Excerpt from Superstar ~ Jesus Christ Superstar:Landmark Rock Opera to Worldwide Phenomenon
By: Ellis Nassour
Part One … In the Beginning
October 26, 2020: The songwriting partnership of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber was born in 1965 out of big dreams, talent, and need – with a strong bit of kismet thrown in. Maybe even a bit of desperation . . .
Andrew Lloyd Webber was raised in a family where his mother and father were well-known in the classical world, it was only natural that he’d be drawn to it. As a child, he could play piano and violin and wrote numerous songs and musicals, which he built sets for and staged . .
Away at prep school, Lloyd Webber decided to write a cutting edge musical. Westonia! circulated to stage impresarios, but there was nary a call. Many months later, he received word from a top producer who stated “the music is promising for such a youngster.”
“Naturally,” admitted 17-year-old Lloyd Webber, “I thought a West End opening was eminent.”
He skipped classes to meet music publishers. All for naught. The producer eventually decided the musical too over the top and too expensive to mount, especially with unknown collaborators. However, he advised Lloyd Webber to keep writing.
Later, when he looked back on the experience, to escape the deep embarrassment of failure, Lloyd Webber hid the score “where nobody – not even my dearest or closest – knows where.” It remains lost to time.
He felt he was enough of a pop music fan to write music and lyrics for the pop genre. The first of several tunes was “Make Believe Love.” When a major label chose to record it, “Quite modestly, I thought my career was off and running.”
It wasn’t, but Lloyd Webber had his first commercial release. In his memoir, Unmasked, the composer states, “Modesty and common sense prohibit my reproducing the lyrics.” No such thoughts are harbored here. It begins:
“Oh, make believe love, I asked for your heart /
I thought you would give it to me /
But found from the start, it’s make believe love /
I asked for your hand, but found you were just pretend /
You don’t understand, it’s make believe love…”
[Wes Sands’ recording of “Make Believe Love” is on the 2001 Really Useful Records five-CD compilation Andrew Lloyd Webber: Now and Forever.]
Demos of more songs made the rounds. When some doors opened, Lloyd Webber became flushed with hope, especially when some behind those doors thought of him as a sort of wunderkind. One was literary agent and independent publisher Desmond Elliott; however, he wasn’t enthralled with the single. When asked what else he had, Lloyd Webber regaled him with a long the list of musicals – never revealing most were created 10 years earlier. Elliott decided to manage him, “but the only money I saw was a few pounds weekly as ‘a pretty boy’ pianist.”
New to Elliott’s roster was Welsh journalist Leslie Thomas, adapting his book on Victorian doctor/philanthropist Thomas John Bernardo, who found homes for children left destitute following the 1850s cholera outbreaks, into a musical. Elliott figured with the success on the West End and Broadway of Oliver!, Lionel Bart’s loosely-based adaptation of Dickens’ Oliver Twist, the Bernardo story, titled The Likes of Us, would be a sure-fire hit.
Elliot asked Lloyd Webber to write two songs as a test. The composer delved into the Bernardo legend Thomas provided and, within days, returned with the beginning of a score. Elliott had his composer. Eliott grew impatient waiting for Thomas’s lyrics and book, and began a search to move the project on …
Those four Liverpool lads turned the music business topsy-turvy. Labels were looking for acts to rival them. Something, anything! Tim Rice, seeing others his age making it, set out “to become the next big pop star — for all the healthy reasons: women, money, and fame.”
He had a pleasant singing voice, and played guitar, but that’s not what set him apart. Several pop tunes he wrote garnered sufficient attention for him to get a no-frills demo session. Rice sang and played acoustic guitar. In the end, the label didn’t foresee backing him as a vocalist. He made rounds to producers to no avail.
Just as it was dawning on Rice that he wouldn’t become Britain’s next pop idol, there was a glimmer of hope. An A&R executive at prestigious Mills Music had listened to his demos, and expressed interest in one tune, “That’s My Story,” a bittersweet three-cord up tempo ballad about the break-up of an affair — inspired by his break-up with a long-time girlfriend.
His arrangement was infused with country rock and a lot of Elvis swagger, with a few tutti-frutti’s thrown in, but what particularly impressed was its tricky ending:
“There’s a tear in my eye /
but it’s not because I love you /
There’s an ache in my heart /
but it’s not because of you /
Go away, for I don’t want you /
I’ll be better off without you /
That’s my story, but, oh Lord, it isn’t true.”
No record deal materialized. “For an advance of one shilling,” he reported, “I gave away the copyright for the promise of royalties down the pike.”
Rice, had been studying the music business intently and had an idea for a book. He secured an appointment with Elliott, who showed no interest, but asked, “What else do you do?” Rice whipped out his demo tape. The first two tunes didn’t overwhelm Elliott, but he was taken Rice’s about face on the end lyrics of “That’s My Story” – how they completely reversed the story, as the boy rued he was still in love and wanted his girl to back.
Elliott told Rice of The Likes of Us and that he had a quite gifted composer working on the score, but he needed a “with it” lyricist. He gave him Lloyd Webber’s contact information. Leaving the office, Rice thought, “With a name like that, he’ll never make it.”
The lyricist, 22, met the composer, who’d just turned 17, on Friday, April 23.
The Lloyd Webbers lived on the top floor of a four-storey building in South Kensington. The lift wasn’t working. Rice made his way up the stairs “to the noisiest flat I’d even been in.” There was Andrew’s father playing a huge electronic church organ; his mother, was at the piano teaching a student; and Lloyd Webber’s younger brother blowing a trumpet. Adding to all that were cats roaming the premises, and, most intriguingly, a monkey.
The scene brought to mind the eccentric, slightly batty family in George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s Pulitzer Prize-winning You Can’t Take It with You.
Rice stood there looking about the spacious flat with all manner of musical instruments. No matter the racket, compared to his meager flat, the way the Lloyd Webbers lived “was like an upgrade from Economy to Business Class.”
When Lloyd Webber appeared to greet Rice, he was nattily dressed as if he’d be attending a board meeting.
Rice was a bit awestruck “by the boy who greeted me. He proved to be the acme of paradox. He oozed contradiction. Aspects of this were instantly apparent; he seemed at once awkward and confident; sophisticated and naïve; mature and childlike. Later I discovered that he was also humorous and portentous; innovative and derivative; loyal and cavalier; generous and self-centered; all these characteristics to the extreme.”
Lloyd Webber was similarly awestruck. “Tim was a six-foot-something, thin a is a rake, blond bombshell of an Adonis with blue eyes with a public school accent.” He wasn’t sure he’d ever met anyone so easy-going and casual.
Entering Lloyd Webber’s room, an oasis of sanity and quiet, Rice’s jaw dropped. It was a sitting room with bulky furniture, a table with fine Georgian crystal wine glasses, and a concert grand; and, he assumed, somewhere, the composer’s bed. He was floored by Lloyd Webber’s record collection, the largest he’d ever seen, and state-of-the-art recording and playback equipment; and amazed a teenager had money to purchase all that.
Rice was astonished to learn of Lloyd Webber’s scholarship to Oxford to study history and by his boast of having written eight musicals – in his school days no less.
“Yeah, sure you did!” he thought. Then, Lloyd Webber took to the piano and played excerpts from Ernest: a Musical of Gigantic Proportions; Cinderella Up the Beanstalk; and Socrates Swings. Rice surmised, “My God, this guy’s good.”
Now, it was his turn. Rice thought, compared what Lloyd Webber laid out, he had little to impress with. He played his demos. Lloyd Webber listened intently and in silence. When “That’s My Story” came on, he gushed over how appealing “Timothy”’s voice was and that the tune was catchy and clever.
“If his goal is to be a heartthrob rock star,” he divined to himself, “he might have a shot at pop stardom. One day, I can say I met him before he was world famous.”
The difference in their ages and their circumstances never came up, but the gap soon became obvious. Lloyd Webber’s talk of classical music and opera, love of Victorian architecture, and gourmet foods was amusing and interesting, but Rice knew little about that.
Lloyd Webber found Rice to be a walking/talking encyclopedia of pop and rock music history, cricket, and Tom and Jerry cartoons.
Still awaiting an adaptation by Thomas for The Likes of Us, and a lyricist, Lloyd Webber thought Rice would be a good fit. He played the music he’d composed and suggested they meet soon, with Rice bringing some song ideas to the table.
On the bus home, Rice assured himself that he’d met “someone of rare ability and determination.” Though he was more interested in rock than the West End, he felt he’d “be mad to miss out on being a sidekick to a chap who was clearly going to take the musical theater by storm – probably by next week.”
Two days later, Lloyd Webber was quite stunned when Rice rang and informed he was on his way with two songs. One, “Going, Going, Gone!” grabbed Lloyd Webber’s attention immediately. It was a tongue-twister sung by an auctioneer at a sale where Dr. Bernardo hoped to have the winning bid on a “gin palace” he wished to turn into a temperance center.
He was quite bowled over by the e quirkiness and simplicity of Rice’s turn of Cockney phrases as an auctioneer tries to sell a parrot, who was so “sound in limb to limb, I can guarantee that there’s nothin’ wrong with him.”
If this was what Rice could deliver with so little input, in so little time, he’d found his lyricist.
Summing up Rice’s talent, Lloyd Webber could hardly contain himself. “Timothy had this extraordinary way with words. I’d never seen or heard anything like it … He would rhyme in a way that anyone else at that time would have said, ‘How dare you!’” …
Rice was torn. As much as he admired Lloyd Webber’s talent as composer — even though he loved his share of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Alan Jay Lerner shows, he had no burning desire to write for the stage. Rock was his forte.
Still, he felt genius; and a parrot in hand was better than one out on a limb.
In the meantime, there were a few pounds to be made by Rice. Mills submitted “What’s My Story” to Piccadilly Records, home to Donovan, the Kinks, and Petula Clark. The tune went to new rock group Nightshift.
Rice wrote “That’s My Story” as a folk song but Nightshift “beefed it up considerably.” It didn’t turn out to be “the delicate study of introspection” he envisioned. Sadly, upon release, “it turned out to be Nightshift’s entire career.” Then, the tune was licensed by the most unlikely group, Mexico’s Los Six Kings, who recorded it in Spanish.
It became Rice’s first commercial tune. He even pocketed a fair amount of change. Rice laughed that while “What’s My Story” didn’t shake up the music world, “it really wasn’t at all bad.”
[Rice has often sung “That’s My Story” in radio and TV appearances – reaping thousands in royalties.]
Desmond Elliott signed Lloyd Webber and Rice to a publishing contract with each receiving a £100 advance.
Within days, with dreams of the West End in their future, the duo began, as Rice put it, “heaving away” on The Likes of Us.
Rice said, “It wasn’t until a week or so later that I realized I’d changed careers.” …
In South Kennsignton, as things got down to business, billing negotiation ensued. Lloyd Webber decided the partnership would be Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. Not so fast, said Rice. He suggested Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber had a better ring. Lloyd Webber felt the composer should come first. Rice never came around to that way of thinking. They were at a stalemate. Lloyd Webber was far from pleased, but caved.
Thus, began the collaboration of the U.K.’s Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers.
END OF PART ONE
Tune in Monday for Part Two. Failure plagues the partnership of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice until a friend suggests setting a Bible story to music. After other failures, success – and controversy – rain down on them when they begin their rock opera set against the passion of Jesus Christ.