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The secret to legendary lyricist Tim Rice’s lyrics

An exchange with the man behind some of theatre and film's most iconic themes, ahead of the Evita shows in Singapore.

The truth is, she never left you. Since its release on a concept album in 1976 on the way to becoming the signature tune in the musical Evita two years later, Don’t Cry for Me Argentina has permeated the collective consciousness to an extent rarely seen in the musical universe. The song – music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice – was dismissed by critics but struck a major chord with audiences worldwide, sold in the millions and has enjoyed almost constant airplay ever since. Over the years there have been regular revivals of Evita on Broadway and The West End and when a touring version of the original Hal Prince-directed production opens here next month (Feb 23 to March 11 at The Grand Theatre, Marina Bay Sands), theatre-goers will once again be singing along to those familiar strains – whether they care to admit it or not.

Rice – “Sir Timothy” after a knighthood in 1994 – is the lyricist behind a string of well-known songs from some of the most successful shows in musical theatre history, including Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, Chess and The Lion King. In addition to millions of theatre and cinema tickets sold, Rice, 73, has picked up three Best Original Song Academy Awards (A Whole New World from Aladdin, Can You Feel the Love Tonight from The Lion King and You Must Love Me from Evita). More recently he contributed three songs to the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, and a new version of The Lion King is in the works. It’s safe to assume that Rice has a lifetime pass to Disneyland.

On the phone from his home in England, Rice expressed regret that he won’t be coming to Singapore for Evita‘s opening night – he will be attending a performance of Chess in Washington, DC, instead.

“I do enjoy Singapore very much,” he says. “I’ve even stayed a night at that hotel with the ship on top, but you can’t appreciate it when you’re in it – you have to be opposite.”

What was the back story to Evita and did you expect it to remain fresh and still be attracting audiences four decades later?

I didn’t know it was a great idea for a show. I first heard about Eva Peron (the charismatic second wife of Argentine President Juan Peron) on the radio in 1973 while driving. I was very enthused, did the research and found her to be fascinating. I thought that if we did a good show about her life it had a chance of being successful – if I liked the story then there was a good chance that other people would as well. Andrew came up with some really good tunes. I didn’t know what expectations to have, I simply acted as an observer and thought, “I wonder if it will all work?” We did the record first, with 90 per cent of the songs written for the record, and there was a lot of uncertainty with the show.

 What was the songwriting process like with Don’t Cry for Me Argentina

It took a bit of time to get Argentina written. The theme came about because one of the most iconic images was of Eva Peron giving her final speech (before her death in 1952) to the masses from the balcony of the Casa Rosada.

The question was, what was she going to say? I wanted to write something deliberately cliche because politicians always say the same thing – I wanted it to be insincere, it was about someone playing with the crowd’s emotions. It wasn’t written as a pop song, it just seemed to appeal to people who liked the words.

I remember one critic saying the song was a string of cliches and I thought: “What an idiot, it’s supposed to be a string of cliches.”

What do you think sets you apart as a lyricist?

I like to write in fairly everyday language – I’ve always tried to write lyrics that, if people would speak the words, it wouldn’t sound like a song. The longer you go on, the more you have to think of things that you haven’t said before, so it’s quite difficult.

There are a few lines from Joseph that I wish I hadn’t written, one or two bad rhymes there and also in Superstar. Little things like that annoy me, but people love the songs so I can’t change the words. Everything after those two shows are good rhymes.

You’re known for collaborations with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Elton John but not many people know that you also wrote the theme song for the film Octopussy (1983). What are your personal favourites? 

Yes, I like All Time High even though it wasn’t a particularly big hit. It did quite well in the US although it’s not as dramatic as Diamonds are Forever or Goldfinger – but it’s good to be in a Bond film. Two songs I like are High Flying Adored and Another Suitcase Another Hall, both from Evita.

In your youth you wanted to swim the English Channel, be a pop star and play cricket for England, not necessarily in that order. What’s on your wish list these days?

I don’t think I’m going to be doing any of that now. I’ve been very lucky and have travelled all over the world so I don’t have a bucket list, but a lot of the places I want to visit are right here in Britain. There are lots of lovely places in the countryside and I spend quite a lot of time in north-east England, I’m involved in a charity there.

Last year I was in the Shetland Islands and later this year I’ll be going to the Falklands. As for new shows, the irony is I’ve watched more shows in New York than in London – I’ve seen Hamilton in both cities.

It’s been 20 years since your biography Oh What a Circus, which covers your childhood all the way to the opening of Evita in 1978. Isn’t it time for Part 2?

It’s about time I started on it. Someone suggested the title of the next book to be Oh What a Show but I wouldn’t order it just yet – anyway, I’d better get around to it before I snuff it.

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This story first appeared in The Business Times.