Radlett composer Jeff Wayne reveals his latest vision for The War of the Worlds live show
- Credit: Getty Images
It was somehow fitting that hours after the NASA satellite Maven arrived in orbit around Mars, I found myself deep in conversation with a man responsible for bringing the denizens of red planet onto the stages of concert arenas around the world.
Of course it’s unlikely Maven will find evidence of the hideous tentacled creatures which invaded 19th century England in Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds, but who knows what still lurks in those mysterious canals on the planet’s surface…
The composer, who has lived in Radlett for around 30 years, is gearing up for the final tour of his acclaimed live version of HG Wells’ classic novel, which boasts everything from a 35 foot tall Martian fighting machine to recreations of key scenes in cutting-edge CGI on a 100ft wide animation wall.
With the original album having sold more than 15 million copies, and the live arena tour enjoying international acclaim for eight years, it’s surprising to hear just how uncertain Jeff was that his musical version of the book would even be released.
“All those years ago when I was composing and producing what was the original double album I was hoping it would just get a release, because although I had a record contract with CBS, who are part of Sony now, they didn’t have an obligation to even release the recording.
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“They had the right to wait for me to finish it and then listen to it, and they had 30 days to make a decision – when the 30 days ran out they rang me to ask for an extension of another 30 days. So you can imagine it was rather nail-biting for me at the time, and all I was hoping for was a decision that I would get a release. So if you’d asked me then ‘what’s your goal?’ it would have been to see it released, today all these years on I can only look back and see what an impact it had and continues to have, not just in the UK but around the world.”
Arriving in record stores during the heyday of the concept album, it could have followed in the footsteps of records like Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar and become a live production decades earlier, had technology not stood in its way.
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“I think when The War of the Worlds first came out the natural domain if you enjoyed any success was to take it into the West End, and if you succeed there you can go onto the United States or all over the world.
“But back then there were no arenas where you could present the show we are now presenting, the technology was certainly not there and what little there was was so expensive it was a non-starter. That’s really why to a large degree it did take the quantity of years between it coming out, enjoying success commercially all over the world, and actually performing it in the way that I’d always dreamed of.”
It’s certainly true that The War of the Worlds enjoys a cross-generational appeal, a factor which Jeff believes has definitely contributed to the longevity of its success.
“I think for anything to last, no matter what medium it’s in, you do have to span generations, no matter how people find it, whether it’s through their families or they stumble across it in some other way.
“But it has to have something that appeals to go from one generation to the next. So now 36 years on from its original release, having been touring arenas for eight years now in many countries of the world, I can see in a way I never saw before who’s coming to see these shows.
“It’s actually all ages right down to young children who believe it’s a special effects show, not really knowing it comes from a musical work composed all those years ago – they thought they were just going to see this 35ft tall Martian fighting machine firing real flame heat rays at the audience. The other spectrum is those people who bought the album when it first came out or at some point along the way who know it’s a musical work and they think they’re coming to see a concert when it fact it’s far more than that. And then there’s everybody in between. Had I not toured The War of the Worlds and been up on stage I would never have understood how across the board it’s become.”
Since the first arena show in 2006, Jeff has continued developing and expanding on his original production,
“I’ve always seen it as a living work, and in fact this production has the first new song since it first came out and I’m very excited by it.
“If anybody had come to see the first production it was still a very large-scale multimedia show, with a couple of added things that moved it along, so we had a three minute pre-recorded sequence set on Mars which explains how the Martians decided to leave their planet and invade Earth.
“It sets the scene very well and as it ends we see the very first cylinder leaving Mars heading towards, as it turns out, Horsfell Common in Woking, and off we go from that point on.
“Whereas from the second tour on and every subsequent tour we have had a range of new dimensions. I’ve revisited parts of my score in subtle ways or sometimes bigger ways, technology keeps on changing in the blink of an eye so I’m always on the look out for something new that excites the audience in visual terms. We have never done the same production twice – it would be a lot easier to just take it out of the box and do it the same way, but that to me isn’t a challenge. Now coming to this arena tour it’s probably the biggest expansion yet we’ve ever done.”
Recent versions have seen the introduction of new cast members and sequences which eventually culminated in the release of The Next Generation album in 2012, and saw Liam Neeson take over from the late Richard Burton as the Journalist.
“It came about by being asked over many years whether I would do it any differently in today’s world. I kept saying for years that I was very happy with it and the people I worked with, but once we started to tour I got a different perspective, especially coming back to it with fresh eyes and ears, and seeing how audiences were responding to it.
“I finished the tour just before Christmas in 2010 and went on a family holiday. I took with me the original script and recordings that I did with Richard Burton, and it reminded me how much material had been prepared and recorded, with as much that didn’t make it on the original album as did.
“A good chunk of the reason was I first produced it in the era of the vinyl disc, and there was only so much you could fit on each side, but some of it was because I was editing and had my own view about certain things.
“Coming back to it I could see there was a lot of rich material from the story which unfortunately I couldn’t ask Richard to go back to, and it took me quite a long time to accept that if I was going to expand the story and everything else that came with it I would have to work with a new actor.
“Eventually I made the decision to do that because the creative benefits outweighed the emotional attachment to having been fortunate to work with Richard Burton. Once that decision was made it set everything else in motion for a new recording.
“It’s not about choosing artists, you have to hope they’ll be interested in being involved with you, and starting with Liam Neeson I had to think about who would be the best voice for the only non-singing role.
“I approached him via an agent he had in New York who knew my recording, and he passed it onto Liam who came back with an immediate interest.
“What I didn’t know was that he actually bought the album in 1978, and he had a connection with Richard Burton in that when he was the new kid on the block in his career one of his first assignments was a TV mini-series in which Richard was the star. He wasn’t in any scenes with him, but he used to watch him work and listen to his voice. He had some trepidation about taking over but made the decision to give it a go because we were expanding the story and he felt he could put his own stamp on the role.
“His voice is very different from Richard’s, as you would expect and hope. So the new album and tour was about people putting their own stamp on it rather than imitating anyone who had preceded them.”
One of the other highlights of the latest production is the appearance live on stage of the author himself. HG Wells is seen in three new scenes set at different points in his life.
Jeff reveals: “I always wanted to give him his say and this production has been the natural place to do it. We see him age from a year after The War of the Worlds was first published, so he was 33, and then we see him to 53 right after World War One, and then the last time is right before his own passing after World War Two in the latter months of his 79th year.
“We worked with a company, Mark Coulier and Coulier Creatures FX, who have worked on some major movies and TV productions, won Oscars, BAFTAs, Emmy Awards, and they specialise in transforming people into other characters, aging, monsters all sorts, where you use prosthetics and other special effects.
“The challenge for Mark and his team with The War of the Worlds is that it’s genuinely live on stage, and the gaps in aging him are not like in movies where you can have days to prepare, essentially we’ve got 45 minutes to an hour between each of the three times that HG Wells is seen, so they have to be convincing.
“In each segment he has his say about why he wrote the book, how the world was changing and by the end of his life he’s questioning whether his Martians were not just humans in another form.
“We learn how when he wrote The War of the Worlds he wrote it as an author who was living at the height of the British Empire, and expansionism and invasion in his mind were wrong, even it if was led by his own nation.
“He was criticising the idea of fighting and dying for one faith over another, and that’s a core theme I fell in love with. It’s a very dark Victorian tale, not a shoot’em up sci-fi story, and was taking place in a real world and a real time. Jump forwards to today and I think we’re living at a time where the relevance is even more so when you look at the world we’re living in.”
The War of the Worlds - The Final Arena Tour - comes to London’s 02 Arena on December 13, and features appearances by Jason Donovan, Brian McFadden and Shayne Ward. For ticket information see thewaroftheworlds.com