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The War of the Worlds returns!

Jeff Wayne talks exclusively to SFX

The Eve of the War is upon us once more… As Jeff Wayne prepares to unleash his live version of The War Of The Worlds on an unsuspecting nation, he tells SFX’s Nick Setchfield why this will be his most spectacular tour yet...

So when did the last tour finish?

“Our last tour finished in Germany at the beginning of July 2009, and we were rebooked for an even bigger tour during that tour, so we’ve been producing the next production since around September. Each tour keeps growing; we keep adding new things, there are new cast members. So before I get on stage to conduct the show there’s anything from between 12 to 18 months of preparation and experimentation. Some things fall by the wayside, others go all the way. So it’s a long process.”

Is it intriguing for you creatively to revisit something that you thought was set in stone in 1978?

“I never thought it was set in stone. I knew that if it moved into other media you would revisit it for the medium in which you were working. So for a live event like The War Of The Worlds I never thought ‘That’s it, the album is the Bible’. It’s a template, but if you look at our first tour and even if you look at the last tour and the next one that we’re doing, each one has grown in dimensions and has new ingredients. Even in my score I’ve tweaked things, without hurting my original composition, which naturally I’m very protective of, and my orchestrations and production techniques. Just the way sound has changed since 31 years ago… It’s silly to ignore what you can achieve in sound quality and production techniques in 2010.”

Artistically, were you completely happy with the album when you originally finished it? Or even then did you wish you could have a second chance?

“I was always pretty convinced that I had done my very best and expressed what I had hoped to achieve. I was thrilled with the people I had brought on board, from the guest artists to the musicians, the paintings that accompanied it… I thought gosh, this is as good as I can do. I think it needed some time to let it just settle, and to come back to it much more clinically, and now that we’ve been touring since 2006 that’s exactly what I’m doing. It has become a living work rather than a work fixed in cement.”

So when did you get the itch to bring it to the stage?

“My dad and I were partners, right up until the point that he passed away, and we always thought that if it enjoyed commercial and critical success as a recording it would have a natural life in some form of live entertainment. But in that era the technology and the scale of arenas we’re now using didn’t exist. What we are trying to do now would have been so expensive to do in the late ‘70s that our natural vision was maybe the West End or concert renditions, and I was offered quite a few of those by promoters, just to get on stage and conduct a straight version in musical form, maybe with the guest stars in tuxedos, performing the roles, end of story. And that appealed to me as a musician but didn’t appeal to me as somebody who had a vision, with my dad, of bringing it to life in more than just the musical sense.”

So the whole ambition of the project has grown over the decades?

“Oh, absolutely. We actually got close – nothing on the scale that we’re doing now – but we did have a session with Richard Burton in 1984, to sit for the technology that creates the talking head. He had agreed to do it and he spent a day with us. A week later he passed away. So at the time that put the kibosh on any live version – we were so taken aback by his passing, and I moved onto another project, thinking ok, we’ll come back to The War Of The Worlds on another occasion.”

And I guess it wasn’t a role that you could ever recast?

“We couldn’t recast it in that period, particularly. Even when we started touring in 2006 probably the very first question was ‘Do we try and bring Richard to life? Or do we start again, maybe having a live performer onstage?’ And we just kept coming back to the fact that Richard’s voice had become iconic. It is a wonderful voice, and if there was a way technologically to bring him back then we should at least put hand on heart and say we tried.”

What’s been the learning curve for you with each tour?

“The learning curve is what works as a live piece. We’ve changed some of the technology, so if you were to look at Richard’s talking head, for example, in the 2006 tour, you’ll see that it has transformed from a talking head to a motion-capture, three-dimensional holographic performance that floats above the stage. The transition is humungous. That’s what we tend to do – we challenge ourselves on any given thing. We’ve got a few new special things going into the next tour. We keep tinkering.”

Can you give us a clue as to what you’re adding to the show when it comes back?

“We start the show with what we call the prequel – an animated sequence that tries to explain what HG Wells never attempted to do, which is why the Martians decide to invade. We’ve tried to bring into our interpretation that they had destroyed their planet ecologically, like we’re doing to ourselves here at the moment. We’re reanimating that sequence and we’re bringing it to life so that it’s a little more interactive with the audience. Without saying too much, the idea is that it’s going to start live onstage as a windstorm, with audio and visual stuff and chucking stuff into the audience as well, to give the impression of a planet in turmoil. The whole idea is to suck the audience into an interactive world. If it works – and so far every element has – it should be a real giant step up in the way we start the show. And we’re doing something at the end of the story, too… it should be a good ending, beyond the way we’ve done it in the past. We want to try and top it in a big way. And inbetween there are some changes: we have a sequence at the start of the second act called The Red Weed, and we’re trying to bring more visuality and interactivity to that too. The object is to get more 3D, never losing sight that it’s a musical work being performed. HG’s story has such imagination in it that we just want to mesmerise our audiences and keep challenging them as we challenge ourselves.”

Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds – Alive on Stage! returns to major Arenas around the UK this December. A “Kids Go Half Price” deal is available until 20 June 2010 – head to or for more details.