It almost takes Aladdin's lamp to track down lyricist Tim Rice. And so -- abracadabra! -- the moment his voice finally comes over the phone is like making contact with the genie himself.
Except, of course, that Rice -- who wrote some of the lyrics for Disney's new hit animation, "Aladdin" -- doesn't sound a bit like a genie. To the contrary, the British songwriter is so soft-spoken he almost sounds as if he's trapped in the magic lamp.
However, Rice has a lot to talk about these days. Of course, there's "Aladdin" -- a project he undertook at the 11th hour, after the death of the original lyricist, Baltimore native Howard Ashman. In addition, beginning Tuesday, an all-new 20th anniversary U.S. tour of "Jesus Christ Superstar" premieres at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre before making stops in a score of cities including Detroit, Chicago, Minneapolis and San Francisco. And just a week ago, Baltimoreans were able to see another of Rice's early triumphs -- "Evita" -- when it played a one-week run at the Lyric Opera House.
Baltimore is hardly the only place where Rice, 48, is currently a hot commodity, however. A fortnight ago he was in Australia, where he attended the largest production of "Superstar" he's ever seen -- and that's saying something, since the show was not only a hit on Broadway, but ran eight years in London and was made into a motion picture directed by Norman Jewison.
Two stars from the movie, Ted Neeley and Carl Anderson, are reprising their roles of Jesus and Judas, respectively, in the new stage version. Rice admits he doesn't have much contact with the production, but he's not surprised by this latest incarnation of the musical that was his first major hit with composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. "It's never really been out of fashion," he says.
Nor is Rice fazed by the fact that "Superstar" and "Evita" -- both of which were once considered daring, if not scandalous -- are now virtually mainstream. "I think it's just that anything that is fairly outrageous for one generation becomes standard for the next," he says, citing Elvis and the Rolling Stones as examples.
As "Superstar" and "Evita" suggest, Rice and Lloyd Webber specialized in unconventional musicals, beginning with their first produced show, "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." ("Joseph" is also experiencing a resurgence with large-scale revivals in London and Canada and a U.S. tour in the works). Rice, who came up with the ideas for all three of these shows, believes their originality stems in large part from the differences between him and Lloyd Webber.
A London publisher brought the pair together in 1965. At the time, Rice's varied early career had included working in a lawyer's office, pumping gas, playing in a rock band and working for a record company. The only musical he remembers having seen was "My Fair Lady."
In contrast, Lloyd Webber, the son of the director of the London College of Music, had a classical background and a long-standing love of musical theater.
"The combination of his expertise and my not really knowing what I was doing, plus my natural inclination to enjoy rock and hang around with words in a different way created a piece in 'Joseph' that was very different, andeven more in 'Superstar,' " Rice explains.
In selecting a subject, Rice looks for "something you could stand talking about for 20 years." In the case of "Superstar," which focuses on the last week of Jesus' life, he says, "I'd always wanted to write something about Judas Iscariot and the rather raw deal he had from history."
Success and controversy
Along with "Superstar's" success came opposition from a variety of religious groups. Not only was the Broadway opening greeted by pickets, but as recently as four or five years ago, when Rice attended a British production in Oxford, protesters were distributing leaflets outside the theater.
"They kind of missed the point," he insists. "They say Jesus is God. I say this show doesn't say he's not. Judas says he's not. Judas is the doubting character."
Rice and Lloyd Webber's subsequent project, "Evita," also proved controversial. Based on the life of the late Argentinian first lady, Eva Peron, the show was criticized for glorifying a dictator's wife. The creators, however, steadfastly described it as a cautionary tale.
Compared to these hard-hitting subjects, "Aladdin" seems like, well, a cartoon. But even though he's a lifelong fan of animation, Rice found he faced a brand new set of challenges when Disney invited him to complete the work composer Alan Menken had begun with Howard Ashman, who died of AIDS in March.
"In theater," he explains, "if you write a great song, you can stick it on stage for eight minutes and bring it round three times. In animated film,in any film, but particularly in animated film, you really have to have something visually happening for every second. You can't just close in on somebody singing. This means in general the songs were a lot shorter. Almost every line had to be considered in visual terms."
Furthermore, Rice -- who had only met Ashman briefly, before the British opening of the latter's hit stage show, "Little Shop of Horrors" -- felt obligated to try to write in the late lyricist's style. Two factors made this a little easier. "In a funny way, Howard and I had a similar sort of approach to things," Rice explains. "I remember when I saw 'The Little Mermaid' [Ashman's first vTC animated feature], I thought: This is the same sort of feel &L; 'Joseph' had."
In addition, he says, "I was writing for characters Howard had not written for. Howard's two big numbers are both the genie's. I didn't have any genie songs. I had to write the romantic love
songs and a sort of plot-escape song. The only one I had which was a tune Howard had worked on was the reprise of 'Prince Ali.' "
Fortunately, Rice also found it easy to work with Menken and hopes to do so again soon. "There's a plot afoot to take 'Beauty and the Beast' to Broadway, which means additional songs," he says, adding that Disney would like to produce the stage version as soon as next season.
In the meantime, Rice is working with Elton John on a new Disney animation called "King of the Jungle," about a lion cub. The collaboration has necessitated a slight change in Rice's modus operandi. "Elton is one of the few composers who prefers to get the lyrics first," he explains. "Elton writes the tunes, then I make such stringent changes, it's only a crafty way of getting ahold of a tune."
That answers the question songwriters are inevitably asked: Which comes first, the words or the music? But in Rice's case, there's also another inevitable question: Will he ever get back together with Lloyd Webber? Except for a short piece commissioned for Queen Elizabeth's 60th birthday in 1986, the two haven't collaborated since "Evita."
In the interim, Lloyd Webber, who was knighted this year, has had a series of hits including "Cats" and "Phantom of the Opera." Rice's efforts -- "Chess," written with ABBA's Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, and "Blondel," about a medieval minstrel -- have met with considerably less favor in the United States than in England.
For that matter, Rice himself is far better known in England than here. Besides writing a column on cricket for the London Daily Telegraph, he is also a radio and television personality, and due to his extensive knowledge of pop music, one radio station even dubbed him the "Rock Brain of the Universe." Then there's his publishing house, Pavilion Books; his record label, EP Records (with singer Elaine Paige); his cricket team, the Heartaches; and his rock band, Whang and the Cheviots.
But still the question remains, will Rice work with Lloyd Webber again? "Highly unlikely," he replies. "I would only want to work with somebody on equal footing. These days you're working with a massive mega-machine."
Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza.
When: Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. (No performance Dec. 24.) Through Jan. 10.
Call: (410) 625-1400; TDD: (410) 625-1407.