James Turner talks with Jeff Wayne about his upcoming audiobook, Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds: The Musical Drama…
This audiobook is your third major The War of the Worlds Project, so what can fans expect to hear in this new version? What’s familiar from the original album and The New Generation and what’s totally new?
“The audiobook domain is a different world from that of a composer who sits down to make a musical piece of work. And this difference is partly what attracted me to medium, as it allowed me approach something I’m very familiar with from a totally new angle. The original album was ninety-six minutes in length, and our shows are two-and-a-quarter hours, but the audiobook is five hours in length. So it’s a totally new approach.
“I wanted to build the audiobook around three things: H.G. Wells’ story, my musical version – which had a script adapted from the H.G. Wells novel – and a new interpretation that linked the two with help from our own writers on the audiobook project. Characters have been expanded, new ones introduced, storylines heavily expanded. It largely follows the path of the Wells story and my musical, but still manages to create a path of its own. So it’ll be somewhat familiar to those who know the H.G. Wells story and those who know my musical, but it’ll still stand in its own space.”
So at five hours long, does this mean there are five hours of music, or is the music and the narration interspersed?
“It’s entirely integrated. There are ten episodes that are about thirty minutes each, and the story, score, and sound design are all interwoven. It’s designed so that by the end of the ten episodes you’ve been completely immersed in Victorian England. The story unfolds through the performers and the music, but not in the way that I originally composed in the musical or on our arena tours.
“Most of the original compositions will still appear in some form, but there’s a lot of twisting and turning so that the ear can be captured by the story, and the music can morph it into its own thing. This audiobook isn’t trying to be the musical or the novel; it’s its own interpretation that uses elements from both to tie it all together. For those that know my musical version, there will be some familiar elements. For those not familiar, I hope the music resonates today just as it did forty years ago.
“The cast is also entirely different, and they all bring their own magic. And the writing terrific. The storytelling, with all its twists and turns and characters, is still The War of the Worlds, but it lives in its own space.”
Speaking of the cast, there’s Michael Sheen, Taron Egerton, Adrian Edmondson and others. Did you have a choice in the casting process and did you get to work with them directly?
“I certainly contributed to who was playing what. As for working with them, the whole production was done in my studio. Michael, Taron, and Ade are three of the leading characters. There’s also Theo James, who’s probably best known for the Divergent movies. I have a daughter (Anna-Marie) who’s been an actress since she was thirteen, and she’s in all our arena tours, and plays the same role in the audiobook. There’s about fifteen others who make up the ensemble scenes and individual moments that require one or two actors. It’s quite a production, scale wise, so it was fun trying to weave all my original and new content throughout those five hours.”
That sounds like quite the home studio. It must be nice being able to bring it all home.
“Definitely. I’ve lived in Hertfordshire for a number of years, and I’ve gradually been growing the studio. Right now it’s one big studio and three smaller programming and recording rooms. It can take on pretty much anything in sight and sound.”
What is it about The War of the Worlds that keeps bringing you back?
“I think it goes back to H.G. Wells. The story he created was one of the first science-fiction stories ever. It was a story of tremendous imagination – you have an invasion from another planet (Mars) but it all takes place in Surrey in the late 1890’s. But perhaps most importantly, if you really go deep into it and dig below the science-fiction, its main themes are invasion, faith, and hope. H.G. Wells was taking a bit of a pop at the expanding British Empire under Queen Victoria, and wars, and all these things that go back in history long before H.G. but have carried on since H.G. You just have to look on television and read the papers to see how it looks like the world is getting more horrific by the day, though there are some beautiful things, of course. Maybe it’s because we have twenty-four-hour news and we can see what’s happening all over the world as it’s happening.
“So to me, it’s all those key themes, built around an amazing story and vision, that drew me in in the very beginning, and all these years later they still are drawing me in. And to have an opportunity to interpret it as an audiobook, and the challenge of producing and scoring a five hour production is a great challenge for me. So there’s a number of reasons I keep coming back to it.”
Do you think these universal themes of war and hope are what bring audiences back time and time again?
“I think it’s part of it. Starting again with H.G. Wells: he wrote a timeless piece of literature. I think my musical work has not only survived forty years, but seems to be more and more popular when I look at it from a year round basis. Not just the stuff that I’m involved with, but other parties that do shows and concerts around the world. There’s always something The War of the Worlds related going on somewhere.
“In fact, next year we’re launching a virtual reality experience that will be in a 22,000 square-foot building, over two floors. So we’ve entered the world of 360 degree virtual reality. We’re going to be inviting members of the public to go back in time, as it were, to Victorian times, and be part of what became this Martian invasion, and live through it.”
Is that something you’d want to expand into home VR.
“I think we’re going to see how this project goes first. Because the scale of it is substantial, it will test us – our VR partners Ellipsis and myself – but it will also test the public and their appetite for the kind of technology that seems to me getting more and more popular. I hope that it will. Once we’ve done this VR experience in London, at the place that used to be the London metal exchange, we plan to take it to other cities and other countries even. It will hopefully have this life potential that allows it to run in parallel with the other stuff we’re doing, whether that’s in the theatre or the arenas.
“There was a time when we had some computer games out, and that’s a natural domain for The War of the Worlds. So it seems to be a work that’s very flexible, with a lot of depth and fascination.”
That’s a lot of stuff! You certainly don’t seem to be a technophobe, so I have to ask, what are your thoughts on music streaming and instant digital access platforms like Audible?
“Well there’s two different questions there, so I’ll start with the first.
“When you’re talking about a new form of selling anything, whether its movies, records, whatever, if you don’t move with the technology as it changes, then you’re losing out. You’re not even a participant anymore. It’s not a challenge to the way you work – musicians still need a soul and still need to make music in whatever way they want to express themselves. But the outlet, streaming, has changed the world. The physical disc isn’t very relevant anymore. It exists, and vinyl has made a tremendous comeback, but on a world scale, technology is changing so much.
“What I do criticise is the royalty splits. That’s what most of the artists against streaming are arguing about. The royalties aren’t fairly balanced. And I agree with them completely. But that’s a really in depth argument, if you want to go into it. The royalty splits are definitely wrong, but things do change over time. Whether we’ll see a change in my lifetime, I’m not sure. I think down the line things tend to even themselves out, but it’s a long, slow battle.
“To answer the other part, about Audible and audiobooks, I think it’s a great way of reaching people. Music has been offered through downloading and streaming, and now it’s the same with books. You can just download a book, or stream it. I think that’s quite amazing. Why wouldn’t you want to take advantage of that? Why would you go out shopping, unless you really wished to, when you can get almost any product that you want online?”
On the topic of riding the wave of modern technology, I was listening to The New Generation of The War of the Worlds and thought that the synths sounded a lot heavier than they did in the original. I got a modern EDM and House music vibe from them. And I was wondering what your contemporary musical influences are?
“There’s not been any one person or any one group that have influenced me, now or in the beginning. If you want to know my background in music, I was classically trained and I know how to orchestrate. I was one of the first musicians, in the UK at least, to break through with synthesizers like the MOOG IIIc. As things moved on, I’ve been involved with just about every bit of electronic gear. That’s just natural to what I’ve always done.
“Sound has simply improved. There are things that sound a lot chunkier today because of how music and sound is created. It’s all part of the evolution. If I was working today in the way I did as a young musician, even before The War of the Worlds, it would sound as it did then. But if you listen to the new stuff, particularly the Audible production, I think you’d say it slots in with anything you’d hear on the radio (as far as the sound’s concerned).”
Let’s talk about the show for a little bit. You’ve got a tour coming soon (30th November to 17th December) the celebrate the musical’s 40th anniversary. Is this the New Generation version of the show with Liam Neeson?
“It’s very much built around that show, but even since we recorded the New Generation in 2006 there have been new ingredients added to the show, including a new song that only came into The War of the Worlds in 2014 when we toured the UK. I’m forever reviewing the newest grooves of the day, just because it’s interesting and it’s fun. As long as I don’t ever lose the essence of what The War of the Worlds was to me and how it came across to the public, I’m always looking at it as a living work. It’s the same with our tours; they’re never the same thing twice. This coming production has things in it that never existed previously.”
Could you give us a sneak peek into what’s to come, or is it better just going and finding out for ourselves?
“There are a couple of big things that will make it look quite different. I would say that biggest new ingredient is the inclusion of a very large bridge. It’s always been in our tours since 2006, but it’s always been on the stage. This time, we have a brand new one. It’s bigger than it’s ever been, and it comes down vertically at a particular moment during the second half. The performance then takes place mostly on this bridge that extends out into the audience and over the audience. In the two bigger venues, the O2 and the Manchester Arena, it goes about halfway down into the audience, over their heads. In the smaller arenas, the bridge expands pretty close to the sound desk, way back into the arena. So it’s massive, sort of in your face (in a nice way), and it brings the audience into the show. We also have some additional giant screens that are meant to engage the audience in a way that we’ve never done before.”
Sounds incredibly spectacular.
“Well, when you add thirty-five foot, three tonne, Martian fighting machine that fires real flames out and over the audience it’s a pretty spectacular show, and it’s just grown and grown.”
What I find really cool is that at the heart of this spectacle is the same foundation of music and storytelling that existed forty years ago and is still going strong today. The main melody in Eve of the War is especially memorable. I was wondering if you had any advice on writing songs and riffs with that wow factor?
“I can only speak for myself, but I’ve never tried to be in a format. I think the easiest and most honest thing to do is to just let it all come out. Whatever work you’re engaged in, whether you’re a musician or a performer, if it clicks, it’s because it came out in that particular way. Following a trend has never appealed to me, so I just go with what I believe in, so to speak. Whether it’s a pop record or a grand work like The War of the Worlds, that’s always been my approach.”
At the risk of sounding cliched, is it all about just playing from the heart?
“Yeah, absolutely. It’s not about any modern technology that makes your music sound fresh; it’s what’s coming from inside. Yes, using the modern technology is good, but they’re just tools to allow your music to come out.
“You only have to go back to Mozart, to Beethoven, any of the classics. They had live musicians, orchestras, but they didn’t even have electricity. And somehow their music has survived. It’s because it was genius.”
To finish up and to bring it all back to the present day, what are you looking forward to people hearing most in this new audiobook? What really excites you about it?
“I think it’s the way all the ingredients – the story, the performances, the music – come together, because it’s a different way of telling the same story. H.G.’s work has remained word for word the same, so interpreting it and staying true to it, but taking new approaches, has always been a particular attraction to me.
“We touched on the cast earlier, and I’ve had very good fortune with all the actors who’ve played the main character, the journalist. I had the privilege to work with Richard Burton, then more recently with Liam Neeson, and once again it’s been like lightening has struck in the best sort of way with Michael Sheen, who as an actor and as a voice actor is incredible. The sound in his voice is right there alongside Richard and Liam, and he’s given me an absolutely brilliant performance.
“I didn’t know until we actually had a chat on a radio program for Radio 4 that he was a long time fan of The War of the Worlds, and he asked to interview me. So when it came time to put the cast together for the audiobook, I asked Audible to consider approaching Michael, and he was on board in a Martian heartbeat. We had five days of great work together, and I hope those who listen to it will feel the same.”
Jeff Wayne’s The War Of The Worlds: The Musical Drama is available exclusively on Audible from 29th November.
Many thanks to Jeff Wayne for taking the time for this interview.
James Turner is a writer and musician based in Sheffield. You can follow him on Twitter @JTAuthor