Lyricist Tim Rice talks to Jasper Rees about his ‘divorce’ from Andrew Lloyd Webber – and the revival of his musical Chess
In the 1970s Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber redefined musical theatre. With Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, they appeared to be on the path to a lifetime’s collaboration.
And then the composing half of the partnership began work on Cats, for which TS Eliot had already supplied lyrics. They’ve not worked together on a musical since. Does his lyricist ever feel a pang of remorse that he has refused all subsequent offers, of which there have been many, to get back into bed together?
"When Phantom was at its peak," says Rice, "and Chess was having problems, I thought probably it was a big mistake from my point of view. And people quite understandably were going to think our success is all down to Andrew.
I suppose being vain and human I got a bit p***ed off at that point. Not with Andrew particularly but with myself, that I should have stuck with him.
"Phantom is a brilliant show, but it didn’t really interest me desperately. And the ideas Andrew has worked on since Phantom haven’t appealed to me particularly."
Instead Rice wrote the book and lyrics to Blondel, a medieval caper in the joshing vein of Joseph which failed to ignite audience-fever. Then he turned his attention to an epic about the Cold War, focusing on the titanic battle between two chess grandmasters and their romantic entanglements.
He in turn invited his old collaborator aboard, but when Lloyd Webber declined, Rice turned instead to Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, who had only recently brought down the curtain on Abba.
More than two decades later, Rice is still trying to get Chess right. The latest concert version, starring Josh Groban and Wicked’s Idina Menzel, is to be performed over two nights in May at the Albert Hall.
It began life, like Jesus Christ Superstar, as an album which yielded the hit songs I Know Him So Well and One Night in Bangkok. Its initial advance towards the stage was impeded by the withdrawal of Chorus Line director Michael Bennett, who had contracted Aids.
Trevor Nunn stepped in with six weeks to opening night and the show, expanded from the album, ran for three years in London. Then it went to New York.
"Broadway," Rice freely admits, "was a disaster. The basic problem was we hadn’t stuck closely enough to the original record. We didn’t quite know what Michael Bennett was going to do, and then Trevor put in his own things and we ended up with a bit of a hybrid in London.
On Broadway the decision was taken to completely start from scratch. I suppose it might have worked, but it didn’t. The changes got out of control and it got worse and worse.
"But because the score is so strong, everybody wants to do it. It’s been a free-for-all with every director who’s done it all over the world. I’ve seen some versions where I haven’t a clue what’s going on. The good thing is that every five minutes a cracking song comes up."
Rice’s contention is that there’s nothing much wrong with most of the show. If there’s one song he could have on his tombstone, it would be Pity the Child rather than Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.
Chess came seventh in a Radio 2 poll of the nation’s favourite musicals, and is always being performed. Last month he saw a version in the opera house in Tallinn. Between now and the Albert Hall, there will be new productions in South Africa, Australia and Los Angeles.
"It’s always frustrated me because I genuinely get an awful lot of people saying to me, ‘Chess is my favourite piece of yours.’ Andrew and people like that say, ‘We’re fed up with songs from Chess, because that’s what people do in auditions.’
"What I wanted to do before I snuff it is to say, ‘Right, I’ve shown that the piece can work and this is the version that I approve of.’ Maybe the show is doomed never to be as big as Phantom or Evita. But I know it’s as good as those."
It helps that the political upheaval it portrays, like the events in Evita when it was premièred, are now 30 years old and set in stone. The Broadway production was perilously relocated to 1988. "We’d wake up in the morning and go, ‘Oh no! The Berlin wall has come down. This is terrible news!’ – because it completely changed the fifth scene."
Post-divorce, Rice did not want for collaborators. Apart from his collaboration with Ulvaeus and Andersson, his work for Disney with Elton John on The Lion King and Aida, and with Alan Mencken on Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, each yielded a hit.
"These are great guys," he says. "They’re all up there with Andrew. We’re not talking desperation."
But since Chess he has not been involved in the creation of an entirely new stage musical, unless you count Cliff Richard’s Heathcliff or the reportedly cumbersome King David on Broadway.
As Joseph approaches its 40th birthday, he’s thinking of working up a stronger book for Blondel, he has ambitions to produce a complete book of his lyrics ("but not just the good ones") and he has recently completed the first draft of a play about Machiavelli ("It would probably be hopeless, but if I got hit by a bus this afternoon, you could put it on"). He intends to add songs as and when a composer has been found.
What about his old mucker? They still produce the odd song, most recently for Connie Fisher’s album in 2006, but does Rice ever think about rekindling the old partnership in the theatre? He certainly confesses to a great nostalgia for the years of their successes.
"We were young, successful, travelling the world – I mean, what was not to love? I knew at the time it would not get better than this in career terms.
"And it didn’t. It’s quite difficult to come back to a partnership. It’s like trying to get married again. I probably thought when we were writing, ‘We’re going to be Gilbert and Sullivan, we’ll do 10 shows together.’
And then I probably thought, it’s a pity that we haven’t. Now I think maybe it’s best for both of us and we’re obviously going to be friends until one of us kicks the bucket.
"I’m not sure we could have kept it up. The problem is if we did something that wasn’t as good, and it almost certainly wouldn’t be, people would say, ‘Ah well, we always knew they were never any good.’"
Chess will be performed at the Albert Hall (020 7589 8212), London SW7, on May 12 and 13.