(Rob Walker’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/14; Photo: Dynamic duo … Tim Rice, right, and Andrew Lloyd Webber in 1970. Photograph: Hulton Deutsch/Corbis via Getty Images.)
As the great songwriter prepares to take Jesus Christ Superstar on a 50th birthday tour, he talks about penning hits, his idea for a new musical – and drinking from Lloyd Webber’s Georgian wine glasses
Tim Rice had a hunch the Oscar was in the bag. After all, he and Elton John had been responsible for three of the five nominations in the best song category. But, as he walked on stage that night in 1995, after Can You Feel the Love Tonight from The Lion King won, the tall, slightly awkward-looking English lyricist had no idea what he was going to say. So he drew a breath then decided, on a whim, to thank his childhood hero, Denis Compton. No one in the Hollywood audience had heard of the England and Middlesex cricketing all-rounder and his words were greeted with a bemused silence.
Rice laughs at the memory and puts on a throaty American drawl to recount the scene back stage when reporters swarmed. “What movies was this guy Compton in?” “Oh, I said, he was in The Final Test.” “But what part did he play?” “Well, he played Denis Compton – and frankly, I thought he captured the character very well.”
He chortles away, still roguish at 76 and ever the raconteur. But then Rice is at his best telling stories. They’re the key to his craft. “A good story always inspires good words,” he says. And, over the past six decades, Rice has written some very good words for the biggest names in music, from Freddie Mercury to Madonna. Mention his name, though, and people are likely to think of him as part of a duo alongside – or even eclipsed by – Andrew Lloyd Webber. Yet as a lyricist, Rice has won three Oscars, two more than Lloyd Webber.
Why isn’t he more of a national treasure? “I really don’t like people saying everything is wonderful,” Rice says, when I suggest that he may be a bit too, well, self-effacing for someone with three Academy awards. “I don’t want to completely put myself down – because there’s the frightening possibility that people might agree.” Is there anything he will say? “I think I’m quite good at judging my material, partly because it’s only half mine in most cases.”
He’s speaking to me from his six-acre country home near Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire, a leafy retreat he moved to three years ago. Outside, the afternoon light’s fading and his dog is impatient for a walk. Rice has spent the day organising all the songs he’s ever written – putting his house in order “in case I get hit by a bus next week”. He’s been struck by how many never appeared in films or shows: 145 in all. Most are pretty average, he says, particularly the early ones. “It’s made me realise just how much a show helps a song.”
I like a perfect rhyme. I don’t like time and mine, or girl and world
None more so than the hit musical Evita. A “bonkers” idea, he says, that came to him after hearing a radio programme about Eva Perón, the glamorous wife of Juan Perón, three times president of Argentina. The show made him drop everything and jump on a plane to Buenos Aires to do some research. “The best stuff I’ve written is when I have characters and I know what situation they’re in – and I think, ‘What would I say in that situation?’”