Profile in Excellence: Sir Tim Rice

Tim Rice is, to put it mildly, riding high. His lyrics for “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Evita” are again being heard in Gotham — the latter joining “the millionaires’ club” (reserved for shows grossing more than $1 million per week) even before its April 5 opening. Back in London, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s revamp of “The Wizard of Oz” at the London Palladium boasts new Rice songs, a stadium tour of “Superstar” is being readied, not to mention “The Lion King.” Still packing them in after 12 years at London’s Lyceum theater, on March 14 “Lion King” became the sixth longest-running musical in Broadway history.

Surprisingly, although “Evita” and “Beauty and the Beast” both won best musical, the 67-year-old Rice has never been presented with an individual Olivier Award, London legit’s most prestigious honor. The Society of London Theatre, which oversees the Oliviers, will make up for the oversight when it presents Rice with a special kudo on April 15 — this for a man already in possession of a Grammy, four Tonys, three Golden Globes and three Oscars.

“The only awards I’ve won in the U.K.,” he tells Variety, “have been Ivor Novellos.” Indeed, he has 13 of the British songwriting honors. All of which may have been fairly unimaginable to the man who first found success writing a show based on a Bible story for youngsters at a West London school. It lasted 20 minutes, had music by then-19-year-old Lloyd Webber and was called “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”

Expanded slightly for a one-off concert, it wound up receiving an unexpected and glowing review in the Sunday Times. It was subsequently released on disc before any planned staging, a moldbreaking move that set a model for the new tuner team that did the same with both the rock opera “Superstar” and “Evita,” both of which were shows generated by Rice.

In his autobiography “Oh, What a Circus” (the title of one of his favorite songs) Rice observed drolly, “I have never been accused of allowing my work to dominate my life.” But although he and Lloyd Webber split after “Evita” — “I think most creative partnerships have a great 10 years and any more than that is unusual” — he managed another immensely high-profile decade courtesy of Disney.

“Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin” with composer Alan Menken, his first Mouse House projects, were both inherited from the late Howard Ashman. Not so “The Lion King,” which was his first outing with Elton John.

He says normally regardless of who his composer is, there’s little difference in his working method.

“I do the nitty-gritty at my desk, alone,” he says. “I have to have no distractions. The difference with Elton John is that he always likes the words first. There’s no CD to play to learn the music.”

Is it liberating not to have to fit lyrics to the composer’s structure?

photos/_specials-art2/RICE_infobox.jpg” vspace=”5″ hspace=”5″ align=”left”>”Yes! But a lyricist is at his best when he is concise. It’s better to say something in nine syllables rather than nine sentences. The danger in having no tune is you tend to waffle.”

Unwilling to single out a favorite, he’s clearly proud of “Evita,” which he ascribes to a near-ideal juxtaposition of expertise and enthusiasm.

“When we did it we had enough experience,” he says, “but yet were still young enough not to quite know what it was we were doing.”

And is there a prodigal son in his back catalog, the one that got away?

“Actually, yes: ‘King David.’?” Initially posited by Disney’s then-prexy Michael Eisner, it was rescored and presented in a Broadway concert staging.

“It fell between stools,” he says ruefully. “But make it half the length, maybe, and I think it could really work. It has some of Alan’s best music.”

Before that there’s his next project, the stage tuner version of “From Here to Eternity.” Rookie composer Stuart Brayson took the project to him and, with new Rice lyrics and upcoming helmer Tamara Harvey attached, Rice and producer Lee Menzies are aiming for a 2013 West End berth.

Organizers of the Oliviers are clearly not honoring a talent whose career is over.

Life measured in song, kudos

1944
Timothy Miles Bindon Rice is born Nov. 10.

1963
Begins training as a lawyer.

1965
Meets 17-year-old Andrew Lloyd Webber. Their first tuner, “The Likes of Us,” is not produced.

1966
Quits law. Becomes management trainee at EMI Records.

1967 EMI releases Rice and Lloyd Webber’s debut single “Down Thru’ Summer.” It tanks.

1968
Rice & Lloyd Webber’s 20-minute pop oratorio “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” premieres at Colet Court School.

1970
“Jesus Christ Superstar” double album is released Oct. 16. Within a year, Variety describes it as the “biggest all-media parlay in show business history.”

1971
“Superstar” premieres at Gotham’s Mark Hellinger. Two years later, it starts eight-year London run.

1978
“Evita” begins almost eight-year London run June 21.

1984
“Chess,” written with Abba’s Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, is released as an album. London production runs 1,109 perfs but shutters in Gotham after only 68.

1991
Rice wins Grammy, Golden Globe and first of three Oscars for “A Whole New World” from Disney’s “Aladdin,” music by Alan Menken.

1994
Pens lyrics for Disney movie “The Lion King,” music by Elton John, and is knighted by Queen Elizabeth.

1999
Publishes his autobiography and is inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

2000
Writes stage tuner “Aida,” music by Elton John.

2012
Stage version of “The Lion King” becomes the sixth-longest-running show in Broadway history.

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