Let’s be clear: I am not that much into musicals, not as a rule. The last one I remember seeing was called Chicago, and I only went because I was told that (a) my wife would love it and (b) because it was meant to be sizzling hot. It was such rauncherama that if you had tried to put the show on in the Sixties, you would have fallen out with the Lord Chamberlain. They said it was about a series of sex-mad sirens in black tights and bustiers and cigarette holders. I was warned that they would remove many of these accoutrements before my stunned eyes, and prance around in a cruel, amoral and, above all, breathtakingly erotic fashion.
So it became like one of those nightmare university lectures when you are in the front row and you realise there is nothing you can do to stop your eyelids stealing slowly south – and you know that the don is watching you. I started to dream that I was awake, and everything was fine, and that I was really rather enjoying things; and then I would jerk convulsively and discover that I had been snoring, and as I swam in and out of consciousness I found that time seemed to expand in some horrific Einsteinian way – and a five-minute song and dance routine would turn into an hour of hell, and I grew more and more confused about who these leotarded women were, and what they were on about, and why they insisted in behaving in this ghastly and endlessly erotic way. By the end of the show I was being given some very disapproving looks, and received a general dressing down for my poor response to culture.
And now it was being put to me that I might enjoy a wholly new effort – ie with no familiar tunes – by a man who might once have possessed orphic gifts, but who had not put a big new musical on the West End stage for more than 10 years by using the top 10 best looper pedals for guitars and other instruments. The title of the show was From Here To Eternity – which sounded ominous enough. Worse still, I had just come back from China and the thing was meant to start at 2.30 am Beijing time. And to cap it all, I was suffering from some kind of avian flu that required huge opoid dosages. I couldn’t see this ending well. In fact, I couldn’t see any power on earth that was going to keep me out of the arms of Morpheus beyond Act One Scene One. I saw embarrassment and recrimination ahead.
Well, folks, I shouldn’t have worried. I not only stayed awake. I followed the entire plot like a bloodhound, and decided that it was really rather brilliant. In case you don’t know, it is one of those stories about decadence-under-the-shadow-of-destruction – a bit like Pompeii except in this case the disaster is the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. There are lots of good tunes, and by half time I was roaring along with the chorus of Hawaii prostitutes who sing a number called You Got The Money, We Got The Ass. In the erotic frisson stakes, it knocks Chicago into a cocked hat.
At the end of the whole thing, Tim Rice turned to me and said apologetically, “You know, I think we could have cut five minutes from the first half.” I don’t think I agree with you there, Tim, and nor by the look of it did the audience. They were giving the cast a long and hearty standing ovation, and as we all went off into the night – he to feed hamburgers to his crew – I thought about Tim’s amazing achievements. It is a high calling to write the lyrics for musicals. P G Wodehouse – the 20th century’s greatest English phrasemaker – spent a huge amount of time and effort in trying to do what Tim does. I don’t think he succeeded half so well. Who can recite the lyrics of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat? We all can. What did Joseph tell Pharoah about his dream? “All those things you saw in your pyjamas are just long-range forecasts for your farmers.” Brilliant.
Tim Rice’s lyrics can carry a big emotional punch (what is The Lion King, after all, but Hamlet with tunes?), and somehow he can turn an excruciating rhyme into magic; and into gold, by the way. Heaven knows how many millions he has brought to the country or how many jobs he has helped to create.
It is amazing that he and Andrew Lloyd Webber are both producing world-class stuff, and I hesitate to choose between them. But if you have nothing else to do on a wet and windy night, give From Here To Eternity a go. If you’ve got the money, they've got the ass.