Jeff Wayne – The War Of The Worlds: Interview

One of the most trailblazing arena tours of all time, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of ‘The War of The Worlds’ – Alive on Stage! returns to arenas throughout the UK in 2022.

In 2006 The War Of The Worlds was considered a cutting edge production with six trucks filled to the brim. In 2022, marking a momentous 16 years of touring, the production will be up to 12, and with it, a host of ingredients and special effects that will challenge and excite the senses for audiences of all ages, all set to the iconic score from Jeff Wayne.

We were very lucky to have caught up with Jeff Wayne to talk about the evolution of the tour, the original album, arena innovation and the pride he has in his work amongst other bits and pieces.

Jeff Wayne. Live in 2014. The Red Weed.
Photograph: Roy Smiljanic

Did you ever envisage 15 years ago that the tour would still be so popular and you’d be watching it get bigger and bigger?

No. But it would be the same answer I would have given in 1978 when I see the double album still around 42 years after its release. I really had no pre-expectations other than I wanted to do a good job with an amazing set of musicains and that we had done HG Wells proud with the result.

What was it like recording with legends like David Essex and Phil Lynott on the original album?

They were really good fun as a matter of fact. David was extra fun because I had been his producer and arranger for about four years or so, and he became The Artilleryman. I just called him up and said, ‘Do you fancy being an artilleryman?’ I told him what I was doing and he was on board and he loved the idea.

With the others, like we do today with a new tour, I approach people whose work I admire and hope that they are interested when I ask them. When I got the interest from Richard Burton he came on board and it was the management company of Phil (Lynott) from Thin Lizzy that put us in touch. I didn’t know him, but I admired his work.

Not only did he (Phil Lynott) have a great voice, but he had a track of his own called Fools Gold and he spoke for about 20/30 seconds at the start of the song. I could hear great drama in his voice and he had a real presence that he really understood the words he was saying. He also had a great singing voice so I knew he would do the singing parts brilliantly. He came to the studio where I was making The War Of The Worlds and he loved the idea. I did demos of all the tracks for him and he was on board from that point on.

You’ve amassed quite the cast list over the years for the various roles. How much of that is on you and who you want to work with? From what you’ve just said, you like to get stuck in.

It’s total involvement!

We have a process. It might be someone who is successful in their own right or with a band or a musical artist. We make an approach through management or personally, if I know them, like with David Essex. If they express an interest, they come to my studio in Hertfordshire and we’ll meet up and chat, and get to know each other a bit. I will record everything with them for the role that they are potentially going to play and I produce it to a master standard as if it was a master recording whether its singing or acting. They’ll go home and I’ll mix it and edit it and send it to them. From that point, we know whether or not we’re on board with each other.

The hardest part I guess, is sorting out the deal afterwards. Particularly those who are more successful, and deservedly so in their careers, might be used to a level of income we cannot match because we’re an ensemble of about 120 people from performers, musicians, players, crew and cast. It usually works out but they sometimes come back and say ‘I’m sorry.’ What they’re used to is in a different league. But, we always get there and I when I look back at the artists that have been on board to perform in The War Of The Worlds on stage or in the studio, I have been really fortunate to attract highly talented artists to work with me.

Jeff Wayne

The new tour is called Life Begins Again – it feels as if there is an element of relevance to 2021 with the way a virus has spread and how the Martians are brought down. Do you think this plays into the relevance of the show and the story?

That’s exactly why I have named it that.

The background to the title comes from the original score; there is a point in the HG Wells story where the Martians who are all brain and have incredible weapons and machinery; the one thing that they didn’t think about was mankind’s bacteria. They didn’t think where the common cold comes from and they perish because of that.

When I was composing I wrote a small piece, not a major thing, to accompany that part of the story in my original score…all handwritten I may add…I just called that mini theme ‘Life Begins Again’ as a point of identification.

Jump forward to 2014 and I had felt that because of the arena tours, that section could be expanded and it’s become a full blown song in two different scenes. It’s moved much further than I had anticipated.

Now, here we are, in a world where another virus has gotten to us as mankind, rather than Martians. I just felt it was relevant to call this tour that as a way of remembering people; anyone that we have known or loved that’s either not made with through or suffered in some way. I wish I didn’t have to call it Life Begins Again, I mean I didn’t have to, but I felt compelled to. It came from the original score in 1978, so it’s rooted in the history of the piece.

Is the touring band still going to be the same?

All but one, yes. We lost one keyboardist. It’s an interesting story actually.

I always had a 9 or 10 piece band and a symphonic string section up to 48 players. On this tour we were supposedly returning with all the 9 players but then everything closed down. One of the keyboardists who had committed to being in this tour had also committed to a West End opening of a major new show without knowing when the dates were because of everything closing down. He came to me and said he had a yearlong run rather than the six weeks or so that we run and would it be a problem if he dropped out. I understood. As a musician you go where the money is; if something comes along that is bigger and better from a pay point of view, you go with it. It’ a tough world.

As I started to make contact with keyboardists who I knew, I got to thinking about the original score and the fact I hadn’t gone back to the original scores to see if we could perform it with two keyboardists rather than three. Id never checked how many open bars there were for each part. Sometimes, as a musician, you might sit for a big chunk of time where you’re not playing. It turned out that there were many chunks like that which meant that the third keyboardist parts fit into the other two parts because they have gaps in the right places. So we’re down to an eight piece band now, because we didn’t need to expand it back up to nine. It only took 16 years of touring to discover that!

Here’s to the next 16 years and it becoming a 7 piece band!

You never know!

This iteration of the production sounds a lot bigger than previous ones. I’ve been sat underneath the Martian at the shows and had the fire raining down! Can you tell us anything about new features of the show?

Well we’re pleased to be able to take the Martian around with us. It weighs just over three tonnes and it’s thirty feet tall. It’s a serious bit of kit! If you saw the show in 2018, we had the bridge over the crowd. That will be returning with a few more bells and whistles. It goes over the crowd and it gives a new dimension to the musical piece where it fits in in the arena show.

The reaction that we had to that section on the last tour was outstanding. We were so pleased. It took a number of months talking about it and getting it designed so it was so rewarding that it got a great reaction. I had to change my score slightly to fit with the bridge being positioned in the show so there are extended scored parts for that. Every time I add something new, if it impacts on time length or something creatively, I always go back to the original score. It’s like being a surgeon. You open up the body and you do your operation and sew it back up, and carry on.

Jeff Wayne

Innovation with an arena show is important. Sometimes, sound can get lost and they can feel like huge caves. With things like the bridge, you bring the audience closer and shrink the arena to some extent.

I completely agree. In 2006, I always wanted people, no matter where you sit, to feel involved. Every tour I keep adding things and growing the ideas. This next tour is going to have a couple of new things that similarly open up and bring the audience closer together. It’s a never ending process as far as I am concerned. I never want to just take it out of the box and do the same thing each time. It would become too repetitive for me.

As a living work, and the way technology changes so rapidly, I’d be a bit foolish wasting opportunities that come around which weren’t available the previous time. It’s all great value for the audience and its great creative fun always coming back to my old Martian friend! That’s how I see it, but looking at it with renewed vigour and fresh eyes.

Do you have any personal favourite pieces from the album that are particularly great to be a part of live?

Over a two hour work, it was originally a path of discovery. Looking back, I can say that the composition that challenged me the most was The Red Weed.

It’s an interpretation of HG Wells’ Vegetation Of Death. It looks beautiful  but it smothers and chokes. What I did as a composer, which I’d neve done before, I composed a piece of music that was in two separate keys and hopefully achieve what HG Wells did with his writing, which is to give the impression in musical form of something that had a beauty but also had a menace; a fight for your life type of feeling.

It’s had ballets set to it which I would never have anticipated…but as a composer it challenged me in a way to do some that I’d never done before. I’m very proud of that piece. I’m proud of the whole work, because it was a work…a continuous play.

What can you tell us about the cast so far?

We have Kevin Clifton who won Strictly Come Dancing and Claire Richards from Steps. We have two more people signed up since then, but we’re waiting on firming up the cast before announcing.

Will they all be new cast members?

There will be two that are definitely coming back.

Thank you so much for your time Jeff.

It has been a pleasure chatting to you Dom. Thank you.

Our thanks goes to Jeff Wayne for his time in talking to us. It’s a real honour to have such legendary figure in music talking to us on At The Barrier!

You can find all the information about tour dates and ticket information here. The tour promises to be truly spectacular.

Jeff Wayne

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