Bernie Taupin began dreaming of transforming Anne Rice's best-selling The Vampire Chronicles into a musical as soon as he read the first book in the series, Interview with the Vampire, in 1976, according to the Star-Ledger.
"I loved that she dispensed with the Gothic stereotypes of soulless creatures feasting on blood," says the lyricist. "She changed them into beings with ordinary human foibles -- albeit requiring blood -- who, in facing the enormous test of living forever, seek everlasting love and companionship. She made people care about them."
His dream is about to become reality with the opening of Lestat, the new musical based on the Rice stories, with his lyrics, music by Elton, and a libretto by Linda Woolverton. Now in previews, it opens at New York's Palace Theater on Tuesday, with Hugh Panaro in the title role.
The 55-year-old songwriter, who grew up on a farm in Lincolnshire, England, appears undaunted by the challenges posed by his Broadway debut.
"Every project is fresh and exciting," he says. "It's always tough to succeed."
Before an afternoon rehearsal, Bernie, wearing jeans, leather jacket and cap, sunglasses perched on his forehead, still looks like the earthy English rocker he was when he and Elton were first brought together by a record company ad seeking songwriters in 1967. Now, a string of mega-hits later
, they are trying something that's been a conspicuous failure for others.
Readers may love vampire tales, but shows about them -- notably the multimillion-dollar Broadway fiasco Dance of the Vampires in 2003 -- usually haven't captured theatergoers' hearts. Moreover, Lestat received some anemic reviews during its trial run in San Francisco this winter.
"First of all," points out Bernie, who won a Golden Globe award for the lyrics to A Love That Will Never Grow Old from the movie BrokebackMountain, "we aren't being campy like the other shows. No dancing vampires. No cloaks. No garlic. This is the very human story of a man coping with his fate. He wants to find answers.
"As for the criticism in San Francisco, we took a lot of it to heart and have changed 70 percent of the show. We were trying to get across too much information. Plus, we counted on people knowing the Rice books. We've greatly simplified the plot. The show gets better every day."
Bernie says he and his songwriting partner talked about Anne Rice's books for years. "When finally the rights were secured three and a half years ago, the creative team -- director Robert Jess Roth, Linda and I -- holed up in a room in the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas for two days and hammered out a storyline. I then went home, put the plot on a clipboard and pinpointed the places where it would be good to have songs. I sent them by e-mail to Elton. That's usually our system. He created the entire score in two weeks."
He says he doesn't know the reason why he and Elton work so well together. "Or else I'm afraid that by figuring it out, I might blow it," explains Bernie, who has also produced three solo albums and two with his band, Farm Dogs.
"It could be that Elton and I don't live in each other's pockets. Sometimes we go three or four months without talking to one another. Other times, when we have a project, it's every day. He's in England. I've been in California since I was 20. And we live incredibly opposite lives, with little in common. If we were the same kind of characters, we might have had a clash of personalities."
The two were not only collaborating on Lestat the last few years. In the fall, they will release the CD The Captain and the Kid, a sequel to Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, from 1975.
"It's very folk-y and country, with just Elton playing the piano," he says. "It's the first album we've made together that I actually listen to at home. I love it."
Home is a ranch he shares in southern California with his wife Heather Kidd, young daughter Charley Indiana, and a menagerie of animals.
His success seems to lie in his ability to express emotions without clichés and touch on universal feelings of longing, tenderness and sadness. In fact, his lyrics in Lestat have been likened to poetry.
In the song Make Me As You Are, Gabrielle, played by Carolee Carmello, tries to convince her son, the tortured vampire Lestat, to transform her: "Your mother's frail and feeble husk/Will soon be nothing more than dust/So let's not dwell on wasted years/My time is short my choice is clear/Make me as you are/Tear the hands off clocks that tick away my final hours/I want to rage against the light and leave the sun behind/I want to feel the power of everlasting youth inside/Take me, give me new life and we'll live beneath the stars/Together and forever, I beg you, make me as you are."
For Carolee, a resident of BergenCounty, singing Bernie's words is a delight. "I grew up listening to his songs," she says. "It's completely different from singing in most shows. It's challenging because the lyrics have so much food for thought; they're packed with sentiment and information and emotion."
Bernie says he draws his inspiration from personal experience and "the world around me.
"I'm not any different from other contemporary songwriters," he says. "I'm like a sponge, relating to all the facets of life. I also had a very poetic upbringing. My mother and her family loved literature and I grew up reading a lot of epic poetry, such as The Charge of the Light Brigade and, later, Byron, Keats and Shelley. I'm still a voracious reader. Then, when I first got into music, I listened to Leadbelly Ledbetter, Woodie Guthrie, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. They taught me a lot about storytelling."
Music isn't his only interest. He published an autobiography (A Cradle of Haloes: Sketches of a Childhood) and a book of poems (Devil at High Noon), and he started to paint in the mid-'90s. Fifteen of his works are on display at the Time WarnerCenter at Columbus Circle
through April 30.
"It's not so different from telling stories in words," Bernie says. "It's just telling stories in colors. My style varies, just as it does in music. I don't like to be pigeonholed. Who thought I'd ever write songs for vampires?"
Make Me as You Are
Bernie's lyrics for "Make Me as You Are," as sung by Gabrielle in "Lestat":
And from that truth I feel no fear
Two kinds of death are present here
Mine's the age old act of dying
But yours is like the phoenix rising
Your mother's frail and feeble husk
Will soon be nothing more than dust
So let's not dwell on wasted years
My time is short my choice is clear
Make me as you are
Tear the hands off clocks that tick away my final hours
I want to rage against the light and leave the sun behind
I want to feel the power of everlasting youth inside
Take me, give me new life and we'll live beneath the stars
Together and forever, I beg you, make me as you are