Posts Tagged ‘Jeff Wayne’

One of the ways in which cinemas have been boosting their profits recently has been through the screening of, well, other cultural things which are not movies. On more than one occasion I’ve turned up at the local Picturehouse to find a scheduled movie delayed due to a live broadcast from the opera over-running, while plays, football matches, and transmissions from art galleries are also fairly common events.

Personally, I’ve always been a bit suspicious of this sort of thing, for all that I’m sympathetic to cinema-owners’ need to turn a profit. It’s not just that broadcasting a stage show or the ballet takes up space where they could actually be showing a proper movie, it’s just that I think there’s a proper context for everything – just as I think by far the best place to watch a movie is a cinema, so the best way to watch a live show is, well, live.


Nevertheless I was coaxed into giving this sort of thing a chance by the as-live screening of the latest incarnation of that perennial chart-botherer, the musical of War of the Worlds. Or, to give it its full and extremely unwieldy title, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds: The New Generation – Alive on Stage. (Jeff Wayne is clearly a man who knows when he is onto a Good Thing – rumour has it there is a statue of a Martian Fighting Machine in the garden of his mansion.) I first properly discovered this extraordinary blending of founding-text SF and prog rock when I was about ten, and I’ve been listening to it ever since (not continuously) – the original version, anyway. I’m very fond of it, and the chance to hear it over a proper sound system was an appealing prospect.

Surely everyone know the story of HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds by now? There have certainly been enough adaptations and riffs on it (as befits what is probably one of the five or six best ideas in the history of fiction). Martians invade the Home Counties at the end of the Victorian era, crush all resistance with vastly superior technology, topple human society, start thinking about full-scale colonisation but reckon without the pestilent, germ-saturated atmosphere of Earth, to which they have no resistance. The Jeff Wayne version is basically the same, but with a somewhat underdeveloped romance and some songs added.

If watching a live show on a cinema screen seems like an unsatisfactory compromise, it does suit this particular show quite well, as it is itself a borderline-peculiar multimedia production incorporating filmed sequences, on-stage pyrotechnics, musicians, and singers, and the presence (through the miracle of ‘3D holography’) of Liam Neeson as the narrator. Neeson’s physical absence leads to a few dubious moments (at one point he has to punch out someone actually present on stage) but he lends the undertaking an appropriate level of gravitas.

It goes without saying, I hope, that a prog-rock-disco-orchestral fusion steampunk-inflected musical version of a Victorian SF novel including roles with names like ‘The Sung Thoughts of the Journalist’, ‘The Voice of Humanity’, and ‘Beth, Parson Nathaniel’s Wife’, is quite colossally uncool and even borderline absurd – well, to be fair we’re well across the border and probably well on the way to naturalised citizenship. All this was true of the original album.

And yet – and I’ve no idea what strange alchemy is at work here – for all of its uncool absurdity, the War of the Worlds album is also quite breathtakingly brilliant, with some killer tunes, tremendous performances, and memorable lines (one of Wells’ throwaway pieces of dialogue has almost reached proverbial status simply because it’s been incorporated into the lyrics of the album). The question is, how much of this has been preserved in the sort-of-live show?

Well, the stage show kicks off with the understudies (as astronomers) getting some dialogue about odd things happening on Mars, which leads us into some rather spiffy fully-CGI’d footage of the Martian High Command planning the invasion (rather more impressive and sophisticated than most of the footage which accompanies the show, which blends live action and CGI with varying degrees of success) – all very well, but I think that not to start with ‘No-one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century…’ is a bad call, and it also lessens the impact of that initial da-da-DAHHHH from the string section.

From this point on the live show follows the album very closely in musical terms – indeed, apart from a few little tweaks and additions to the script, the New Generation version seemed virtually indistinguishable from the original. As an actual spectacle, there’s a bit of an issue with some of the numbers outstaying their welcome – the animators run out of things to put on the screen towards the end of The Heat Ray and resort to showing a rather cringeworthy ray-gun jiving along to the music – and, as previously mentioned, some of the stuff on the screen is less stirring than one might have hoped for, the demise of the Thunder Child (the subject of the original album cover) being a particular disappointment. (On the other hand, the moment when a full-scale Fighting Machine first appears on stage is genuinely gobsmacking.)

And most of the on-stage performances are excellent, which given that the singing and music are what this show is about is surely the most important thing. It is, admittedly, a little odd to hear a new set of voices tackling the songs I have grown up listening to, but this turned out to be refreshing rather than jarring. I was particularly dreading the new version of The Spirit of Man, mainly because I really doubted that Jason Donovan had the chops to fill the shoes of Phil Lynott. Well, credit where it’s due: Donovan is up to the task (Kerry Ellis replaces Julie Covington with equal aplomb) and this segment is as much a highlight live as it is on the album – in fact, I can’t imagine Lynott giving an acting performance as good as Donovan’s.

The decision to reprise a full-cast version of The Eve of the War in the middle of the climax is distinctly odd, and the epilogue, with a present-day NASA mission running into problems, feels as dubious as ever, but on the whole the live show does full justice to both the spirit and the substance of the original album. I suspect seeing the live show actually, er, live, would be even more impressive, but watching it on a big screen with proper sound was a reasonable alternative. I’m just left pondering the prospects of a full movie adaptation of the Wayne War of the Worlds, which seems to me to be an idea loaded with potential. Maybe the existence of the live show is an indicator this is never going to happen – but I hope not.

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