Jeff Wayne’s musical interpretation of the classic HG Wells science fiction story was originally released way back in 1978. The double album took the form of an advanced rock opera but delivered so much more than that. It was an evolving musical landscape, rich and rewarding in its sonic palette. With inspired dramatic orchestral scoring, powerful rock underpinnings, electronic elements, clever recurring leitmotifs, a great cast and an intelligently abridged and beautifully realised script; Jeff Wayne’s creation served up an intoxicating mix of instrumental, and spoken word passages as well as a clutch of unforgettable songs. This formidable package propelled the narrative of Wells’ classic Victorian science fiction story forward in a relentless and sonically rewarding way. It was, and still is, a colossally absorbing, ambitious and magnificent piece of work.
Despite its late 70s origins (and including one or two more ‘of the moment’ stylistic choices), the album has nonetheless achieved that oh so rare and hard to define quality of true musical timelessness. It’s continued rude health and high standing as a music album, as well as its obviously ripe subject matter; eventually led to an ambitious and spectacular live stage show in 2006. The show has been a raging success and global phenomenon; playing to millions of fans of all ages ever since.
But now in 2012, something new this way approaches. Jeff Wayne is about to drop a couple of fresh Martian cylinders on us. He has taken on the unenviable task of expanding and re-recording the entire album and presenting it as ‘The New Generation’ – intriguing to say the very least. As if this wasn’t enough, he has used the new album as a springboard for completely re-working the live show as well. Both productions will be invading Earth very soon and Jeff was in London recently to promote them. I was lucky enough to have an intimate chat over coffee with the man himself and he told me all about it:
I was very intrigued to hear about the idea of a new version of the album and show. Obviously, most of the questions that spring to mind centre around the approach to the project, the recording and the cast etc. How was the decision made to take on such a massive task, as far as the continued longevity of the album?
It goes back over two years ago, I was asked by various people along the way; “if you were gonna compose and produce this score now, and interpret HG Wells’ original story, how would you approach it?” And I never really thought about it when I was being asked that. But a conversation while we were on tour in the summer of 2009, although it didn’t start taking shape until almost a year after that while talking with a friend from Sony Music about whether I would consider doing a new version, without any specifics being attached. And I said, well the original, it’s not broken, I know it’s a sound and something that I did in the mid 70s, but I’m not quite sure how I could make it valid. Not just to re-record, say a new cast of characters and do a good fresh mix of it, that wouldn’t be my intention. What I agreed to do was revisit the original script that I recorded with Richard and the original artists. We finished a tour of The War of the Worlds in the winter of 2010 and I took with me all the original recordings to where we were going on holiday and studied the original script. It all started coming back to me how rich HG Wells’ story was and how much we didn’t use. In other words, how much wound up on the traditional cutting room floor. I even had notes as to why certain things were cut. Chunks of it was simply because it was the era of the black vinyl disc, y’know it was pretty finite as to how much you could get on each side. So I had to make decisions as to what to cut, including some of my musical score, my compositions. It all had to come down to a length that would fit. Mostly though in revisiting that original script, I realised there was much that could be redeveloped in a new recording. So it started by being convinced that there was an expandable story without losing the heart and soul of what people have come to know, who know the album, or who may have seen our show. So it was the beginning of last year when I really went to town with putting ideas back into the existing script. We also rewrote some of the elements, and it made me 100% sure (in doing some sort of test work), that it was valid. That the story both for a new recording and the new stage production that we’re doing at the end of this year would work. It would make it a better piece. The first reality was having suddenly become excited from that point of view, as well as a musician it meant I could explore production techniques and sounds and musical ingredients that weren’t available to me as a young musician in the mid-70s. It all came together as a decision and from great excitement it suddenly dawned on me; well hold on I can’t start again with Richard Burton’s performance, it too was finite. It just really pushed it over the finishing line to say right, this has started pretty fresh and keeping all that has worked but without compromise to the idea of expanding the story and sound. It all came together pretty quickly thereafter and the starting point was, who would be our journalist? I started listening to all different sorts of actors, some of them fantastic. But I kept coming back to one voice and the only voice, in a way, that I felt could do it and that was Liam Neeson. We were very fortunate, that it turned out that Liam actually had a copy of the album from when it first came out.
It’s a great choice. When I read that, I thought yes, I can really see that; he has that tone in his voice, it’s very rich.
He’s got a very distinct tone, it’s a different sound than Richard’s who is of course one of the great voices of all time. But, as I was with Richard, I was very fortunate to attract Liam to the project because they’re not doing it (by their standards) for the money. There’s no way that we could appeal on the basis of how much we could offer. It was just the fact that Liam was attracted to it. I flew to New York to meet him and he and I chatted about what his concerns were, the starting point of which was Richard Burton and how you follow on from that? My view was that firstly, the story itself had grown, so just as a statistic: Richard did 74 sequences on the album and that’s what appears in the show in his 3D performances. Liam’s role as the journalist is now 90 sequences, both on the new recording and in the show. So there’s much more to interpret as a character and by being the fine actor Liam is, it was for him to find his own way through it. Of course I’m producing him on the other side of the glass window. It took him several days to have a think about it and then he came and confirmed he was going to come on board.
And of course he’s young enough to visually play the part very well in the stage show, as well as whatever else may come after that.
Yes indeed. He was asked to go through quite a bit because, up to now with Richard Burton’s technological performance, it’s always been a 3D talking head of about 11 feet high. It’s 3D, but it’s a different (simpler) technology than the 3D holography and related techniques that Liam’s done. So Liam is not only seen as this head, but what makes his participation very unique is that he’s also in full body onstage in 3D, interacting with the other characters that he’s telling us about as this journalist who survived the Martian invasion some 6 years earlier. In addition to that we also did a lot of green screen filming. So he’s also seen up on our 100ft wide screen where a combination of live action and animation are merged together. So you see Liam as the journalist in 3 different ways. The cumulative presence of Liam Neeson is far greater as a character and because he’s a living actor that we filmed and recorded, you get a different impression of the involvement of a living person. With Richard, as brilliant as it was, we were bringing him back to life technologically.
He was very much more of an observer (in the show).
Yeah, whereas now; audiences for sure will feel that Liam is very much involved with them.
So there was no chance of a triple album originally then to make it longer?
(laughs) Yeah, no – it works in it’s length, it’s longer than the original by about ten minutes, but it’s not so much the quantity, it’s getting some wonderful new story lines and however long that took to develop. In the story the journalist has a fiancée (Carrie) and now for the first time we’ve actually brought her in to a major scene that starts our second half off in the show. Liam picked up on this immediately, that while all hell is breaking loose, y’know alien invasion in Victorian England and the world is coming to an end; there wasn’t much of an accent on the personal side. Now, you feel that the big canvas is going on and the personal relationship is also in parallel.
So the stage show is a little bit longer, have you had to nip and tuck a little in other areas to fit the new dialogue in?
It’s more about being opened up. Our album has always started with a speech by our journalist, that sets the tone, whereas the show actually starts about 6 minutes in front of that. It’s a combination of two new characters (amateur astronomers), who before the formal show starts, work the audience. So as the audience arrives, we have special music that sets the tone and our amateur astronomers, all very good humoured and tongue in cheek, wander round the audience with Victorian telescopes and other bits and pieces and they talk to audience members. Then they formally start the show, where they’ve just come out of a meeting of the local amateur astronomy society and the topic has been the planet Mars. Suddenly a storm blows them off the stage and then we crossfade to an animated sequence set on Mars, in the chamber of the elders. We see them debating as to why they have to vacate their planet (due to their own self-inflicted ecological destruction). They have to leave their planet and Earth has been targeted as the nearest and dearest to serve their needs. So that’s why we learn that they have decided to invade Earth. Then it goes in to the traditional journalist intro.
So already there are other elements to the show that differ from the album, because dramatically, its worked. We’ve been opening it up since 2006, but this is the most dramatic and newest approach to it and I don’t think anybody who knows the show or the album will be disappointed, it won’t be…err…alien to them, to use a hopefully appropriate phrase (laughs). But it will take them in further to the story, the score. We’re performing it as the new album is going to sound, so it’s very contemporary in its approach, it’s very tight, but it hasn’t lost its heart.
So, you’ll still have the orchestra and the rock elements?
Yes, the string orchestrations have some new ingredients but are largely the same because that represented the human side, in the symphonic string writing. It’s the band that’s changed by one number, it’s come down to a 9 piece band, but there’s actually more instrumentation and more multi-instrumentalists. It’s just the way the score turned out, it wasn’t any deliberate reason to increase it or diminish it. It’s just when I finished my score, the recording of it; I realised in setting up the needs for the band, that it’s a different sound so it has to be put together in a way that we can perform it. Performing live is truly exciting, I’ve got the best seat in the house! You know I’m conducting away there for two hours…not that I’ve ever seen the show from the audience, y’know that’s the bummer. If you’re the conductor, you’ve got your back to the audience and you don’t get to see the show, but I’m told it’s pretty good (laughs).
I wanted to ask the inevitable question regarding vocalists. There’s obviously speculation concerning who’s going to be in it and who isn’t going to be in it. Obviously that hasn’t been announced yet, but the first question is the Justin Haywood, Chris Thompson thing, are they going to be involved, or not?
It’s not quite resolved yet in truth. Who we have cast aside from Liam is Ricky Wilson, he’s the lead singer from the Kaiser Chiefs. He’s going to be the Artilleryman. He’s done the same role brilliantly on the album so the continuity is there. The part of Beth is being played by Kerry Ellis, who is most known for her theatre work. She had the lead in both the West End and Broadway versions of Wicked. She has a fantastic voice and does a lot of different work. This was a challenge for her and I think she’s going to be brilliant in this role. The remaining three are still to be announced, so it’s just a bit premature. The whole thing is that as a new generation production, just like the album, it suggests that it will be an all new cast on both projects. The show may be slightly different only on the basis that there’s argument on both sides to maybe mix and match a bit from those who’ve participated all along the way and those who will be new. Certainly the sound and the production itself will be very fresh and new as well, so we’ll see.
From a fan point of view, there’s pros and cons either way isn’t there?
I have to say, I actually went to see the Spielberg movie when that came out a few years ago and was bizarrely disappointed not to hear Richard Burton and the famous strings come in you know? Rationally you think, well why would that be? You know, it’s someone else’s version of the story….
Yes, of course. It’s funny because when it (the film) came out, which was around June of 2005, we had a new mix of the original double album out and it was popping up all over the charts again; and Sony sent me to a number of countries to re-promote that new version of the album. Well, everywhere I went, I’d just missed the opening of the Tom Cruise/Steven Spielberg movie. It wasn’t until the end of the year as a Christmas present, my wife bought me the DVD of it. When I watched it, I could understand what a lot of people told me along the way. You know it was set in contemporary America, it really didn’t parallel, even in the main themes other than the biggest one, that there was an alien invasion, which wasn’t even an invasion, they were underground, they were already there. So the whole thing was…..I mean, I wish I had the $180 million they put in to the film, but being very true and loyal to H.G.’s dark Victorian tale. To me, that’s what I always fell in love with and remain in love with.
Yeah, well I know a lot of people here in the UK were quite disappointed, but I mean that’s why we hope that one day we’ll have the Jeff Wayne version!
Well, I sure hope so, y’know we run an animated film in our show and we keep adding to it and that’s what I think will be the heart of an animated feature. That’s always been my dream, and we’re getting closer all the time.
And there we have it. On 3rd May, Jason Donovan was announced as Parson Nathaniel for the live show. We will have to wait a little longer to find out if Justin Hayward or Chris Thompson are part of the project in any way.
“Ulla!!!!” to you all.
The War of the Worlds: The New Generation album comes out 4th June 2012, with the all new show coming to the UK in December (tickets are already on sale).