The Arts

Knight of the matey fable: Tim Rice’s new musical Chess opens next week in a blaze of publicity. Nicholas Shakespeare meets the man behind many stage success. By Nicholas Shakespeare

Everything is peppermint-green in Tim Rice’s office off Shaftlesbury Avenue. The piano, the radiator, the walls. When he puts on a green jersey, he suddenly becomes invisible. Only by seeking the source of a creamy, after-dinner voice does one locate the smiling face one likened to that of a relaxed Anthony Burgess – the face that could go down in history as responsible for the break-up of ABBA.

Against one green wall lean posters for the Molesworth books now reprinted by Rice’s company, Pavilion Books. “Are you an Eric or a Nigel?” asks one. “How to be topp in all subjeckts” promises another. “How to be a goody-goody”.

Rice admits that the sagas of Molesworth, the dishevelled but worldly urchin, had more influence on him than most books. “His philosophy is way ahead of Kant or Russell. ‘Keep a straight bat in cricket as in life’ “, he quotes, referring to his favourite pastime. On the opposite wall hang what he might like to regard as the fruits of this philosophy: gold and platinum discs of songs written by him and sung mostly by Elaine Paige, songs with titles like Love Hurts.

Yet it is less Molesworth than his weedy enemy Fotherington Thomas whom one associates with the smiling face and the thinning fair hair, fluffed up at the back in curls. “I was really quite unrebellious at Lancing – which in itself is quite original”, he adds hopefully. A contemporary there of Christopher Hampton, David Hare and Nigel Andrews, Rice remembers with most affection a clarinettist who went to Belgium and was never heard of again.

Music is more important to Rice even that cricket, though he has three cricket books out this week. He also publishes – and writes – books like British Hit Singles 3 and Hits Of The Sixties which makes him a mine of arcane information. “Did you know that one of the guys who wrote Rock Around The Clock was born in 1883? Extraordinary how the composer of that song should be a man of the 19th century.” These books, full of similarly useless but succulent scraps, tend to be best-sellers, just like his songs.

It was in listening to his parents’ records of shows he had never seen that Rice became interested in words and music. “All my excitement at shows like My Fair Lady came off their records. I remember then seeing some of the shows and feeling how strange they were, not at all like I imagined. Even today I never feel a sense of theatre.” This could explain why he has not seen Andrew Lloyd  Webber’s Starlight Express, nor his former partner’s musical Cats. “At least not the whole thing from start to finish”, he says, tapping his feet. “There was a traffic snarl-up.”

The 10-year partnership, which had begun with an unperformed musical on Dr Barnado, ended in 1976 with Evita. For a time Rice without Lloyd Webber was like Bill Haley without his kiss-curl. His medieval musical, Blondel, soon slipped from sight, leaving its author to disc-jockey for attention on television.

But now with his latest musical, Chess, which opens on Wednesday at the Prince Edward Theatre, Rice is riding high again. The album has already sold 1.5 million copies. As with Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, its release, a long time in advance of the stage production, is regarded as a run out of town. (He could also persuade very good people, like Barbara Dixon, to sing minor parts.) I’m very pleased”, purrs Rice. “In record terms it’s done better than Evita.” It cannot have escaped his attention that one of the songs, I Know Him So Well, reached number one on the very same day as Don’t Cry For Me Argentina some years before.

Chess is the first Rice musical which does not involve a famous person, though the idea had its origins in the Fisher/Spassky and, more recently, the Karpov/Korchnoi tournaments. “Andrew and I nearly did something on the East-West relationship featuring the Cuban missile crisis. Chess is basically a simple love-story showing how anyone who gets to the top of any profession finds politics intrude.”

For his research Rice attended tournaments in England and America. “A lot of the time it’s just two guys in a room over a board with an audience that’s quiet and hushed. It’s just like theatre.” Fittingly for a man who does not much like theatre, he then admits he is not particularly interested in the game. “I am fascinated by the people in it”, he says, picking up a pair of sun-glasses.

Thinking what a good idea it seemed for “a play, a book or something”, Rice wrote a four-page synopsis and began looking for a partner. Lloyd Webber? “He was probably doing Cats at the time”, he replies, tapping his feet. Hearing that the two bearded members of the Swedish pop-group ABBA wanted to write a musical, Rice went to Stockholm. They so loved the idea they disbanded the group for it.

The lead female in Chess will be Elaine Paige of the platinum discs, Evita, Starlight Express and Abbacadabra (with ABBA’s very own Björn and Benny). Did Rice write the part with her in mind? “Yes, I did probably”, he says, but he never took it for granted Björn and Benny would agree. “The same people crop up because they’re good, and you only want to work with the best”, he explains valiantly. One of these was the director, Michael Bennett, who quite unexpectedly withdrew on account of ill-health. Flying back to America, Bennett surfaced in the Press with garish accounts, not of his own health but that of the musical.

“I have been assured by our American producers that he is ill”, says Rice patiently, his feet now in unison with his sun-glasses. “But I was really quite surprised when I read he didn’t like the script and had problems with Elaine.” Fortunately Starlight Express was delayed on Broadway, which meant the availability of Rice’s original choice, Trevor Nunn.

Rice goes on about how good his ABBA colleagues are. Can he conceive of them responding to another of his ideas? “They’re very good”, he answers, without irony. “If I have a wonderful idea I’ll take it to Björn and Benny and if they think it’s rubbish I might try it on Andrew, but I have no plans for another musical. I’m keen to write something solo, a book or a play. I’ve no idea if I can do it.”

Currently on his short-list is a project called “vita Two”. It’s the story of what happens to Evita’s body, even though she’s a corpse, and how Peron tries to make Isabelita into another Evita – someone who doesn’t have any character at all.” Transcribed for ABBA World

Photo: Silver and goldsmith – Tim Rice among his recording trophies.

The Times (London) · Saturday, 10 May 1986 (Page 8)

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