Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds – The New Generation: Alive On Stage (2012) [Blu-ray]
Having already covered Blu-ray releases of live stage performances of The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables and Jesus Christ Superstar I suppose it was inevitable that I’d get around to Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds sooner or later. So let’s not wait around, and make it sooner.
I should start off by being entirely honest with you: I’ve never been a huge fan of the 1970s concept album. Sorry. It’s not that I dislike it, just that I don’t share the unbridled love that so many people – especially of my age – seem to have for it. It seems to me rather majorly flawed despite decades of ongoing tinkering, improvements and upgrades by its original producer Jeff Wayne, and many of these flaws are only exacerbated by presenting it in a stage show format.
The original album was released in 1978 and the music still includes many distinctive touches of the pop-rock in vogue back in the day despite being melded with full orchestral accompaniment. In fact the whole album is a strange mix of musical styles, with the “Forever Autumn” romantic melody made famous by Justin Hayward completely different from the anthemic soft-rock “Thunder Child”, a more conventional stage musical interplay of “Parson Nathaniel/The Spirit of Man” and the pop-ish “Brave New World”.
And there really are only four actual songs in this whole two-hour production, although that’s not to downplay the brilliance and indeed the iconic status of the main “War of the Worlds” three-note fanfare together with the hugely effective musical signatures used for the Martian’s hailing signal (and response) and the weird alien exaltation that the Martian war machines bellow upon each triumph; less memorable but no less effective is the eerie signature of the red weed that grows over the earth in the second act. The problem is that these elements are required to carry most of the telling of the story, and if I’m being honest then I’ve never found them differentiated or distinctive enough to fully pull this narrative task off. It’s here that The War of the Worlds is most clearly a concept album of prog rock first and foremost with that the rest of it being somewhat late to the party and occasionally rather extraneous.
Transferred to a stage show, this throws up a raft of problems such as the fact that each of the show’s four big songs requires a performer to come in, deliver their one set piece, and then pretty much wonder off again. In the Blu-ray version of the latest updates stage show (that has been touring in 2012 and 2013) we get Justin Haywood replaced by Wet Wet Wet’s Marti Pellow for “Forever Autumn”, Will Stapleton as the Voice of Humanity on “Thunder Child”; Jason Donovan as Parson Nathaniel with Kerry Ellis; and the Kaiser Chiefs’ Ricky Wilson as the Artilleryman performing “Brave New World.” I was surprised and impressed by just how much Donovan has grown as a dramatic stage presence and performer; I enjoyed Stapleton’s appearance even though he’s entirely new to me (he’s lead singer with British rock band Jettblack, apparently); and thought that Wilson came close to stealing the show with his slightly unhinged portrayal, helped by the fact that he got all the best and most physical staging to play with. But the real Marmite performance of the Blu-ray is unquestionably Pellow, whose performance seems to be utterly reviled by true fans of Haywood in the original: true, Pellow doesn’t have the unearthly pure tones of the The Moody Blues singer, but he does bring to the part an entirely valid dramatic performance that is perfectly well delivered. I suspect my cheerful acceptance of Pellow’s interpretation is what will really confirm me as not being a “true fan” of the album more than anything else that I say here.
This sense of The War of the Worlds being a grab-bag of a few songs and a couple of more extended prog rock experiments works well enough for a concept album, but is rather odd when transported to a stage show where everything ends up feeling very disjointed – Pellow is recalled for the second act and trotted out to pretty much repeat one line (“The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one, he said”) instead of allowing him to pop off home early and spend the night in the bar after his one big number is done with. To be fair, this problem in the album/show’s stucture a in large part a problem arising from the album/show’s commendable fidelity to the HG Wells novel of the Martian invasion of 19th century England which is also episodic in its nature, with only one character running throughout the entire piece.
With that said, you would think that the role of the narrator would be the best part and starring role of the stage production, correct? In which case, let’s have the part taken by … a filmed performance from someone not even in the country, but instead presented on large screens in the form of a ‘hologram’. Oh.
This approach stems from a historical accident. The original concept album featured the inimitable tones of Richard Burton as the Journalist, but sadly Burton himself died soon after. When the idea of putting the show on the road came up, Burton’s voice was deemed too important to the soundtrack to consider replacing and so he was resurrected as a projected disembodied huge head lip-synced to the original recording. As a respectful touch to Burton is was well-intended and nicely done and I won’t fault the idea of the execution in this case.
However, this latest “new generation” production does finally replace Burton. I have no quibble with the choice of Liam Neeson as his successor – a different type of voice but equally ionic these days, it’s a great selection actually – but it seems odd that just as you’re presenting a brand new line-up for the show you elect to cast someone who will play no part in the stage show and who must therefore continue to be represented by newly-shot filmed sequences. It leaves the production without a physical leading man and the moment when the holographic Neeson and the others from the filmed inserts take their ‘bow’ is an awkward and embarrassing moment and rather a shame in how it hangs over the other performers like Donovan, Pellow, Ellis, Stapleton and Wilson who actually turned up on the night to put in all the hard work with their live performances.
This sense of ‘updated, but not really’ continues throughout the production, which has a few changes here but which is seemingly perpetually fearful of doing anything too bold that would mortally offend the show’s legions of fans by going too far. There are a couple of extra scenes inserted into this version, the two biggest of them at the start of Act 1 and Act 2, which don’t do much harm but equally are entirely dispensable. Some orchestration is updated, but the show as a whole still has a defiantly 70s feel to its mix which now just sits ever more oddly among the newer pieces further increasing the patchwork feel to things. As a whole it’s a show that so desperately wants to be a polished modern musical, but which doesn’t seem able or willing to outgrow its roots when it comes to the crunch.
Much the same jumble affects the visual presentation of the show. It’s mainly a concert staging with the nine-piece Black Smoke Band on one side and the ULLAdubULLA string orchestra conducted by Wayne on the other. The performers work in around them in a mix of styles, from Pellow simply striding out to deliver his lines, Donovan crawling on his hands and knees while Wilson is given his very own steampunk toyset to play with. Overall it’s more of an “enhanced multimedia presentation” than a musical or stage performance, in that much of the story is shown on the huge screens behind the stage which feature a lot of entry-level CGI and green screen effects of Martians (although by contrast the red weed is nicely effective.) There’s also the practical model of a full-scale Martian tripod that is lowered onto the stage, some effective flame-throwers working in synch with top-notch lighting effects, and even some leaves being dropped onto the audience during “Forever Autumn” – which is a tad twee to be honest, not to mention surely rather time-consuming to sweep up after every performance! Mostly it’s actually all very enjoyable, even if at times it strays close to looking like a Microsoft PowerPoint pitch presentation as envisaged by Michael Bay.
I’m sounding more negative about all this than I probably should. The fact is that I thoroughly enjoyed watching Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds – The New Generation: Alive On Stage, faults and all. In fact in many ways its the flaws in it that make it more fascinating for me than if this had just been a straightforward, polished musical in the classic style. The fact that it isn’t perfect casts light on what makes not only this show but by extension any show successful, for there’s no doubt that Wayne’s production has been a huge success over the years regardless of any of my own misgivings and nitpickings. And the fact that I myself own not only this Blu-ray but also the album – and will listen and watch to them both again on several occasions and soon, I’m sure – rather turns down the volume on my gripes and restores a positive balance to what is without question an utterly one-of-a-kind production, for better and for worse.
The Blu-ray: I don’t know whether the live stagings of the musicals I’ve reviewed so far for Taking The Short View have just been inordinately lucky in their high-definition recordings or whether there’s simply something about live shows that lends itself to stellar visuals, but just as with The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables and Jesus Christ Superstar this disc looks wonderful. It picks out the colours, details and textures of the performance while making sure that the black areas never flood or fill in, and of course the sound quality available from a Blu-ray is also a huge boost. The extras are rather sparse to be honest, consisting of somewhat self-conscious interviews with Wayne and the main performers, done mainly in one take before a static camera in response to the questions from an off-screen interviewer that looks like B-roll footage for more polished EPK packages. You get more interviews on the Blu-ray than the DVD version, for what it’s worth.
Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds – The New Generation: Alive On Stage was released on November 25 2013 on DVD and Blu-ray. The previous version of the stage show is also still available albeit on DVD only and in diminishing numbers.