make it in the theatre, which is not something I’d ever really thought about.’
The pair went on to create some of the biggest musical hits of the age, including Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita. The latter – the product of Rice’s lifelong fascination with the Argentine political leader Eva Peron – was seen as an unlikely subject for a musical when it debuted in 1978.
‘If somebody says to you, “what a great idea for a show”, it’s worrying, because you think, “if it’s so great, why has no-one done it?”’ he muses. ‘Andrew, to be brutally honest, wasn’t that convinced to begin with. It was probably the only time in his life he wrote something he didn’t think was going to be a hit.’
Rice’s devotion to Peron famously extended to an 11-year-affair with his Eva, Elaine Paige. (His wife Jane, mother of his two children, filed for divorce; it was never finalised, but they have long lived apart.) He even called his daughter Eva. Has she embraced the name’s origins? ‘Well she hasn’t gone out and tried to take over a South American country,’ he laughs.
The show cemented Rice and Lloyd Webber’s reputation as one of history’s most successful songwriting partnerships. ‘It was unusual in that the lyricist got as much attention as the tunesmith,’ says Rice. ‘That rarely happens, annoyingly. Since then, Andrew has tended to dominate the PR. I’m not even saying it’s him doing it – it’s just the way the publicity tends to be.’
The pair even wrote a song for Elvis. ‘It was on his album Moody Blue, which was released literally about a week before he died,’ Rice recalls. ‘We were delighted to get the song and a bit sad, to put it mildly, that one of our childhood heroes was gone.’
Despite their reputation, Rice and Lloyd Webber’s working relationship was relatively short-lived. ‘I’m very friendly with Andrew, but I can’t see us sitting down to work together again,’ he says. ‘I think for a showbiz relationship, 10 years was good.
‘When Andrew went off and did Cats [using lyrics by TS Eliot], it kind of clobbered the partnership. We’d had a few rows and things, but maybe if we’d done something else at that point it would have gone on a bit longer. I’m not sure about that, though. I didn’t really have any ideas and Andrew had lots of ideas – some of them very good, like Phantom – that didn’t really appeal to me.’
Weekend asks if Sir Tim, now 71, has any regrets. ‘Lots of regrets,’ he smiles. ‘But no work regrets. I don’t think work matters a hoot. But I can afford to say that.’
Does he enjoy being a knight of the shire? ‘Not really’, he shrugs. ‘I sometimes think it almost brings too much attention. It maybe helps occasionally if I’m writing a rude letter to a gas company. Actually,’ he considers, ‘it probably doesn’t. They probably think, “pompous bastard”!’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, May 26, 2016
(c) Waitrose Weekend