This past week, I’ve been flipping back and forth between “There must be something worth living for / There must be something worth fighting for / Even something worth dying for,” and “There is a curse on mankind / We may as well be resigned / To let the devil take the spirit of man,” so let’s go ahead and get back to this. I’d been holding off because I was trying to import a copy of the DVD of the New Generation tour, but it got lost in the mail and the seller gave me a refund. Because of this, several pictures in this and the next part of this essay were borrowed from Youtube instead.
As with the 1938 radio play, the second act of Jeff Wayne’s adaptation comes closer to a traditional narrative, if only a little. Disc 2 consists of seven tracks in the original, basically three major “scenes” with short connecting pieces. Rereleases in 1989, 1995 and 1996 add some remixes at the end of the disc. The New Generation version of Disc 2 has nine tracks, though it only runs about five minutes longer. There are more noticeable additions to the story in disc 2 from the original to the New Generation than there were in disc 1, but it’s still only a modest change.
The basic structure of the second act, just as in the novel, is roughly “Here are some interesting things that the Journalist happened upon as he walked back to London after the destruction of the Thunderchild.” This sort of travelogue kind of story can be really cool and it’s one of the elements of the original War of the Worlds story that I wish got played up more in adaptation. Offhand, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a musical structured that way, which is surprising. I wonder if the more episodic structure is a bridge too far when you’re already in a format that’s fighting an uphill battle to be a narrative rather than a concert.
The narrator of the novel wasn’t actually present for the Thunderchild scene: the account in the book is framed as the account of his brother. By this point in the story, the novel’s narrator was penned in by black smoke with the curate. As a result, there’s a point of sloppiness where the musical version has to bring itself back on course: the great throng of refugees who watched the battle along with the Journalist abruptly vanish with no explanation over the act break, so that when they switch on Giant Dead-Eyed Disembodied CGI Richard Burton, he’s alone again, wandering through a countryside choked by the red weed.
The red weed is mentioned numerous times in the second half of the novel, it’s a recurring image, and it’s used to foreshadow the ending, since it’s already being killed off by a “cankering disease” by the time they reintroduce the artilleryman. But it’s never really addressed in detail. In fact, it’s not even the only Martian plant mentioned, just the one with the widest proliferation. The musical is much more prosaic about it. The red weed isn’t just a few spray-painted twigs, but has an active, ominous presence that is almost as threatening as the Martians themselves:
Wherever there was a stream the red weed clung and grew with frightening voraciousness, its claw-like fronds choking the movement of the water. And then it began to creep like a slimy red animal across the land covering field and ditch and tree and hedgerow with living scarlet feelers, crawling, crawling.
In the New Generation stage show, Liam Neeson is even shown on-screen struggling through a field choked with red CGI vegetation. It’s the red weed that serves to segue into the introduction of the musical’s equivalent of the Curate, here identified as Parson Nathaniel. The Journalist sees his apparently dead body about to be engulfed by the stuff and stops to give him a proper burial, only to discover him still alive, though injured and half-mad from an ordeal whose details we aren’t given.
The second of the new characters created for this version appears here: Nathaniel’s wife, Beth, who introduces herself with the delightfully expositiony line, “It’s me, Beth, your wife.” In his deluded state, he waffles on this, sometimes accepting her, but mostly believing her to be a demon that’s taken human form.
This whole segment is a little strange, because the Journalist seems in some ways to not actually be part of it. He does speak directly to the on-stage characters, but only a few times. They never respond, or really give any indication that they’re aware of him. Some of Nathaniel’s ravings might be addressed to him, but he might equally well be talking to himself. Beth doesn’t acknowledge the Journalist at all. In her defense, I would probably try real hard to pretend I didn’t notice the giant floating head off to stage left as well. The New Generation gives the Journalist a few more lines here for its holographic Liam Neeson, including a very nice one where he challenges the parson, “Pull yourself together, man. What good is religion if it fails you in a calamity?”, adapted from a similar exchange in the novel (Which goes on to add the wonderful line, “God is not an insurance agent.”). But the scene really is about Beth and Nathaniel, not the Journalist.
If “Forever Autumn” is the objectively best song and “Thunderchild” is my personal favorite song, “The Spirit of Man” is the most musical theater of the songs in the production. You could probably even expand it out to two or three separate songs if you wanted. The song is a sort of musical debate between the ranting Nathaniel and his wife. He wallows in despair, fatalism, and self-hatred:
Do you hear them drawing near,
In their search for the sinners?
Feeding on the the power of our fear,
And the evil within us?
Incarnation of Satan’s creation
Of all that we dread,
When the demons arise,
those alive will be better off dead!
While Beth tries lovingly to break his fugue and inspire strength in him with a boldly rousing response as, in the stage show, she literally picks him up and brushes him off:
There must be something worth living for!
There must be something worth trying for!
Even some things worth dying for,
And if one man can stand tall,
There must be hope for us all,
Somewhere in the spirit of man.
Powerful words and a powerful delivery, and my daughter seems to really dig it when I sing that refrain to her. Nathaniel is unconvinced, though, protesting that, “Once there was a time when I believed without hesitation,” but now, “How much protection is truth against all Satan’s might?”
Beth and Nathaniel were both recast several times during the original version tours, but the performance is largely the same in every version. Starting with the first stage show, and repeated for all the subsequent versions, a distorted echo is added whenever Nathaniel talks about the devil, which sets up a sort of auditory irony, as he speaks of humanity possessed and consumed by Satan, while suggesting that it is actually Nathaniel himself who is “possessed” by his madness. For The New Generation album, Joss Stone voices Beth, and she’s absolutely fantastic, which is a shame, because she’s paired with Irish rapper Maverick Sabre’s Nathaniel, and he’s terrible. He comes off as whiny and pusillanimous, simply scared rather than broken. Jason Donovan and Kerry Ellis take the parts for the stage version, with Carrie Hope Fletcher taking over as Beth for Farewell Thunderchild. Jason Donovan really plays up Nathaniel’s madness, making him at times almost gleeful as he shouts how he’d been right all along with his warnings of divine wrath, then falling apart as he acknowledges the scale of the destruction.
Ellis adds one really cool element. Beth’s line, “People loved you and trusted you, came to you for help,” delivered by everyone else as a reassurance instead comes out as an accusation. An attempt to shame him for a dereliction of duty. It’s the only time in any version that Beth shows anything other than complete faith and complete support in her husband — she even takes his cross away from him at this point.
Beth’s part of “Spirit of Man” is really two parts; after this exchange, she switches from trying to rally him and restore his resolve to simply comforting him: “No, Nathaniel, no; there must be more to life,” she sings, “There has to be a way we can restore to life the love that we have lost.” (This is the point where Beth gives his cross back to him in the later stage versions.) Strains of this second melody appear right at the beginning of “Spirit of Man”, acting as curious foreshadowing in the album version. By The New Generation, they’ve added an extra “No, Nathaniel, no,” there, which I think reduces the effectiveness when the second melody is introduced in the middle of the song.
Throughout the song, in the staged versions, Nathaniel alternates between accepting Beth’s support and pushing her away, to the point that it confused Dylan when he watched part of it with me. “Doesn’t he think she’s a bad guy?” he asked. I explained that he was all mixed up. He most rejects her on the “Something worth living for” verses, and then is drawn to her on the “No Nathaniel” ones. When the last “Something worth living for” verse comes around, it’s done as a call-and-response:
There must be something worth living for!No, there is nothing!There must be something worth trying for!I don’t believe it’s so.Even some things worth dying for,Tell me one thing!This line is new in The New Generation. Jason Donovan’s Nathaniel laughs in Beth’s face before saying it.And if one man could stand tall,
There would be some hope for us all,
Somewhere, Somewhere in the spirit of man.Somewhere in the spirit of man.Nathaniel joins in on this line in The New GenerationForget about goodness and mercy, they’re gone!
I really like the decision to have Nathaniel join in on Beth’s last line; it hints that he’s starting to come around. But it’s at odds with its position in the song, as he goes on to do another verse about how he warned everyone to exorcise the devil and now it’s too late. The stage production seems to realize the incongruity here, since immediately after “Forget about goodness and mercy, they’re gone!”, he takes Beth’s hand, and the two walk together upstage and nearly off it, when he holds up his cross so that it casts a shadow on the back wall, then turns to the audience suddenly and bursts into verse, with the tone and charisma of a fire-and-brimstone revival preacher. Beth watches sadly from upstage, only returning to him with her last round of “No, Nathaniel”s.
The staged version definitely plays up the notion that she had, in fact, come close to bringing him around, only for him to slip back into despair at the last minute. The new version also seems like it’s making a point to indict Nathaniel’s faith. First, the Journalist challenges him on it, that it should be a source of strength for him but isn’t, and then the symbolism with the cross seems to indicate that his faith takes him to a dark place: he repeatedly waves it at Beth as a warding sign. When she returns it to him halfway through the song, in Jason Donovan’s rendering, he cradles it like a child, but also starts pulling at his hair in a way that’s very commonly used in stage and film to indicate an impulse control disorder. He seems to be restored when Beth takes it from him; it’s the sight of its shadow on the wall that prompts his final turn away from her. And after Beth’s last “No, Nathaniel,” she takes his cross again and leaves the stage.
And then she comes right back on again. Or rather, her stunt-double does, because at the end of the song, a Martian cylinder hits the house where they’ve been sheltering. In the most spectacular example of expository dialogue since… Okay, since a few minutes ago when Beth told her husband that she was his wife, Nathaniel announces, “A cylinder has landed on the house and we’re underneath it in the pit!” In yet another example of the New Generation telegraphing its reveals, we actually see her collapse in a spray of pyrotechnics in this version, even though it’s a few minutes before her death is revealed in the narrative.
Instead, hologram Liam Neeson or Creepy CGI Richard Burton tell us all about how the Martians spend the night building a handling machine — a short-legged vehicle with claws and a cage which they use to hunt and capture humans. Yeah, this is a weird place in the narrative to break for exposition. This is one of the only adaptations to show the handling machine. Most adaptations limit themselves to the tripod fighting machines. Martian flying machines also appear in the CGI video, though they are not mentioned in the narrative. That 1998 video game gave them an ample supply of cheap 3D models to choose from. Though they don’t show up in the stage show, the video game version is the only adaptation I know of to include the “embankment machine”, a Martian craft used for excavating their landing sites. Even Timothy Hines’s slavishly faithful version doesn’t bother with them and Wells himself only mentions them in passing.
When Nathaniel finally does discover Beth’s body (and retrieves his cross), he loses it completely, demanding, “Satan! Why did you take one of your own?” and performing his own dark version of Beth’s verse:
There is a curse on mankind!
We may as well be resigned,
To let the devil,
The devil take the spirit of man!
Starting with the original 2006 stage show Beth’s disembodied voice offers another round of “No, Nathaniel!”s, this time altered with a haunting, ethereal effect. In the New Generation version, a cloaked version of Beth appears as well, then is lifted from the stage by wires.
The curate is often omitted in adaptations. The only ones we’ve seen to include him until now are the slavishly faithful Timothy Hines version and of all things, the Asylum version. One thing I notice is that the character’s final breakdown in both this version and the Asylum one are triggered by the same thing: the sight of the Martians feeding, which is described to us in detail by Giant Disembodied Richard Burton at this point in the story. This doesn’t occur in the novel, where they witness the feeding much earlier. There, it seems like the curate’s breakdown is largely due to hunger, as it’s immediately preceded by him pitching a fit over the narrator withholding food (this point is repeated in the Asylum adaptation, where, if you’ll recall, it’s leveraged to foreshadow the ultimate fate of the aliens when George gets to thinking about the dangers of eating spoiled food). No other version has an equivalent character to Beth, of course, so where the novel has the curate declare his intention to witness to the Martians and the Asylum film has him simply give up on his faith, it’s only the musical version where Parson Nathaniel is inspired to a crusade: he declares that he’s received a sign that he is to go out and smite the invaders — literally with the power of his cross. Symbolism!
Depending on which version of the musical you’re experiencing, it’s ambiguous what exactly happens next. In the novel, the narrator clubs the curate in the head with the blunt end of a meat cleaver. It’s not clear if the blow is fatal, but we’re told it leaves a visible injury. In the original album, Burton doesn’t say what happens, but we hear a thwack and a thump. It seems obvious enough what happened, I think, assuming you don’t just miss it outright, as it lasts a fraction of a second and isn’t described. And I’m not sure if it even really “seems obvious” because it is, or just because I’ve read the book and know what’s coming. But in the original stage version, creepy CGI Burton has no hands or anything, and if the thwack is actually there, I couldn’t hear it over the music, so it seems more like Nathaniel just trips over something on his way out to confront the aliens. The thwack sound is more pronounced on The New Generation and sounds unambiguously like a punch. On stage, the result is, of course, amazing:
That’s right. Holographic Liam Neeson punches him in the face. Look, I’ve had my reservations about this kinda-sorta-halfway-conversion from a presentation designed for pure audio into a stage format, but it is all worth it to watch a hologram of Liam Neeson punch a live actor in the face.
The rest of Nathaniel’s fate is revealed by the dodgy CGI backdrop as a metal claw locates a CGI ragdoll and tosses it into a giant alien Cuisinart. Setting aside just how hard it is to buy that CG sequence as something we were meant to take seriously, I really really like the way that the Spirit of Man scene translates to the stage. From the album, to the first stage show, to the second album, to the second stage show, you can really feel this scene in particular trying to evolve toward being a proper theatrical presentation. It isn’t quite there yet, but it’s close. Close enough, in fact, that I’d say this is the one thing in the album that is outright better on stage. All the other stage numbers are basically neutral, but this one actually adds new layers of meaning to the groundwork that’s already laid by the song.
Once the aliens have buggered off about their own business, the journalist emerges from the pit and gets back on his way to London, finding the countryside completely abandoned.
He decides that this quiet interlude would be a good time for more exposition, and why not? The narration changes a bit from the original to The New Generation. Small but important changes in phrasing make it more intimate in the new version. In the original, CGI Richard Burton speaks abstractly about abandoned towns and the end of “Man’s empire.” Holographic Liam Neeson describes a sense of “dethronement” from the realization that he, a once-master of the Earth, now seemed to rank lower than even the encroaching red weed. There’s a reason for it, though. He explains that the Martians are effectively creatures “composed entirely of brain”, whose machines served as made-to-order task-specific artificial bodies rather than wasting energy lugging around complicated limbs and digestive systems. The point of the aside is foreshadowing: the Journalist explains that, “They never tired, never slept, and never suffered, having long since eliminated from their planet the bacteria that cause all fevers and morbidities.” Gee. I wonder if that will somehow become relevant later…
- 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.