Elton is in sparkling form after his op. Tunes, both romantic and rock are flowing from his keyboards

Seems to me that everyone honoured with a crack at the New Statesman diary has just had a book published. I am no exception. Consequently I am absolutely knackered, having spoken to a huge variety of media persons from dawn to dusk for the best part of three weeks. Their interest in the work is inversely proportional to the importance of the publication or broadcasting outlet in question. The subject of my book is one that has enthralled me greatly over the past century, viz me. I never dreamed that I could get bored with this gripping topic, but this has at times been achieved.

To my mild surprise, the reaction to my book has been reasonably good (so far). No one really gives two hoots about how three of the most popular musicals of the century were conceived and why I consider some of my jolly wordplay therein good and some of it bad. But there have been kind comments about the laid-back wit, and that's better than a dead policeman, as my much missed agent and mentor David Land always said. I have probably been rather naive in expecting any journalistic interest in anything but fallouts with composers and my love life, but if I have upset any tabloid female by not revealing more about these pressing topics, great.

I suppose the widespread view that I am so laid back as to be almost horizontal is not an insult, but it does seem to be but a motion away from charges of indolence. It's my upbringing, that's the trouble. It was drummed into me that one should never blow one's own trumpet too loudly, with the result that self-deprecation becomes an art. I fear it is incurable as I slip into my twilight years. But just as Dolly Parton memorably said that it took a lot of money to look this cheap, it can take a lot of hard work to look this relaxed.

It's not all been the book; my time is also occupied with the contribution of lyrics for two new projects with Sir Elton John - a Broadway show with Disney and an animated feature film (cartoon) with Dreamworks. Thus Elton and I are achieving simultaneous bonding with the respective organisations headed by Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg. The movie is called The Road to El Dorado and is the original tale of two 16th-century Spanish wide boys (voiced by Kevin Kline and our very own Kenneth Branagh) who accidentally come across the legendary City of Gold, beating Cortes there by a matter of days. They are mistaken for gods but fall foul of the city's head holy honcho. They plot to escape with as much gold as they can carry (plus a local girl). Will they get away with it? Will Cortes sack the city? Coming to your local cinema in spring 2000.

The stage musical is called Aida. This title may be familiar to some of you. It has in fact been used before, notably by Verdi. In after-dinner speeches I have occasionally raised a cheap laugh by saying we are updating the 1871 masterpiece by flinging out the weak link - Verdi's music - and keeping everything else (joke). This is probably tempting fate, but has an element of truth, in that we have written a completely new score inspired by the story of Radames and Aida as per Verdi's colleagues, Auguste Mariette Bey, Camille du Locle and Antonio Ghislanzoni. Rehearsals start in New York imminently and then proceed to Chicago where an out-of-town run begins on 12 November. If all goes well, coming to your local Broadway theater in spring 2000. Personally, I think we should change the title.

One or both of these projects may succeed, one or both may fail. However, failure with a Broadway show is for some reason much more abject than failure in almost any other entertainment area. As Broadway musicals are by and large (a yachting term) less popular than most other forms of entertainment such as movies, CDs and football, this is a strange, and annoying, fact. If Aida is buried alive, the press will have a field day; if The Road to El Dorado turns out to be a cul-de-sac, nobody will notice.

However, if Michael or Jeffrey are New Statesman subscribers, let me state that my confidence in both extravaganzas is unbounded - this is just an idle thought, inspired by a hypothetical situation.

Since you ask, Elton is in sparkling form after his op. He is relaxed and as funny as ever. Tunes both romantic and rock are flowing from his keyboards. I honestly believe that his work for both Aida and El Dorado is wonderful, even by his standards. It's inspired me, too. And I'm a modest, self-deprecating chap, remember. Elton never writes tunes first. When I first sat down with him to write a batch of songs for The Lion King, I asked him if he had any good melodies lying around, as other composers are wont to have. He said no. I asked if he had any bad ones. No again. He only composes when a lyric is to hand (one notable exception being the beautiful instrumental "Song for Guy" in 1978).

Oh yes - The Lion King stage musical comes to London next month. I loathe opening nights and haven't got any spare tickets, but I do recommend the show. It's a triumph for the director Julie Taymor, who is so good that knockers will struggle (they can have a go at the score). If you are doing nothing on 6 or 12 October, there are a couple of gala charity previews, in aid of excellent causes. The tickets are ludicrously expensive for these nights, but that's the point. Ring the Lyceum.

Anyone not going to one of these vital evenings has no hope of scrounging house seats from me in the next decade.

This article first appeared in the 20 September 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Men vanish from the universities