Why we still adore a musical With his new show about to open, Sir Tim Rice asks why musicals just keep pulling in the crowds Last week, I broke off from rehearsals for my new theatrical venture, From Here To Eternity - an epic musical inspired by James Jones' magnificent 1951 novel - to see a touring version of Evita.
As I watched this excellent revival of what was my last collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber, I was brutally reminded how some things have changed since it first opened in the West End in 1978, a far-off golden age when there were no jukebox musicals, no shows that ran forever and no internet - not that I have anything against the first two.
Back then, the route to a hit musical was pretty straightforward: write it at home in a few weeks, pausing only to walk the dog and play snooker, record it, release an album, get a number-one hit and turn up to the opening night.
I rather approve of that process and wonder where it went. It's not that simple any more, and it doesn't seem to be because we were younger then.
There haven't been many young Lloyd Webbers and Rices bombarding the West End with long-running smashes recently; even the old Lloyd Webbers and Rices find it a struggle now.
Yet Theatreland is bubbling with musicals, and most are packing 'em in. By my reckoning, there are now more musicals than plays running in the West End, with several more on the way.
The Commitments, based on the Roddy Doyle novel, lands next month, as does The Light Princess, billed as a "dark fairytale" with songs by Tori Amos. In December, Lloyd Webber's latest opens, followed by Harry Hill's X Factor spoof, I Can't Sing!, in the new year.
The appetite for an night out in the company of an epic story set to memorable, hummable music shows no sign of abating. Earlier this month, when tickets went on sale for next year's 25th anniversary revival of Miss Saigon, pounds 4.4m of bookings were taken on one day, a new West End box office record.
Needless to say, all involved with brand new shows are livid. But in those 35 years since Evita opened at the Prince Edward Theatre, the landscape has changed immeasurably.
In 1978, there were several solid hits from previous years still doing good business - The Rocky Horror Picture Show, A Chorus Line, Oliver! (which, even then, was being revived by Cameron Macintosh) and, I'm glad to say, Jesus Christ Superstar.
Besides Evita, the only bona fide musical hit to debut in London that year was a Broadway transfer, Annie, the delightful Charles Strouse-Martin Charnin creation based on a cartoon strip and set in the US during the Great Depression.
There were a couple of British near-misses, too, including Kings and Clowns by Leslie Bricusse, about Henry VIII and starring Frank Finlay, and Bar Mitzvah Boy by Jack Rosenthal and Don Black, both of which I recall with pleasure.
Now, as then, the West End musical is kept in business by a few hangovers from the past, with 20th century behemoths such as Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera and The Lion King set fair for the 22nd century. Billy Elliot, just eight years old, Wicked (seven), and Matilda (barely out of the cradle after two blockbuster years) all look similarly immovable. Remarkably, just as in 1978, the West End has one massively successful American import (The Book of Mormon), a British production of an almost all-new American score (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), plus on the home front Lloyd Webber and Rice - only this time, with separate endeavours.
His latest musical, Stephen Ward, about the Profumo affair, opens in December, while mine begins in preview tomorrow. So why are musicals doing as well, or even better, than in 1978?
Surprisingly, it's partly to do with ticket prices. Regular theatregoers often complain about the supposed soaring costs - but, in fact, it is the financial backers who have a more justifiable beef.
The original Evita cost pounds 440,000 to mount, and the top ticket price was pounds 8.50. Most musicals of similar size would now cost at least 10, and sometimes 15 times that figure, and yet ticket prices tend to peak in the region of pounds 67.50 - only an eightfold increase.
If anything, barking though it sounds, producers could argue top shows are now underpriced. Let's hope they don't. One great difference between now and then is the proliferation of the so-called jukebox musical, which uses previously released popular songs or a particular band's back catalogue as its score. In 1978, the genre didn't exist - but, boy, it's popular now.
It really took off with Buddy in 1989, the story of Buddy Holly which climaxed with a wonderful interpretation of his last show at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, with sound, lights and backup musicians that were way more sophisticated than those Holly actually performed with in 1959.
Though it ran for 12 years in the West End, Buddy The Musical did nothing much on Broadway, which has always been more resistant to the jukebox conception. The most celebrated jukebox musical is Mamma Mia!, which has conquered the world wherever it has opened on the back of the majestic Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson songbook.
Who would have thought in 1999 that, 14 years later, a musical featuring the songs of Abba would have grossed more than $2 billion?
And that's just the show - add almost another billion for the movie and reboosted record sales.
But then who would have thought that Viva Forever!, from the same production team and based on the Spice Girls' back catalogue, would be a major flop? Last year, almost every West End insider expected it to be huge - until it opened and everyone became wise after the event. I was assured just before it opened, by those who should have known better, that Jersey Boys, featuring old hits by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, would never work in London.
Five years on, it's still working. Alongside Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys in the West End, we also have Let It Be (based on the songs of the Beatles), Thriller Live (Michael Jackson), Rock of Ages (featuring 80s' rock hits), The Bodyguard (based on the Whitney Houston film), and of course the Queen megafest, We Will Rock You.
Such jukebox musicals are usually the brainchilds of producers - they would be, because producers can't write, and this saves them the hassle of trying to find someone to produce a decent score.
But this wheeze doesn't always work: even shows stuffed with hit songs need a good story and witty production to hold it all together.
Nowadays, there seems to be no mileage in releasing the score of a show before it opens.
As with Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, Chess, the musical I wrote with Benny and Bjorn in 1984, was released as a double album a full year before it went into rehearsal.
Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson had their number one with I Know Him So Well from the show 18 months before the show premiered in the West End.
Today, with the Top 40 clogged up with samey dance music and the demise of popular music on mainstream television (RIP Top of the Pops), the opportunities to promote a musical's songs before it opens have all but evaporated.
I get the impression that the majority of today's contemporary chart music followers automatically and mindlessly dismiss anything that smacks of "a musical". Audiences in 1978 were far more varied in their age range - and less conservative - than today.
The other huge, often lethal, difference between now and then is the internet. It is hard to see the point of a press nights, or even of theatre critics, when 10 minutes into the first preview of any new show, tweeters and bloggers are already airing their views to the world.
Thanks to these social media addicts, the chance to fine-tune a show out of the public gaze before it opens has all but gone. Word of mouth decides the fate of 99 per cent of all ventures, which can have its advantages; The Book of Mormon owes much of its success to social media, which built an enormous buzz. But it can be worrying if it gets out before the show is finished.
Producers, directors, writers, actors, now need to behave as though the first preview is the first night.
But the most important things haven't changed. Theatre-goers still love musicals. Those who create them still do so more in hope than with confidence.
I'm not sure I have a clue what works in musical theatre these days, but neither does anyone else. At least I know I don't know anything, which must give me some advantage over my fellow bewildered.
Is From Here To Eternity a good idea for a musical? Is Stephen Ward? Well, almost anything can be if well executed - except possibly Rasputin, which has been attempted several times, never successfully. So all we have to do is to be brilliant. Annoying, but true.
From Here to Eternity: The Musical opens in preview tomorrow (Monday) at the Shaftesbury Theatre, London WC2. Tickets: 020 7379 5399, fromheretoeternitythemusical.com