Special Interview With Hall Of Fame Songwriter Tim Rice, Co-Writer Of Songs For The Lion King, Aladdin, Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita

Tim Rice
Tim Rice

Tim Rice is a legendary songwriter & lyricist who is known for co-writing classic songs for some of the biggest movie musicals and Broadway shows of the past 50 years. The British songwriter has written the lyrics for such standards as “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” and “Circle of Life” (written with Elton John for The Lion King), “A Whole New World” (Aladdin), “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” (Evita) and “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” (Jesus Christ Superstar).

Rice is one of the few people who are EGOT winners, which means they have won Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Awards. In addition, Rice was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1999. Now in 2023, he is being honored a second time by the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He is the recipient of the esteemed Johnny Mercer Award, which is the highest honor bestowed by the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Rice will receive this award at a special event in New York City on June 15.

Here’s an excerpt of our interview with Tim Rice, who tells how he wrote with Elton John the hits “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” and “Circle of Life” for the Disney movie, The Lion King.

Rice, who grew up and lives in England, has collaborated with many of the top songwriters & composers in the world of movies, musical theatre and recordings. He is perhaps best known for partnering with legendary composer Andrew Lloyd Webber to write the songs for the hit musicals Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. He also teamed up with Elton John to write the songs for the Disney movie versions of The Lion King, and the Tony Award-winning musical, Aida. He also collaborated with pop legends Benny Andersson & Bjorn Ulvaeus of ABBA to write the hit musical, Chess.

Many of the songs Rice has written for movies and musical shows, have become hit pop songs. From Jesus Christ Superstar came the hits “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” and “Superstar.” From Evita came “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina,” which became a hit for Madonna when she starred in the movie version of Evita. From the Disney movie Aladdin came the #1 hit, “A Whole New World” (sung by Peabo Bryson & Regina Belle). Fom Aida came “Written in the Stars” (sung by Elton John & LeAnn Rimes) and from Chess came “I Know Him So Well” (sung by Elaine Page & Barbara Dickson).

Here’s the video of Elton John’s hit “Can You Feel The Love
Tonight” (from The Lion King), which was co-written by Tim Rice.

Rice also teamed up with renowned Disney songwriter & composer Alan Menken to write additional songs for the Broadway expansion of Beauty and the Beast, and he wrote new songs with Elton John for the Broadway musical version of The Lion King. And most recently, he co-wrote the songs for the musical, From Here to Eternity.

In 1994, Rice was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his services to music, and he’s known as Sir Tim Rice. He has also been named a Disney Legend, and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Tim Rice Interview

We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Tim Rice. He discusses his collaborations with Andrew Lloyd Webber, Elton John, ABBA and Alan Menken, and he tells how he co-wrote some of his classic hit songs.

DK: Congratulations on receiving the Johnny Mercer Award by the Songwriters Hall of Fame. How does it feel to receive this honor?

Tim Rice: I am truly honored to receive the Johnny Mercer Award. My induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame (in 1999) was a highlight of my writing career, and I never expected to receive any further recognition from this distinguished gathering of songwriters. So I feel very flattered. I have attended quite a few Songwriters Hall of Fame events in the past 25 years and it’s always great fun. And it’s nice to meet other songwriters, particularly ones who tend to be based in America. It’s a relaxed and nice occasion for everyone.

DK: You’ve written several hit musicals with Andrew Lloyd Webber. How did you meet Andrew, and decide to work together?

Rice: I first met Andrew in 1965 when we were both young. I had written a couple of pop songs and I had a job at EMI Records; I was in the music business. At the time, I saw my future as being behind the scenes like a record company executive. But I was doing a few things on the side, singing in a pop group, and through various links in the business I met Andrew. When I went ‘round to meet him, he said he was going to write musicals. He was more interested in that than he was in the straightforward pop charts or rock music. And I was more interested in pop and rock, but he was obviously so talented, that it seemed that I would be crazy not to give it a go with him.

Here’s the video of the hit “A Whole New World” (sung by Peabo
Bryson & Regina Belle for the movie, Aladdin), which was
co-written by Tim Rice.

We didn’t have any success for a while, but we felt that our combination of words and music worked, and that we suited each other’s styles. And in the end, it did work out. It took a record—the album of Jesus Christ Superstar—to break us. But once that got going, it led to a show and other shows that we’d done happened. It was a long process, but it wasn’t particularly brilliantly planned. We were lucky to be in the right place at the right time with the right piece.

DK: You’re known for being an excellent lyricist. When did you start writing lyrics, and realize that you were really good at it?

Rice: Oh, you never know if you’re really good at something (laughs) until you get a lot of success at it. And even then, you might be just lucky. But I had a great interest in writing words and rhymes, and word games, primarily funny ones. I was more interested in writing something that was amusing, and the first piece that Andrew and I wrote that attracted attention was Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which became a hit after Jesus Christ Superstar, but was written before Superstar. It was very popular with kids because it was funny and had catchy tunes. It had a few serious points in it, but it was basically a light-hearted piece.

DK: How did you and Andrew Lloyd Webber write the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, which had the pop hit, “I Don’t Know How To Love Him”?

Rice: Well the first thing when you write a musical, is a story. I think a good theatrical musical needs a good story. And frankly, the story of Jesus through the eyes of Judas is a very good idea. That doesn’t mean it will be a hit; it’s got to be well-written and well put over. But once we got that idea and we enjoyed the story, we thought…Why wouldn’t other people? Then as we set it out scene by scene, the plot is worked out to a sophisticated extent. Obviously the story of Jesus is in the Bible, in the gospels. But Judas doesn’t have much to say in the gospels which is a bit silly when you think about it, because he’s such an important feature of the story. So we had to work out where we would get Judas into the story and Mary Magdalene, and once you’ve got a scene—a story with characters and you know what the characters are thinking or trying to do—then the songs begin to write themselves in a way.

Here’s the video of Madonna’s hit “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”
(from Evita), which was co-written by Tim Rice.

It seemed a good idea to have somebody like Mary Magdalene looking upon Jesus as in one sense, an ordinary man who (laughs) might just have had a physical attraction for her. On the other hand, she felt that he was something more than that, which is also Judas’ problem. Judas reacted to him in our version of the story, as if he was an ordinary man, but he still had doubts. He thought, “Maybe I’m wrong.” He felt he had to betray Jesus in order to save the people who had been taken over, who were under Roman law, and he had a motive. It may be misguided in some respects, but all these stories and songs come from the plot. And I always found it very difficult, or perhaps uninteresting, to write a song just as a song. I find it difficult just to write 5 or 10 songs for an album. But if I wrote a story linking everything together, then each scene becomes easier. And “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” was a good idea for a scene where you could have a good song, and it did work out to be a good one. It was the first hit we had out of a show.

DK: A few years later you wrote the songs for Evita, including the beautiful classic, “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.” How did you and Andrew write this song?

Rice: Well again, it was plot first. Evita was an idea that I had for quite a while, before we actually got onto it. Andrew was doing something else, and I was still enjoying the success of Jesus Christ Superstar. Then I suddenly felt that Evita was a story that would suit our style, and it was an interesting story, which was very important. It’s a strong story, and it’s got similarities to Superstar, in that it’s about one particular person who affects lots of people around them. Coincidentally, they both died at the age of 33. But the differences were good because this was a leading role for a female voice, which we hadn’t really had in Superstar. So it seemed a nice progression for us and it worked very well. We’d done an album with Superstar by accident because nobody wanted to stage it until it was a hit record. And with Evita we deliberately made the record first, so we had control over the score and the way the piece worked.

Here’s the video of Elton John’s hit “Circle of Life” (from
The Lion King), which was co-written by Tim Rice.

With “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina,” we knew that one of the big scenes in Eva Peron’s story had to be when she rose to the balcony and makes a political speech. “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” is an insincere political speech in some respects. She’s trying to fool the public. If you think about it, why would they cry for her?  She was highly successful and running the country (laughs). But the tune was so lovely, and it worked so well out of context as well as working within the show. So that wasn’t something we planned, but it seemed to happen.

DK: After you worked with Andrew Lloyd Webber, you went on to have great success writing songs for Disney’s animated movies. How did you get involved with Disney, and write with the songs “Circle of Life” and “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” with Elton John?

Rice: I was approached by Disney, who at one point were interested in producing the film of Evita, which they ended up not doing. I met one or two Disney executives at the time, and I dropped hints that I would like to write something for films, which I hadn’t really done before. I was a great fan of their animation, and their animation department was undergoing a renaissance thanks largely to Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (who had written the songs for The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast).

Here’s an excerpt of our interview with Tim Rice, who tells how he co-wrote the hit “A Whole New World” for the Disney movie, Aladdin.

They eventually said to me, “We’ve got this idea for a film about a lion cub and his wicked uncle. They described it as “Hamlet with fur” (laughs). At the time, they had this tiny team of Disney executives and a director and a possible screenwriter, and a drawing of one lion. They said, “If this project gets off the ground, who do you think could write the music with you?” And I suggested Elton John. I never thought that Elton would agree to do it. But he rang me up and asked me a few questions about it, and at first he said he couldn’t do it because he was very busy and touring. But then he came ‘round and said, “Yeah, we’ll give it a go.” And that was great news. I think that my suggestion to Disney that they try Elton John for The Lion King was almost my main contribution to the film. And it was great fun working with him.

Here’s the video of Elton John & LeAnn Rimes’ hit “Written in
the Stars” (from Aida), which was co-written by Tim Rice.

DK: Also with Disney, you wrote the hit “A Whole New World” for Aladdin. How did you get involved with Aladdin?

Rice: “A Whole New World” was a hit before The Lion King, but I was working on The Lion King before I worked on Aladdin. There was the sad news that (lyricist) Howard Ashman was very ill and couldn’t continue, and as we know he eventually died. And the film Aladdin, which was about a year ahead of The Lion King in production but still hadn’t come out, needed two or three more songs. I was on the premises, and they must have been thinking, “Well, The Lion King songs sound alright, so why don’t we see if (composer) Alan Menken would write with Tim?”

I hadn’t met Alan—I knew of his music and I greatly admired what he’d written with Howard. And luckily we got along well, and there wasn’t much time to worry about anything else, because the film was in danger of missing its opening because of the tragedy of Howard getting ill and the songs not being written. So I came in, and the first song we wrote together with Alan’s great music was “A Whole New World,” which was a pretty good start.

DK: You’ve written songs for a wide range of musicals and movies. Besides the songs we’ve discussed, what are your favorite songs that you’ve written?

Rice: I enjoyed very much working with Bjorn (Ulvaeus) and Benny (Andersson) of ABBA on Chess, which has done very well in the 30 or 40 years since it’s opened. It recently had a run in Moscow and it’s played in a lot of places. The piece has had a lot of big hits like “One Night In Bangkok” and “I Know Him So Well” which was #1 in England. And that is one of the pieces that I’ve most enjoyed doing. I also enjoyed very much doing Aida with Elton John, which also did well on Broadway.

DK: Your most recent musical is called From Here to Eternity. Can you talk about your latest show?

Here’s the video of Helen Reddy’s hit “I Don’t Know How
To Love Him” (from Jesus Christ Superstar), which was
co-written by Tim Rice.

Rice: It’s written with a very talented English composer, Stuart Brayson. It played in London a few years ago and it got quite good reviews and played for six months, but didn’t get enough audience. But since then it’s done well in smaller theaters both in America and in the U.K. And we are opening a production in Milwaukee next year. It’s an American story that may initially have more appeal in America. From Here to Eternity is a fantastic story, and it was a book by James Jones, and our musical is adapted from the book.

DK: Thank you Tim for doing this interview. Is there anything that we haven’t talked about yet that you’d like to mention for this article?

Rice: Well, I always love coming over to America. In the music world, most of my early obsession and enjoyments and music that I loved came from America. Both in rock music and pop music, and in film and theatre music. American culture has had a huge influence on me: films, records, Elvis, Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry and Little Richard.

Dale Kawashima is the Head of SongwriterUniverse and a music journalist. He’s also a music publishing exec who has represented the song catalogs of Michael Jackson, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Motown Records.
Dale Kawashima