“The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one – but still they come!”
For almost 40 years Jeff Wayne has embarked on an all-consuming project which has taken over his life. The composer, conductor and record producer has toured the UK, Europe, Australia and New Zealand in his indefatigable quest: to rid the world of Martians.
Jeff is not one of those sci-fi bores who claim there is a conspiracy theory about life on another planet; he is the man who turned H G Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds into a hugely successful album and latterly an amazing stage show which has travelled to some of the biggest arenas in the world.
He is preparing for the sixth and final arena tour – but he has promised it will be different from previous shows. The cast has changed and so much more besides.
“What I’ve always hoped and I believe we’ve achieved is that we never do it the same way each time. To me it’s always been a living work and yes, the core, the heart of it is the original musical version of The War of the Worlds that I composed and produced all those years ago. But dramatically, content-wise it keeps expanding.”
The current show features such special effects as a three-tonne, 35-foot tall Martian fighting machine firing real flames; the incineration of a cast member; and a ground-breaking levitation effect.
I’m not doing anything for effect, I’m doing it to bring out more of the heart and soul of what H G Wells created
Computer-generated imagery means the show continues to evolve: Jeff reckons at least 50% of the War of the Worlds show which will visit Nottingham at the beginning of December will be fresh thanks to the latest technology available.
“With your imagination you can add some things that enhance the depth of the story. I’m not doing anything for effect, I’m doing it to bring out more of the heart and soul of what H G Wells created and what I as a musician have always dreamed about.”
Jeff also thought it was time that H G Wells had his say in the show. The author will appear on screen at three stages of his life: when he is aged 33, a year after his book The War of the Worlds was published; 20 years later at the end of World War I; and in 1945 after World War II and only months before his death.
“We think it’s going to be a very unexpected and compelling counterpoint to the live performance of The War of the Worlds,” says Jeff.
As for the cast, Jeff says he has been very fortunate with all the tours to attract “people that have a feeling for the work and the parts that they’re playing”.
Jason Donovan will for the third time play Parson Nathaniel. He describes The War of the Worlds as “one of the most enjoyable, exciting and most memorable musical productions of all time”.
He will be joined by Westlife’s Brian McFadden who as The Sung Thoughts of the Journalist will perform the international hit Forever Autumn; Carrie Hope Fletcher, currently playing Eponine in Les Miserables in the West End; and from The X-Factor Shayne Ward and Joseph Whelan.
In addition Liam Neeson will return as The Journalist in a 3D holographic performance which has been described as “spellbinding” and a “compelling interpretation”.
Jeff will himself conduct the nine-piece Black Smoke Band and the 36-piece ULLAdubULLA Strings on a 17-date tour over 20 days – not bad for someone who at the age of 71 is as busy as ever.
Yet The War of the Worlds might not have taken off if Jeff had refused to undertake what he calls the biggest gamble of his life.
At the time he was signed to CBS Records – now part of the Sony group – which put up the money for what bosses thought would be a “single album of themes”. But it developed to such an extent that CBS paid for only about 30% of the cost of the double album The War of the Worlds.
“I can remember sitting down with my new wife at the time and my dad and his wife, saying we’d just about hit the bottom of the barrel with CBS’s funding and if it was going to carry on the money was going to come from our life savings. If it wasn’t going to carry on we’d raise the white flag and surrender to the Martians,” says Jeff nonchalantly.
In 1979 Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds was released. Richard Burton was the voice of The Journalist and the album also featured David Essex, Justin Hayward, Phil Lynott and Julie Covington. It sold millions of copies, was in the UK album charts for nearly six years and was the 39th best-selling album of all time in the UK by 2009.
Jeff says he is “immensely proud” of The War of the Worlds – but when pressed as to whether it is the best thing he has ever done, he says “I’ve done a lot of things that I’ve been pleased with”.
Jeffry Wayne was born in 1943 in the Queens borough of New York City. His father Jerry was an actor, singer and theatre producer and the family moved to London for four years when Jerry played Sky Masterson in the original West End production of Guys and Dolls.
After graduating from a US college with a journalism degree, Jeff returned to the UK and became a record producer, helping to produce David Essex’s first album Rock On.
Over a ten-year period Jeff composed and produced about 3,000 different pieces including well-known television themes such as Good Morning Britain for TV-am and The World of Sport for ITV, and countless advertising jingles.
I’d like to think that my musical interpretation resonated when it first came out and has reached people’s hearts and souls.
However, he will always be remembered for The War of the Worlds. Its first tour was in 2006 again featuring Richard Burton, this time in hologram form, as well as Justin Hayward and Russell Watson. Since then artists of the calibre of Marti Pellow, Kerry Ellis and Ricky Wilson of the Kaiser Chiefs have all added their own interpretation to the show’s characters.
In 2012 enthusiasts were able to buy a re-recorded version of the album subtitled The New Generation and last year a DVD of the show recorded live at the O2 in London was released.
So why has The War of the Worlds been so successful?
“I think H G Wells created quite an unusual story. He’s credited as being the father of science fiction and this story happens on earth in a real period of time, in Victorian England, in real places. As he always stated, everything he wrote about is built on reality.
“It’s structured very soundly, so the public bought into it when his story was first released. I’d like to think that my musical interpretation resonated when it first came out and has reached people’s hearts and souls.
“As a genre, science fiction has always been popular and I guess like all genres they come and go in waves. I think when my album first came out in 1978, there was a re-discovery of the science fiction fantasy genre because suddenly all around the same time within a year or two you had Star Wars, Star Trek on TV, then Close Encounters and ET.”
Jeff has been approached by H G Wells’ publisher to adapt more of his books – but The War of the Worlds differs from his other works because of the format.
“I discovered that it wasn’t written as a novel but as an episodic adventure for a magazine called Pearson’s – one of those cliffhanger publications where you would write a chapter and hope that you caught your audience’s attention to go out and buy the next edition.
“H G had to be very disciplined and have each episode almost like a story within itself.”
Jeff has been working on a couple of other projects but The War of the Worlds still takes up most of his time. He has already been working for more than a year on the version which will shortly be going on tour and rehearsals do not start until November.
What happens after the final arena tour? Jeff is unable to say at the moment but will be making an announcement once the tour is completed. All he can say is that “the time will be right to take The War of the Worlds in new and exciting directions”.
“The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one – but still they come!” wrote Jeff in The Eve of the War. As long as those Martians keep coming, Jeff will keep fighting them.
* This article appeared in the September 2014 issue of Country Images magazine