Sunday, September 18, 2016

Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds Alive on Stage! The New Generation (Jeff Wayne Productions/Universal, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

On Friday night I’d been to the Mars movie screening in Golden Hill, where I saw something that was advertised as a musical adaptation of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. I had assumed this was an amateur production something along the lines of the Pacific Arts Center’s 1976 version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol which I’d got from a download some time ago (though I haven’t actually brought myself to watch it yet!), but instead this was a fully professional effort from London’s O2 Arena in 2012 (the performance space that was supposed to open with 50 shows from Michael Jackson in 2009, only he died while in the middle of rehearsals for them) based on an adaptation by British rock musician and writer Jeff Wayne that had a long and convoluted production history. It was originally done as a concept album in 1978, obviously taking advantage of the vogue for so-called “rock operas” sparked by the spectacular success of The Who’s Tommy (which turned them from just another reasonably successful British Invasion band into international superstars) and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar. Though rather dubious as operas (Stephanie von Buchau, the classically trained music critic for the Pacific Sun newsmagazine in Marin County, said that in classical terms neither were operas: “Tommy is a song cycle and Superstar a Passion”), these were at least tuneful and had great success not only as albums but in adaptations for the musical stage.

 Wayne released his version of The War of the Worlds in 1978 with the key role of the narrator played by Richard Burton; he later adapted it into a stage show and in 2006 re-recorded the album and released a video version of it with most of the same cast, and the deceased Burton replaced (quite well) by Liam Neeson. In 2012 he was invited to perform the work in an even bigger production at the O2 Arena, and that was the version (a British import played on a region-free DVD player since neither the CD nor the DVD are in print in the U.S.) we got to see Friday night, with Neeson playing his part through a computer hologram (so he’ll be able to continue “playing” it after he dies, much the way Dave Clark’s Time featured Laurence Olivier as a hologram, so he was able to continue playing his part after he died) and doubled by Marti Pellow when he needed to sing and interact on stage with other characters. I’ll say one thing for Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds: it’s by far the closest adaptation H. G. Wells’ novel has ever received (at least among the ones I’m familiar with — the 1938 Orson Welles radio broadcast, the 1953 George Pal/Byron Haskin movie with Gene Barry, and the 2005 Steven Spielberg film with Tom Cruise). Virtually all the narration written for Liam Neeson (who’s unnamed but referred to in the cast list as “the journalist” — H. G. Wells similarly left his narrator unnamed but called him “a philosophical writer,” which suggests he was basing the character on himself) comes directly from Wells’ novel, and Wayne was a good enough writer that the parts that didn’t are in the same rather stilted-sounding (at least by today’s standards) late-19th century style and match well with Wells’ own text. Wayne also includes at least hints of the social comment Wells inserted into his book — the cynical observation that ordinary English people on the first day or two of the Martian invasion lived their lives oblivious to the mortal danger, and the idea that Martians regarded humans with as little regard as humans regarded the other animals of their own planet. (Wells was heavily active in the animal-rights movements of his day — particularly anti-vivisection, which opposed the use of animals in scientific research — and The Island of Dr. Moreau is a quite obvious work of animal-rights propaganda, though that point got lost in the three film versions.)

At times The War of the Worlds seems to be a plea for humans to be a lot more conscious of the welfare of their fellow Earth species instead of running roughshod over them the way the Martians do to us in his story. Wayne’s script is also a good deal more attentive to the various stages of the Martian invasion as Wells described them than the earlier adaptations; in addition to the infamous heat-ray that’s basically their “shock and awe” weapon, the Martians also have bazooka-like contraptions that emit clouds of thick black smoke to make it impossible for Earth’s artillerymen to see them and aim their guns at them, and after they’ve subdued all Earth resistance (one of the most chilling parts of Wells’ novel is his description of the point at which Earth’s militaries and civilians alike realized that resistance was futile) Wayne describes the “red weed” with which the Martians start seeding our planet, driving out all Earth’s native vegetation to make Earth’s environment more like that of Mars. (This was depicted in Spielberg’s film but not the earlier versions.) Aside from Wayne’s conscientious adaptation of Wells’ text, however, his The War of the Worlds has little to recommend it. At least as it’s presented here (maybe in a smaller theatre than the O2 Arena he could have gone for a smaller, more intimate presentation), it’s a bombastic piece with loud, obnoxious music playing virtually throughout. The music is provided by symphonic instruments blended (not too well) with rock ones (Wayne called his ad hoc rock group the “Black Smoke Band”), and the rock is an uneasy mixture of big-stadium guitars and percussion with the bloopy synthesizers that seem to have become the norm for pop-music depictions of outer space or travelers therefrom ever since all those early-1950’s film composers and sound-effects people decided that the theremin was the perfect sound with which to depict a flying saucer landing. (There are no theremins in Wayne’s score — too low-tech — but plenty of synthesizers programmed to sound like theremins.)

The songs and instrumental interludes tend to blend together and also to sound way too much like each other, evoking the comment by one critic in the late 1970’s that rock musicals didn’t work because for some reason rock wasn’t a suitable sort of music for delineating a particular character or dramatic situation the way the classic Broadway style of songwriting in the 1920’s, 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s had been. The opening scene, in which the Journalist and the astronomer Ogilvy (Daniel Osgerby) are debating whether the flashes they are seeing on the surface of Mars are spacecraft or just volcanic eruptions, and Ogilvy explains that the odds against life on Mars are “A Million to One,” features Osgerby singing in the oddly clipped, staccato style of David Bowie — as if Wayne had decided that since Bowie was famous for writing songs about space, his style would be suitable for a musical version of The War of the Worlds. Indeed, Bowie’s influence hangs heavily over the whole score, though less so in Wayne’s actual writing than in the way his cast sings it; Kerry Ellis as Beth, wife of Parson Townsend, is about the only cast member who gets to sing lyrically, and her part ends as her character is taken out way too soon. The show was staged at O2 with the musicians arrayed on stage in full view of the audience, though the performers were in costume and there were at least attempts to stage the action in scenes in which they interact — and there was a large-format CinemaScope-ratio video screen behind the action showing various scenes more or less relating to the action, including photos of refugees fleeing danger in the 20th century’s real wars (much of The War of the Worlds is heart-rending description of refugees fleeing the Martian invasion and alternately hoping that there’s a place they can escape the danger and sickeningly becoming aware that there isn’t) and animated scenes of the black smoke and the “red weed.”

I really wanted to like Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds, and there were times at which I did, but for the most part the production is just too … well, “overwhelming” was the word one of my fellow attendees used and I said, “Yes, but in all the wrong ways.” Wayne, so faithful to Wells’ vision through most of his adaptation, also couldn’t resist one of those modern open-ended endings in which, following the main part of the production which preserved Wells’ original date of 1894 (the year before he published the book), there’s a postlude taking place in the present in which a guy at a NASA research station (played by Jerry Wayne, Jeff Wayne’s son — his wife co-wrote the script with him and their daughter Anna-Marie is also in it) sees flashes on the surface of Mars and we’re left wondering if they’re the prelude to another Martian invasions, especially if the Martians [this will be a “spoiler” if you’ve never read the book or seen one of the other adaptations] figure out some way to immunize themselves from the common Earth bacteria (that’s the word Wells used — he doesn’t seem to have heard of viruses) that infected and killed the Martians because they had no immune systems that could respond to them (indeed, a passing remark early on in Wayne’s script, once again taken directly from H. G. Wells, indicates that the Martians had long since eliminated all infectious microbes from their own planet and therefore were sitting ducks for the ones on ours). There really isn’t a definitive dramatic version of The War of the Worlds — though the famous Orson Welles radio show, as fast and loose as it played with the letter of Wells’ story, is probably the best (and as good as Liam Neeson is here his description of Earth after the Martians had laid waste to it doesn’t have quite the panache of Welles’) — and this one isn’t it, though it’s a fun ride through a musical work that must have seemed au courant in 1978 but now looks so badly dated one wonders why anyone felt a need to do this big production to celebrate the 35th anniversary of it.