The return of Tim Rice’s work to the West End stage was always going to get tongues wagging. This is the man, after all, who asked Argentina not to cry for Evita and who assured Joseph that any dream would do. But that he should do so by providing lyrics to accompany the music of a composer who could walk through London’s Theatreland unrecognised by even the most committed fan and whose name might be met with a shrug and puzzled expression, well, that laced the tale with intrigue and mystery.
So it is that I meet Rice, the theatrical knight who has collaborated with Sir Elton John and Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Brayson, who revels in playing up to his label as the ‘unknown composer’, the day after From Here To Eternity’s first preview in a corporate meeting room to discuss their adaptation of James Jones’ novel.
As Brayson, who first presented Rice with a cassette of songs more than half a century ago when he was a youngster starting out in the pop industry, pours me a cup of tea, the friendship, ease and absolute lack of pretention of the partnership swiftly becomes clear. Ideas for signage and publicity are pitched and discussed mid-interview, while alarms go off to remind about other calls on their time.
Above all there is an air of genuine excitement, with Brayson slightly more coiled than Rice – he’s been here before, after all, and knows all the pitfalls – and why not, the tale of passion and honour among soldiers set in the shadow of Pearl Harbour has, to some extent, been 25 years brewing.
How did the first preview go?
Rice: It went well. There’s a lot we need to do but that’s what you expect and we’ve got over three weeks before we open.
Brayson: Great start though.
Rice: Fantastic. The one area which is really strong – it’s all strong, of course – but the company are so into it already. It’s very much a team. There are lead roles, but there’s no one big mega part. It’s got four major roles, five really with Maggio.
Brayson: We’re enthusiastic, as you can tell. I was waiting for some scenery to collapse or something, but it didn’t.
Rice: Something like scenery collapsing is not what you want, but in previews it doesn’t really matter. The problem with previews is if you see the audience nodding, that’s when you worry. But we didn’t get that, we got a standing ovation.
Brayson: I think some of the audience last night came along thinking it was going to be South Pacific part II and it’s just not that. In the interval, you could feel there was a sense of “This is completely not what we expected”, in a good way.
How does the show match up to your expectations of it?
Brayson: I think we were surprised last night. We’ve never had it performed in front of an audience. Within the first few minutes the audience just seemed to get it. They got the sense of the piece and it was plain sailing after that. The cast raised their game because they got laughs and applause, things they haven’t had from a big audience. I think that took the show somewhere else. There’s so much still to do on it, but not as much as we thought.
Rice: The piece basically is there. Actually the bit that worked best of all in the first dress rehearsal was the ending. Usually, because you haven’t had time to get to it properly, it’s a problem for most shows. That was encouraging.
The musical is based on the book, rather than the film, which is a lot darker…
Brayson: This is probably the film they would have wanted to make.
Rice: The film was brilliant, but it’s of its time. We didn’t want to do an adaptation of an adaptation or an interpretation of an interpretation, we wanted to go back to the source. The rights cost $40,000 for the first period which was quite reasonable. Once that commitment had been made I thought “I ought to get this on”. I think the pre-production costs were well over half a million pounds. There are a lot of salaries to be paid, workshops, demos, quarter of a million pound deposit on the theatre, which is standard practice. There was a lot of outlay. If we hadn’t raised the investment money…
Brayson: …we would have had to bring out the concept album.
Rice: It’s not very easy these days to get musicals played a great deal on the air. I thought of doing some sort of album before but I’m glad we haven’t because…
Brayson: …we didn’t really know what it was.
Rice: Things kept changing. One or two things we’ll still cut and change. Shows spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on a concept album and then half the songs, or quite a few, aren’t in the show. Whatever album we record…
Brayson: …you’d have felt you had to use the songs you recorded.
Rice: A couple of the best songs we’ve written are very recent… Also you waste time. The actors have had so much to do.
Brayson: I would say they must be the fittest cast in the West End. They have to do drills on stage and you really believe them because they’ve been doing it every day in rehearsals. The place we were rehearsing last week, they were walking across the floor on their hands every morning.
Rice: We were as well, of course!
Stuart, what were you thinking when you first handed Tim a cassette decades ago?
Brayson: At the time it was definitely “Can you help my band? Can you do something with this song?” Not so much help, just feedback. For kids when they’re starting off in pop music, you never know if you’re going in the right direction. So when you see somebody like Tim… How would I get to meet somebody like Tim? I didn’t socialise in the same world.
Rice: You could have gone out to a disgusting nightclub… It didn’t dawn on me that you were going to write musicals until I began getting one a week. Stu got a few on out of town. They all had something. I thought this was the first one he’d sent me that obviously had a chance; nothing is certain. The others, there was nothing really in any of them that I thought “Yes!” I thought they were good and the songs were great, but this one I thought the story is so good. Initially I was just going to try and get it to a good producer.
What Stuart hadn’t done was to write a book. It didn’t at that point have a dramatic arc, which is the rather pretentious way of putting it, so I called another old friend of mine, Bill Oakes. Bill reshaped the story, but of course then a lot of the songs didn’t fit. Eventually we needed a lot of new songs and a lot of the old songs needed revamping.
Brayson: I think it’s some of the best lyrics you’ve ever written, but I would say that. It’s a mature show and it needed that head. I wouldn’t have been able to give it all the nuance Tim has.
How brave do you have to be to bring a new musical into London these days?
Rice: Especially one with a new score. That’s why I was keen to do it. There hasn’t been a good new composer from Britain to emerge for years. So I thought it could be Stuart, it should be Stuart, it will be Stuart.
Brayson: That’s what I like to hear. I’m the unknown composer. There’s no pressure on me at all. I’ll get a t-shirt, then I can rub out the ‘Un’.
Rice: You could rub out the ‘Com’… Unknown Poser!