Tim Rice is one of the most successful lyricists in the history of musicals. He’s won two Tony Awards, three Oscars, three Golden Globes and a Grammy. In advance of Chess opening in Toronto later this month, Rice spoke to The Globe and Mail over the phone from London to discuss musical titles, longevity and how to deal with critics.
Will you come to Toronto to see the production?
Yes, I think I’m coming on the 28th of September. I was actually in Stratford recently to see [ Jesus Christ] Superstar.
What did you think of it? It’s been getting some very good reviews.
I thought it was great. I really enjoyed it. The only bloke who wasn’t bananas about it was some creep from The New York Times. I shall remember him. I think the best way to deal with critics is violence, so I look forward to meeting him.
When you watch Superstar or a production of Chess, are you ever amazed at their longevity, or did you know they would stand the test of time?
No, you never know that. I remember when we were doing the record, we thought, ‘Will this ever get released?’ And then when the record did very well, we thought, ‘Will it ever be a show?’ I guess about 10 years ago I thought, ‘Well, this looks like it’s going to see me out.’
Two men playing chess doesn’t exactly scream ripping drama. How has it endured?
It’s not really what the piece is about, and to be honest, I think the title of the show was probably not the best title. All the titles we tried, like Black and White or Checkmate, all seemed terribly corny. But in retrospect it would have been good if we called it something else. I thought of changing the title, but that doesn’t work so much, because it is quite a well-known piece now. It’s been done so many times and in so many places that you can’t really change it. But I sometimes think it would be nice if it was called something else.
What was it about these two men that made it a story you wanted to tell?
I got intrigued by [Bobby]Fischer and [Boris]Spassky as two characters – the American guy who was obviously not a very pleasant person, and the Russian who obviously seemed to be a really nice guy. And this was kind of the wrong way around. In the west, we were meant to feel the American was the good guy.
What do you think accounts for Chess’s longevity?
I think it’s just the score is so good. People always say, ‘Oh, the story is complex.’ Well, the story is complex. It’s not a musical written for idiots. It’s a musical written for people who quite like following something. One of the problems with musicals and opera is you can’t ever hear all the words. I have been saying it would be a great idea to have surtitles like they do in opera throughout the whole show.
Are they any numbers in particular that stand out for you?
I always think Pity the Child is a goodie. And I’ve always liked a song called Heaven Help My Heart, which is quite a corny number.
Former ABBA members Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus composed the music for Chess. How did that come about?
I heard through a theatrical producer in New York that they wanted to write a musical. I didn’t know them at the time, although of course I knew of them because they were massively popular in Europe. And I already had my idea. When I heard they wanted to do this, I got in touch with them. When I first met them, ABBA was still going strong.
I also hear you’re working on a musical about the life of Machiavelli?
It’s slightly on the backburner, only because I’m doing something else which has suddenly come on to the front burner. I’ve been working on a musical for some time based on the great book From Here to Eternity by James Jones and written with a young composer named Stuart Brayson, who’s not known but he’s brilliant. We’ve got the team together and I’m hoping that will happen next year in London. I’ll get back to Machiavelli after that.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Chess: The Musical runs at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre from Sept. 28 to Oct. 30.