Prior to Saturday's San Francisco opening of Lestat, Livedaily.com carried an interview with the director, Robert Jess Roth, who admitted to once being an ''Elton geek'' and learning that ironically, the star was as nervous as he, about their first encounter.
How did you and Elton first connect?
I had directed the Broadway show Beauty and the Beast for the Walt Disney Company. A week after it opened Michael Eisner, who was Chairman of the Company at the time, invited me to a meeting and said, Hey, you did a good job, do you want to do another one? I said Of course! Michael had the idea to do Aida, and Jeffrey Katzenberg had the idea to ask Elton and Tim Rice if they wanted to collaborate on something. So I was sent to meet John Reid [Eltons former manager] here in New York. I knew a lot about him already
Was that because you are an Elton John fan?
Yes, I have been a really big Elton fan since I was thirteen or fourteen years old. My bedroom was plastered with Elton portraits, I have read every book, collected all the music a true Elton John geek. My dad scalped tickets for us to see Elton at Madison Square Garden on the 1976 Louder than Concorde tour. He got tickets for the seventh row for me and my mum; it was a very big night for me and my family, so exciting telling everyone where we lived in New Jersey that we were going to see Elton John.
Anyway, John Reid and I had a great conversation and he said, OK, you need to meet Elton now. That was in 1994 November I think and Elton was touring Europe with Ray Cooper. So I actually met Elton for the first time backstage at the Royal Albert Hall.
What was that like?
I was really seriously nervous. I met up with John, and we went and sat in the Royal Box, and in the box were Brian May and Roger Taylor from Queen! (I was a big Queen fan too) Then at 10 to 8 Johns pager went off (this was before the days of cell phones) and it was Elton paging him from backstage saying Bring Rob back now. So we ran from the Royal Box all the way round the theatre to the backstage, where Elton was waiting. He was about to go onstage and was wearing a pink vinyl suit. To my surprise Elton said I was nervous about meeting you so I wanted to meet you before the concert! We had a ten-minute chat, then he went onstage and John and I went back to the concert. Afterwards we went back to the dressing room and sat and talked. Elton asked me what kind of music I was imagining for Aida and I mentioned One Horse Town. There was a momentary blank look and I said It has a beautiful rock guitar happening against a big lush orchestra. Elton was surprised that I mentioned something so obscure as Side One Track Three from Blue Moves, but I think he realised pretty quickly that I was seriously aware of his deep catalogue.
We had a good chat and we really did seem to get on well. Its been amazing to know him - Im still constantly blown away by his talent.
[Rob did go on to work on Aida but the production had a troubled beginning and in the first months of the musical many of the Disney team involved, as well as Rob, lost their jobs.]
And this is where the story of Lestat begins
Yes, Elton said OK, lets do something else. So we were backstage at Madison Square Garden late one afternoon in 1999. Elton was playing there that night. I had prepared a very big speech to make to him about why Anne Rices Vampire project would make a great musical Id been waiting for the right time to talk to him about it. I felt that this was the right moment so I said Hey, have you ever read the Anne Rice Vampire chronicles? He replied Yeah, I love them, theyre fantastic. We should do that that should be our next project.
So I said Thats amazing, but Ive prepared a speech to make to you, and he said Dont bother - tear it up, lets just do it. So that kicked the ball off but then it took a very, very long time to track down the rights to the books, more than a year. During that time I kept saying to him Im telling everyone that you want to do this. Is that OK, do you still want to do it? Finally at the soundcheck for the One Night Only concerts at Madison Square Garden he came over and asked how it was going, and I said Its going fine, is it still OK to tell people you want to do this? Elton said Never ask me that again Im committed, and I know these things take a long time
Eventually we did track down the rights. And when it seemed like we were going to get the rights, when it seemed like it was going to be real, thats when Elton asked Bernie if he would like to write the lyrics.
Had you met Bernie before?
Yes, just socially at concerts and stuff and Id talked to him a little bit. Elton had asked me to go to Minneapolis to hear the Songs From the West Coast album he was playing there with Billy Joel. During that time he called Bernie and told him about the project, and Bernie said he would like to meet me. I asked Linda Woolverton, who was writing the book, to join us, and we flew to LA to meet Bernie. At this meeting Bernie said the magic words, Yes, I want to do this, but no dancing vampires, right? Linda and I agreed; thats exactly the tone we are going for. Anne Rice writes serious novels. They arent really about vampires at all; they are a metaphor for human beings. They are about big things like love and the need for companionship. Bernie zeroed in on that right away, so now he was on board and I had Elton John and Bernie Taupin writing their first musical together.
How involved was Elton at this stage?
Elton stayed out of the story development. He likes to stay back. Its helpful that he keep a little bit of distance at the beginning so he can later come at it with a fresh eye. Thats a very useful way for us to work.
So Linda, Bernie and I went to Las Vegas for what Bernie called Vampire Boot Camp. We went for a week, stayed at the Hard Rock Hotel and every day for that week we would just get together and talk about the story. We had acquired the rights to the first three books: Interview with the Vampire, The Vampire Lestat and The Queen of the Damned. We talked about what we liked about them, what themes we wanted to explore, which characters we wanted to follow. At the end of that week we had our first draft outline, and we had marked where all the songs should go, and we had made up fake titles for the songs such as Lestat is made a Vampire. These titles are place-holders for the real titles, and they roughly describe the action of the song. Then Linda wrote out a bullet point outline and we showed that to Elton. He loved it.
Did Bernie find it hard to write the lyrics?
Bernie had said I really love this material, I want to do this, but Ive never written to order before. (Except of course Philadelphia Freedom and Candle in the Wind 1997.) He is usually on his own, here we were being very specific this song has to take the character from point A to point B, and it has to firm up the plot and all that. So he said Let me write two or three lyrics, and you have to tell me the truth about it because Im not really sure how Im going to do here.
He was a bit apprehensive about it then?
Yeah, unsure. So the first song lyric came out of my fax machine and it was just unbelievable.
Which song was that?
Its called The Thirst. And I was so blown away I called him up he had a sense that it was good and after that he was just off and running. The songs came quickly. He wrote 14 or 16 songs and then Linda wrote the whole draft of the script.
In the summer of 2003 Elton went into the studio in Atlanta and he wrote all the Lestat music in ten days. He said it was a huge outpouring of emotion and passion for him. He called me up every day and played me the songs over the phone, can you imagine?
Yes I can see you on the other end of the phone in tears
Hed play me these songs and ask if I like them! Some of the Lestat songs are really very, very emotional so I would be crying on the phone. This whole project is a dream come true for me. Having Elton and Bernie working at such a high levelthe writing is phenomenal.
And it delayed the start of Peachtree Road. Because Elton was just at the end of Lestat and it was such a huge outpouring, he said that he wasnt quite ready to launch into another album immediately. So we are responsible for delaying Peachtree Road!
How much is Anne Rice involved?
We wanted to involve her right away so we played her the first three songs. She went crazy: she loved them. We invited her to the reading and asked her opinion. I would always be very respectful of her books. She said to me, You are being true to the spirit of the books, so dont be afraid to let it [the musical] be its own thing.
How involved has Elton been with the project since then?
He really stays out of it. Bernie, Linda and I worked with Jay Binder on the casting. Because Elton works so hard he cant be at everything, its not possible.
And I think it is part of Eltons philosophy that he surrounds himself with talented people and then lets them get on with the job.
Yes, and it allows him that little bit of distance so he can come and make comments that are really helpful. After all Ive been involved with this project pretty much all day every day for six years. His perspective really does help. For example, we had some graphics done for the advertising. We liked them I showed them to Elton and he said, Hmm, this looks like a very, very high class shampoo advertisement. And I burst out laughing because I saw what he meant - I hadnt looked at it that way before. But when he said it I could see what he saw, so we trashed that and we now have a plush, beautiful piece of art.
One of the things I appreciate about him is he is completely honest with me and Im honest with him too. We do tell each other the truth: I value that.
What is it that you like so much about these novels?
There is something about the idea of transcending death that is universally intriguing to people. When I read the first book I was in High School. I just got swept up in this great adventure story that did make me ponder things about life. If I had this opportunity to live forever maybe bring my mother along with me would I do it even if it meant I had to kill to live? I like the whole detailed world she created. Its about very big emotions, bigger than life. Against his will, a young man is basically raped into being a vampire. Then he has to find his way in this new world. Its about such rich, giant emotions that I just knew a musical interpretation would work.
Were you thinking that when you were at High School?
Not at High School, but I was by the time I read the second book, which was when I graduated college in 1985.
So the Lestat musical was something you dreamed of as a teenager?
Yes. So you see this is a pretty exciting time for me.