Theater » Theater Feature

Elaborate Lives

Tim Rice on Aida, Elton, and the magic kingdom.



Love thy enemy: a scene from the nationally touring production of Aida
We never got to an advanced stage with that," says pop-opera lyricist and frequent Andrew Lloyd Webber collaborator Sir Tim Rice of Disney's initial plan to develop their latest theatrical success, Aida, as a zippy kid-friendly animated feature. The top brass at the magic kingdom, high on the wild success of 1994's Tim Rice and Elton John collaboration The Lion King, had obtained rights to a children's book by opera superstar Leontyne Price. Hopes were high that Price's retelling of Giuseppe Verdi's masterpiece about a beautiful Nubian princess whose pronounced case of Stockholm syndrome leads to a tragic and untimely end amid the sands of ancient Egypt would be the perfect vehicle for reuniting the universally beloved creative team of Rice and John.

The problem with an animated feature, says Rice matter-of-factly, the trace of a yawn rising in his throat, "is me and Elton had already done it with The Lion King." There were, it would seem, other worlds to conquer. John requested of Disney, says Rice: "Give us something really dangerous [to work on]." That's when the powers-that-be began to seriously discuss the possibility of developing Aida as a pop musical for the stage. Now, developing a new musical with Tim Rice, the creative force behind such rock-and-soul-informed extravaganzas as Evita, Chess, and Jesus Christ Superstar (to name but a few of the award-heavy lyricist's achievements), and pop icon Elton John (who, we presume, needs no introduction) at the project's helm and with the full financial backing and support of the monolithic Walt Disney Corporation may not sound like a terribly dangerous proposition to most, but this was Aida, after all, and Verdi's composition is considered sacred in opera circles. The door was left wide open for critical vivisection.

"[Verdi] did just a lovely job with Aida. I'd like to congratulate him on that," Rice says, cheekily shrugging off the possibility of any negative comparisons. Then, confessing that he doesn't actually know Verdi's original all that well, he adds, "It's a bit like Jesus Christ Superstar, really. We weren't afraid people would think we were trying to replace the Bible. We're just trying to tell an old story in a new way, like Romeo and Juliet." And here, Rice hits on a point that even the staunchest cultural puritans cannot argue. Aida is an old story. It was ancient already when Verdi took up his pen and made it contemporary for 19th-century audiences. Clearly, given the cartload of Tony Awards it has garnered, this reinvigorated classic has struck the intended chord with modern audiences.

"We tried calling [the musical] Elaborate Lives," says Rice of an initial attempt to distance this new Aida from the original. "But that just didn't quite hit home."

Though they never exactly palled around, Rice and John became acquainted in the early '70s, when they were labelmates at MCA. Jesus Christ Superstar had, interestingly enough, become a hit record in America before the show was ever given a theatrical debut.

"Others may see Elton as this giant superstar," Rice says of his flamboyant partner, "but in private, with friends, he's just a nice bloke. I think of him as Elton, my pal with whom I'm writing a few songs." Of course, working with a certifiable pop sensation who is constantly gigging all around the world is a far cry from the classic image of the composer and lyricist banging out songs at the piano.

"I'm not all that sure that particular image was ever terribly accurate," Rice explains, stressing that he requires a certain amount of solitude in order to work. "Elton has an interesting and unusual approach to it all," he says. "It's quite different and quite fun. He likes to have the lyrics first. So I'll write some lyrics and send them to him, wherever he is, and he'll zip into the studio, compose, then you get these little Elton John masterpieces back in the mail in two days." Therein lies all the danger this composer and lyricist claim to crave. "After all," Rice says, "you can write a lyric and it looks good on the page, but let someone sing it and it's AWFUL!"

On working with Disney, the company often accused of putting the final nails in Broadway's coffin with its sugary spectacles, Rice has nothing but pleasant things to say. "I think Disney, by virtue of its size, gets 'stick' they don't deserve. The only real difference between working with Disney and working anywhere else is [this]: I came up with Evita. It was my idea. So I bring in the people I want to work with. Aida was someone else's idea, someone at Disney's. So they brought me in."

Aida at The Orpheum through October 20th.

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