It is September 6, 1978. My parents are still living in Pennsylvania for a few more months, but in my future home state of Maryland, the Camp David accords have started, bringing the promise of peace in the middle east. John Paul I gives a speech to the Roman clergy. It’s his sixth major speech since becoming Pope in August. He’ll make three more speeches before his death on the 28th. The first genetically engineered synthetic human insulin is announced in California. Keith Moon will die tomorrow of a Hemineverin overdose. Friday, the Shah of Iran will declare martial law. The Iranian army will fire on protesters in Tehran. Violence between the army and supporters of Khomeini would earn the day the name “Black Friday”, and would generally end any chance of peaceful reconciliation between the Shah and the opposition. Also this week, Bulgarian dissident Giorgi Markov will be — I am not making this up — poisoned with ricin in London, delivered in the form of a pellet injected by an umbrella. This is just the sort of thing that happened during the Cold War.
The Yankees will spend the next few days thoroughly trouncing the Boston Red Sox. Saturday, the O’s will pull off a triple play against Toronto. Next week, Muhammad Ali will win his third World Heavyweight title. Not-unrelatedly, DC comics will publish Superman vs Muhammad Ali this month. AC/DC will appear on tonight’s The Midnight Special on ABC. The most recent season of Columbo, having ended back in May, aired its last repeat on NBC last week. It’ll live on only in syndication until ABC revives the series in 1989. NBC premieres the comedy-drama Grandpa Goes to Washington this week, and CBS will debut a TV series based on the 1973 film The Paper Chase.
Saturday will introduce the fall lineup of Saturday Morning Cartoons, including an animated adaptation of Godzilla, Yogi’s Space Race, and The New Adventures of the Fantastic Four, featuring the beloved Marvel team consisting of Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Girl, the Thing, and HERBIE the robot (The Human Torch had been optioned by Universal). Also debuting is Jason of Star Command, a more action-oriented spin-off of last year’s Space Academy. Aesthetically, it’s about halfway between Star Trek and Blake’s 7; tonally, it’s about halfway between Lost in Space and Star Crash. Also, James Doohan is in it. Next week will see the debuts of Taxi and Mork & Mindy; the following one will add Battlestar Galactica and WKRP in Cincinatti.
Across the pond, Saturday brings us the second episode of Doctor Who‘s opening story for its fifteenth season, The Ribos Operation. The serial, part of the season long “Key to Time” arc, provides an oft-quoted self-description of a seer: “The past explained, the future foretold and the present…apologized for”. Less-often quoted is one of my personal favorite lines, the Doctor’s retort when Romana is suprised to learn that an honest-faced man is working an elaborate con: “Well, you could hardly be a successful criminal with a dishonest face.” Sunday, ITV will start airing Return of the Saint, a revival of the 1960s Roger Moore series The Saint.
The top of the billboard chart this week goes to A Taste of Honey with “Boogie Oogie Oogie”. They’ve bumped Frankie Valli’s funky disco theme song to Grease down to number six. Grease holds two other slots in the top ten with “Hopelessly Devoted To You” at number four and “Summer Nights” at eight. “Three Times a Lady” is in second place, while Foreigner, Exile, Andy Gibb, Evelyn Champagne King and Earth Wind and Fire fill out the rest of the chart. This week, Lynrd Skynyrd will put out Skynyrd’s First… And Last, their first “posthumous” album since the 1977 deaths of Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines and Cassie Gaines in a plane crash. The surviving band members would reform the band in 1987, and the album would be rereleased as The Complete Muscle Shoals Album in 1998. David Bowie will release his second live album, Stage. And prolific advertising jingle writer Jeff Wayne releases a prog rock concept album based on H. G. Wells’s novel, The War of the Worlds.
Yes, I know with last week’s lead-in, you were probably expecting me to take a swing at Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day. But let’s face it: what am I going to say about that movie that adds anything to our collective experience. Sure, it’s a hugely important movie in what it did to the Hollywood culture of summer blockbusters. And yes, it is quite clearly a… Let’s say “remix” of War of the Worlds. But I’ve already made the, “Slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest thing that God, in his wisdom, has put upon the Earth: Jeff Goldblum,” joke, probably more than once by now, and I just don’t have much to say about it, certainly nothing novel. Its flaws are well understood, deriving almost entirely from it being a “big dumb movie” whose bigness so completely overshadows its dumbness that no one really cares. I lament the way that the success of the Huge Summer Blockbuster basically destroyed “small” films as a viable mainstream thing, to the extent that movies which 20 years ago would have been considered perfectly acceptable are now thought worthy only of derision and mockery, but I can’t really draw a whole article out of it.
So instead, I’m going to talk about Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds. And I’m going to start by saying that Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds is a ridiculously cumbersome title. It is often known, of course, by less cumbersome titles, such as “Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds” or “War of the Worlds: The Musical”, but don’t be fooled. In case the title is not already sufficiently baroque, an abridged version was released in 1981 under the title Highlights from Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of War of the Worlds (This is the version I’m most familiar with, since I rarely have time to sit down and listen to the two-hour-long original). Then in 1984, CRL Group released a tie-in video game for the ZX Spectrum titled Jeff Wayne’s Video Game Version of The War of the Worlds. In 2000, a remix album was released under the title The War of the Worlds: ULLAdubULLA — The Remix Album and in 2006, a live tour of the album went out as Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds Live On Stage!. This was followed by an updated and recast version in 2011 called Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds: The New Generation, which then went on tour as Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds – The New Generation: Alive on Stage!, and then later, possibly after someone explained to Jeff Wayne that marquee signs charge by the letter, as The Farewell Thunderchild Tour.
In the intervening time, Wayne’s version was also adapted two additional times as a video game: in 1998 as a PC strategy game, then in 1999 as a Playstation third-person shooter with a heavy vehicular combat element. This, of course, makes Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds the musical most adapted to the video game format, a title it will surely hold unless my Kickstarter for 1776: The Cover-Based Shooter makes its goal (Rejected jokes for this spot: Les Miserables: The Survival Horror, Repo: The Genetic Flappy Bird Clone, Candy Crush: Sweeney Todd Edition and Open-World Sandbox Evita).
The album has basically been adapted into every form you can think of except, ironically, a full-fledged stage musical. The closest it’s come is the most recent West End production earlier this year, which was broadly panned for… Not really being a proper musical. I mean, I could have told you up front that a story that has basically no plot or characters is going to be a rough conversion to the format of musical theater. But the concept album-to-musical conversion has worked in the past lots of times. Tommy started out as a concept album. So did Evita and Les Miserables. But, y’know, those have characters and stuff. Though Wayne has expressed a desire to flesh out the love story between The Journalist and his girlfriend, who are separated by the war, you’re talking about a far more substantial rewrite than has been undertaken. Also, he’d probably want to actually make the main character a person who appears on-stage in the show, rather than a holographic Liam Neeson.
Yeah. The “New Generation”-based tours are narrated by Liam Neeson, who appears in the form of a hologram. This is a vast improvement over the original generation, which I will come to in due time. Back here in 1978, the first thing I want to say is that as an album, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds is freaking awesome. After so many adaptations that are various forms and degrees of awful or at least fatally flawed, here we find one that is just a joy from beginning to end. Or maybe I’m biased because I apparently dig orchestral prog rock.
But, as I said, it’s not a very Musical musical version. There just aren’t that many actual songs: it’s mostly orchestral and spoken-word, with these sweeping, otherworldly, hauntingly lovely leitmotifs under what is for the most part a dramatic reading. And then, every once in a great while, some other characters show up and break out into song. Rather nice songs, frankly, but they’re more of a sideshow to the main thrust of the piece. The stage show is two hours long and there’s only two proper “scenes”, which both occur in the second act and are secondary to the overall story.
While it’s absolutely brilliant as a album, the adaptation to the stage has just never quite worked out. The 2006 stage show is essentially a concert for the most part, with Jeff Wayne conducting the Black Smoke Band and ULLAdubULLA strings, which are both fantastic. For the proper songs, singers come on-stage in costume, a bit like the 10th anniversary Dream Cast in Concert version of Les Miserables, only less good. A few of the performances are quite good, but on balance, they’re a bit inferior to the original recordings, even when the original performers are involved.
The whole thing is accompanied with pyrotechnics and special effects more in line with an effects-heavy rock concert than a musical, and it’s performed against a screen which shows a two-hour-long CGI film, with an ensemble cast greenscreened in. The quality of the film is… Roughly ’90s FMV video game level. The rendering is about on par with the Timothy Hines version, but it doesn’t make the same terrible decisions about what to show. Since it’s mostly background rather than the primary action of the performance, it’s okay, not distractedly bad or anything, but it certainly doesn’t look like a real movie or anything. It’s a nice piece of kitsch in its way. Reminds me of the big flashy three-screen multimedia presentations they did in grade school about staying off drugs and not getting genital warts. Or like a movie made for a theme park ride.
What I’m saying is that it wouldn’t be a problem at all if it stayed in the background where it belongs. But it doesn’t. Because there’s a narrative, and because they’ve got singers but no actors, you’ve got characters who only appear in the movie. Scenes of the tripods raining down destruction and the military’s fruitless counterattacks are fine, or greenscreen refugees fleeing the destruction of the Thunderchild. But your main character is also part of that CGI world, and that pushes us into the same “Oh come on now, how can the animators not know what night looks like?” territory as Timothy Hines’s version.
For example, the stage show opens with an utterly unnecessary prologue, set on Mars, where we see cephalopod Martians discussing the fate of their planet and how they’re going to conquer Earth. And it looks like shit, and the exposition is clunky, with lines like, “A large scale hydrogen accelerator will be constructed. This will launch suspension pods carrying the assault forces,” and it adds absolutely nothing. This footage — not even making this up — started life as a cutscene for the 1998 video game. The New Generation goes a step further, tacking on a live-action prologue before the CGI prologue in which two random characters we never see again argue about the unlikeliness of “life evolving on two adjacent planets.” Come on, guys. This story is incredibly simple, you don’t need to spoiler it for us ahead of time. At least some — though not all — of the CGI was redone for the new version.
Once that’s out of the way, the stage show moves on to the actual opening of the album, the good old “No one would have believed…” speech from the novel, delivered by our main character, “The Journalist”. He has no other name in the proper dialogue, though in the CGI backdrop movie, someone calls him “George”. The role of The Journalist is a slight modification from the narrator of the novel, in that it combines the original narrator with his brother. Also, The Journalist seems to be younger than in the novel, and is engaged rather than married, and the attempt to reunite with his fiancee is the nominal motivation for his trek across the English countryside.
The role is divided into two parts, at least. The narrative role of the Journalist was played in the original by Richard Burton. His pair of songs are performed by Moody Blues lead Justin Hayward, credited as “The Sung Thoughts of the Journalist”. The New Generation replaces them with Liam Neeson and Gary Barlow of Take That. On tour, Marti Pellow of Wet Wet Wet replaced Barlow. I don’t really care for Neeson’s performance. There’s a kind of softness to his performance that I don’t think fits properly. His performance is more natural and emotive than Burton’s, but they’re the wrong emotions, almost as though the observations he relates are a matter of curiosity, occasionally revulsion, but never really of concern. While Burton can be read as Victorian stoicism, Neeson performs the narrative role like he is telling a story he isn’t personally invested in. It could work if he restricted himself to a purely narrative role, but since he’s also a character in the story, it rings false for instance, when he says, without any sense of fear or worry, “I felt I was being toyed with, that just as I was on the very verge of safety, this mysterious death would strike me down.” The Burton role itself is something of a dual part as well, with him sometimes seeming like an older version of the character telling the story years later, but at other times interacting with the other performers and addressing them directly. The distinction is vague on the album. The New Generation draws more of a distinction, with Neeson appearing as a hologram in the character role, and projected on a side screen in his narrative role, and when he’s not in close-up, he’s shown seated at a desk, reinforcing the sense that the narrative voice is him recounting his adventures after the fact. On the album, his voice is spacialized for the character role which does make it seem like he’s more “present” for those bits. Personally, I think if you tried to adapt it as a proper theatrical performance, you’d want to combine the character role of the Journalist with the singing role, and leave the narrative role separate. Possibly played by a hologram of the same actor in old-age makeup.
Richard Burton having died in 1984, their options for how to incorporate him into the show. They chose the worst option anyone could have imagined.
Yes, folks, Richard Burton will be appearing in this show in the form of a giant sculpture of Richard Burton’s head, onto which is projected the image of a creepy, dead-eyed CGI Richard Burton (Though honestly, he looks less like a creepy, dead-eyed CGI Richard Burton and more like a creepy, dead-eyed CGI young William Petersen), able to move only its lips, Roger Ramjet style. I have a deep and abiding respect for the audience’s ability to not spend like five minutes just screaming in terror at this abomination. It would be bad enough if— You know what? I’m going to “It would be bad enough” in the form of a list, because there’s a lot going on here:
Things “it would be bad enough if” about the Big Giant Head of Richard Burton:
- It would be bad enough if the dead-eyed CGI head were just a flat image on the screen, but…
- It would be bad enough if the dead-eyed CGI image were just projected onto a hanging sculpture of Burton’s head but…
- It would be bad enough if the floating disembodied dead-eyed CGI head were just delivering narration but…
- It would be bad enough if the floating disembodied dead-eyed were talking to other characters but…
You know what would have been less creepy than this? I mean, more specifically than “anything at all”? If they had just made some kind of Chuck E. Cheese’s style giant animatronic head, that might have been kind of cute and endearing.
The overture introduces the various musical motifs of the album, and is a good microcosm of what we’ll have to expect. The New Generation is mostly just tweaks to the original, some for better, some for worse. The strings are as lovely as ever, but there’s a heavy reverb added to the other instruments and too much bass. There’s also a kind of modern dance club music thing added to the main Martian theme which I don’t think suits it. On the other hand, there’s a fairly ass-kicking guitar solo inserted in the lead-up to the battle at Horsell Common.
Not actually appearing in any real form is the astronomer Ogilvy, the only named character in the original novel. Disembodied CGI Richard Burton mentions him only in passing, as the source of an assurance that there could be no life on Mars. This is all to set up the first “song”. I use scare quotes here because, though it’s quite good, it doesn’t actually have much in the way of lyrics. Justin Hayward comes out on stage and sings, “The chances of anything coming from Mars / Are a million to one, he said. / The chances of anything coming from Mars / Are a million to one / But still, they come,” over and over. I’m not complaining: it’s a good song. All the songs are good, or at least fun. But there is a lot less to some of them than you’d really hope for, and the ones in the first act are mostly kind of arbitrary. I’d like to see this expanded out into a proper song with verses and stuff, about people speculating on the nature of the green emissions from Mars. They almost do this: instead of more song, we resume Burton’s spoken narration, but a few more refrains of, “A million to one / But still they come,” repeat during the build-up to the reveal of the Martians.
Breaking with tradition a bit, the narrator doesn’t actually see the tripods right away. It takes the Martians some time to assemble them, and after the initial heat ray attack, the civilian survivors had withdrawn to a safe distance. Instead, he learns of them second-hand from the Artilleryman, who is given an expanded role in this adaptation. Now, in the book, the narrator also meets the Artilleryman early in the story, when he happens upon the narrator’s house while fleeing the destruction of his unit in the first attack. But there’s no mention of him after they exchange news until he reappears near the end. In the musical version, not unlike the Asylum adaptation, the two travel together as far as Byfleet, as the Journalist heads toward London, where his fiancée lives. The New Generation show has a clever stage effect where the holographic Neeson hands the Artilleryman a glass of water by reaching it past the edge of his frame just as his live-action counterpart un-palms one concealed in his hand.
They’re separated when tripods attack, giving the audience and the narrator their first look at them, along with the visual effect centerpiece of the stage show.
- Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds is available via iTunes and Amazon.
- Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds: The New Generation is available via iTunes and Amazon
- Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds: Live on Stage and Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds: The New Generation: Alive on Stage! are available on DVD in region 2 only.