Tim Rice - "Superstar"

by Bruce Pollock

They're Playing My Song is a column by Bruce Pollock, where he focuses on the one song that had the greatest impact on a particular artist or songwriter's career. Here, he speaks with Tim Rice.


Artist: Murray Head
Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics: Tim Rice
Album: Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack
Label: Decca
Year: 1970
Chart Positions:
US: #74 in 1970, #14 in 1971
UK: #47 in 1972
Tim Rice is the 15th richest millionaire in the UK. As a lyricist, he's won three of the four prongs on the American Arts Quadruple Crown: an Oscar, a Grammy, and a Tony. This year, with the production of his first epic, Jesus Christ Superstar, coming to live TV on Easter Sunday, perhaps he'll garner that elusive Emmy. In addition to Superstar, Rice has written the songs for Evita with Andrew Lloyd Webber, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast with Alan Menken, and The Lion King and Aida with Sir Elton John (Rice himself was knighted in 1994, beating Elton by a good four years). Among other honors and accomplishments, he's also got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Not bad for someone who was initially more interested in learning every name on the pop charts than he was in following theater. "Andrew was the one with the burning ambition to write for the theater," said Rice of their first collaboration in the '60s. "I just did it because it seemed like a good idea at the time."

And certainly not bad for someone who never really got much of a thrill out of the profession that chose him. "Lyric writing for me is a nine-to-five office thing," he said. "You have to sit down and wade through it like a crossword puzzle. You get a nice high if you write something good, I suppose, but it's more like solving a puzzle. I don't walk down the street and get inspired.

The number one thing for me to like a song is a good tune. With Andrew and I on Superstar, we had the tune first every time. He would play the tune for me and I would pick it up. If I couldn't pick it up quickly, obviously it wasn't a good tune. I'd tape it on a recorder if I happened to have one on me, or I'd just have it in my skull. Often I'd write down nonsense words to just to get the rhythm.

I don't think I could write lyrics like a Paul Simon or a Bob Dylan. My lyrics are more in the style of traditional theater and tend to be more specific. Simon and Dylan use a lot of imagery, but that's not my sort of song. I do better with the more factual stuff.

Superstar started out as a concept and then as a concept album, way before it ever became the enduring phenomenon it is today."
Tim Rice:
I met Andrew Lloyd Webber in 1965. I'd been trying to make it as a singer and Andrew as a pop composer. He said, "I've got backing for a musical if I can come up with a lyricist," and I said I'd have a go. Although the musical came to nothing, we discovered that we could work well as a team.

We were then asked by a schoolmaster friend of ours to write a 15 or 20-minute piece for his kids at school for the end of the term concert. It was a great comedown, because we had all these visions of a fantastic show on Broadway and in the West End of London, and now we were writing something for 8 to 10-year-olds.

There was no money in it, but we thought we'd do it. The schoolmaster said that if it went well he might get a publishing company interested and perhaps it would become something that schools would use. It was called Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. We purposely chose a Bible story because we wanted something that would appeal to teachers so that they might buy it for their kids. And we made it funny because we wanted the kids to be amused. It was a big success at this school and the publishers who'd been asked along by the school said they loved it and would like to publish it. So we made it into a half-hour piece, and they printed it up in a book and we each made £50. Of course, since Superstar, we've expanded Joseph to 90 minutes and it has been quite a big hit as a professional show.

About six months after Joseph, we started work on Jesus Christ Superstar. For a long time, I'd had a great interest in Judas Iscariot, whom I thought was a fascinating character. Even before I met Andrew, I thought it would be great to write a play about Judas in which Jesus is only a minor character. Or tell the story with Jesus as a major character but tell it from Judas' point of view. If you study the Bible, which I did as a result of writing Superstar, you'll find that the character of Judas doesn't really have any motives. He doesn't say anything, and he's only mentioned a couple of times. The Gospels were written some time later and it was convenient and easy to make Judas 100 percent bad. It was obviously helpful to the story to have it blamed on one guy, but I couldn't believe that this was plausible. After our first success with Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, one realized that one could mix modern music and the Bible, so we thought, let's have a go at writing a play on Judas.

I had worked at EMI, so we had some connections in the record world. It was for economic reasons that we were forced to get somebody to back the project as a record first, when we really wanted to write a show. But our previous little success in the schools wasn't going to make people fork out £50,000 to produce a show with us. After being turned down by several people, we got MCA Records in London interested, but they said it would be too expensive to do the whole album. They said they'd put out a single first, and if that did well, it would prove there was a market for it and justify spending all that money for an album.

This was late summer of 1969. We just had an outline, the framework, which was a lot of work, but there were only a few tunes and a few ideas. We went away and polished up the song "Superstar" and took it back to MCA. As soon as the single was finished, even though we didn't know whether it was going to be a hit or not, we went away and began writing the rest of the album. The way we worked was that first we would both discuss the framework, the plot. We'd say, for example, "This song is going to be a violent song. It's got to say A, B, and C, therefore we need a certain kind of tune." Andrew would then write a melody knowing what sort of tune we needed and then I'd put words to it after that. In about three or four months we'd done 80% of it.
Meanwhile, the single by Murray Head began taking off. It was a small hit in the US and a big hit in Brazil and Belgium and Australia. On English sales alone the project would have been killed, but the worldwide sales were big enough for MCA to say, "go ahead." By February 1970 we'd written most of the work and then we had the colossal job of actually getting people to sing on the album. That almost took longer than writing it. It was like a military operation.

In October, it was released in England and America and it sank in England. It was an immediate total flop. It got very good reviews, but it didn't get any airplay. But we had been booked to come to the States, because MCA liked what it had been given, so we thought, at least we'll get a trip out of it. But when we got here, we were met at the airport by a great army of people, press and everything, and we suddenly realized it was going to be a big hit here.

Ironically, the whole thing was not what we'd aimed for, because we were still really trying to write for the theatre, and this album was a kind of demonstration record.

Of course, immediately after Superstar our output declined colossally, largely because we were so busy running around the world doing an awful lot of work connected with it, but not actually creative work. Which I don't think matters. First, it takes a long time to get over the shell shock of something like Superstar, and second, we didn't want to hurry into something else. Take Lionel Bart, who wrote Oliver. He's a great writer, but he did come out with a lot of stuff very quickly after Oliver and each one didn't do quite so well as the one before. I don't know how he worked, but I often think if he'd waited three or four years and put all his best things into one, it might have worked out better. So I knew we could afford to wait, but I do think that pretty soon it'll be the time to do something else.

March 30, 2018
photo: Tim Rice Facebook

Here's the inside story of the 1973 film adaptation of Jesus Christ Superstar from Ted Neeley, who played Jesus

More They're Playing My Song

Comments: 1

  • Chipp Ross from PdxGreat to hear from the fantastic Mr. Rice. The "4-Prongs" you refer to actually have a name, the acronym EGOT. Emmy,Grammy,Oscar, Tony.
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