Holographic Liam Neeson punched a clergyman. It was exactly as awesome as it sounded.
Our expository sidebar ends abruptly with the reintroduction of the Artilleryman, who warns him off claiming the area as his “territory” before recognizing the Journalist from Maybury Hill. The scene plays out really awkwardly in the original stage show, with the Artilleryman addressing the audience as though they were the Journalist. It’s staged in a normal sort of way, like you see in lots of one-man-plays, with the audience standing in for a sort of abstract person-the-actor-is-conversing-with. Only this abstract person actually responds, and the response comes from that stupid CGI head floating off to stage-left. Because to a much greater extent than in the Spirit of Man segment, the narrator does interact with the on-stage character. They carry on a conversation. Thankfully, the Artilleryman does not address his conversation to the Big Giant Head, but to an imaginary on-stage character, but it’s incongruous.
Since Liam Neeson can appear in a virtual on-stage form, it’s less awkward in The New Generation, though none of the various recordings I’ve looked at of the scene were blocked very well. The new version adds a couple of minutes of additional dialogue at the beginning of the scene as well. It’s a normal, traditional conversation where the Journalist and the Artilleryman interact as normal fictional characters in a traditional narrative, and that’s really unusual for this show, and is one of the few concessions toward trying to reorient the performance into a proper stage show. That said, the content isn’t really interesting. They cover basically the same ground that the Artilleryman is about to cover in song, adding only the Artilleryman’s speculation that the next step for the Martians will be full-on colonization and a systematic rounding-up of the human survivors.
The biggest disappointment I’ve had with The New Generation, both the album and the show, is that the modest changes that have been made to create a more fleshed-out traditional narrative… Don’t really do that. Practically every addition is one of two things: Liam Neeson pretending he’s really part of the story, as in the “Distant Shores” interlude, or prose spoilers for something that’s about to be more effectively conveyed in song, as with the new characters in the prologue. The additions to the Artilleryman scene are both: Liam Neeson having a conversation with the Artilleryman in which we get to hear all about his grand plan… Right before the big show-stopping number about his grand plan.
“I’ve got a plan,” he declares, and there’s another rare bit of stagecraft as a large bridge is lowered onto the set. I don’t know what specifically the bridge is supposed to represent, beyond the abstract notion of civil engineering. And maybe that the Paris Barricade in Les Miz was really cool. In the various staged versions, the Artilleryman dances around the stage as he sings about his plan to develop the system of tunnels and sewers beneath London into a living space, toying with shovels and surveyor’s tools. The bridge in the original stage show has a very realistically Victorian wrought-iron look to it, but in later productions, it becomes more steampunk, acquiring large metal gears that the Artilleryman can “work on”.
The song is high-power and lots of fun, but you don’t usually get too far from the unpleasant implications of what the Artilleryman proposes. And yet, you can start to see why his message would be compelling:
Look, man is born in freedom,
But he soon becomes a slave,
In cages of convention,
From the cradle to the grave.
The weak fall by the wayside,
But the strong will be saved,
In a brave new world,
With just a handful of men,
We’ll start all over again!
There’s a strong strain of populism there, which on paper sounds weird when juxtaposed with the imagery of “just a handful of men,” until you realize that populist movements always do this: try to appeal to “the masses” using language based around exclusion of everyone who doesn’t slot in neatly with the herrenvolk. There’s anti-elitist sentiments in there that become less subtle in The New Generation. In both, he’s dismissive toward the idea of teaching children, “poems and rubbish,” and the later version adds in more of the novel’s dialogue sneering specifically at the arts. This attitude seems at first to simply be a kind of stoicism that’s not unreasonable in the face of hardship, but he goes on to make an offhand reference to the individual enclaves in his proposed underground civilization having cricket leagues, and then later he proposes that seaside vacations would be part of his new world. So it’s not really about a life bereft of luxury, but rather one that eschews highbrow entertainment like the Royal Academy of the Arts, the opera, or fancy restaurants, but still permits the sort of amusements that would have been available to the hoi polloi. By the late 19th century, seaside resorts for the working class had become a “thing” in Britain, thanks to the growth of railways coupled with the industrial revolution that had introduced regular work schedules which now often included a week off every year when the factory closed down for maintenance. In the novel, the Artilleryman refers to, “A dislike of eating peas with a knife or dropping aitches,” as useless traits in his new world.
Unlike Parson Nathaniel, there is a lot of variation among the various singers who’ve played the Artilleryman. There’s an interplay of a whole bunch of aspects to his character, and different performers choose different ones to play up. It’s exemplified really well in the way they handle the middle eight, which, coincidentally, is my single favorite block of lines in the whole album:
I’m not trying to tell you what to be,
Oh no, oh no, not me.
But if mankind is to survive,
The people left alive,
We’re going to have to build this world anew,
And it’s going to have to start with me and you!
David Essex sings on the 1978 album, and his Artilleryman is a bit of a con man. You hear it all through the song, but most especially in his, “Oh no, oh no, not me…” It comes out like a snake-oil salesman setting you up for the hard sell that comes with a transparently fake reluctance in “But…” As if to say, “What? Me? Oh, no, I’d never try to make you do something you didn’t want to… Of course, if you don’t, it’s just the end of humanity. But it’s completely your choice…”
In the 2006 tour, Alexis James’s Artilleryman, on the other hand, is completely on the level. That really took me by surprise, but it’s the first time I really got the “strange charisma” that the character is supposed to have. He’s an evangelist with a convert’s zeal. He’s not going to tell you what to be; he’s just going to tell you this awesome idea he had. He’s always smiling, especially when he’s selling, “Think of all the poverty / The hatred and the lies / Imagine the destruction of all that you despise.” His version is the one whose shtick I can most see the Journalist buying into.
For the 2010 tour, Jason Donovan played the Artilleryman. Remember, he’d go on to play Nathaniel in The New Generation. And the parson’s madness that he would convey so well a few years later is also the core of how he plays the Artilleryman. His version is twitchy and desperate, his, “I’m not going to tell you,” nervous and withdrawing, like he’s afraid you’re going to take a swing at him if he comes on too strong. He plays the character like the street-corner hobo holding up a sign that the end is nigh. Ironically, he’s the only performer who does the “All over again!” line in a falsetto rather than as a squeal. Both he and Alexis James salute the audience before leaving the stage, but while James’s exit is bold and indefatigable, Donovan slinks off the stage, defeated. In fact, he visibly deflates as the Journalist comes to see, “The gulf between his dreams and his power,” his last refrain coming off as a man desperately trying to cling to a fading dream.
Ricky Wilson took over the role for the first tour of The New Generation, and his Artilleryman is the most sinister. There’s a cynicism to his performance, but also a great deal of showmanship. He leans more heavily on the lines about destroying the decadent conventions of the past. His “Oh no, oh no, not me,” isn’t simply dismissive, it’s the same sort of manufactured offense a mid-level politician would display if you suggested that his white hooded robes might indicate he’s racist. He’s beating the drum to rally his audience, and rally them with the fantasy of taking their country back and giving the what-for to all the weak and undesirable and elite classes. Also, he’s going to build a wall around Mars and make the Martians pay for it (This joke was probably funnier when this post was originally scheduled to go out on Halloween).
For the Farewell Thunderchild tour, Shayne Ward plays the role, and… He’s fine. I haven’t found a complete recording of his rendition of Brave New World, but what I’ve heard seems to be technically fine, but lacks the distinctiveness of the other performers.
After leaving the Artilleryman to his brave new world, the Journalist finally makes it to Central London. The music takes on an ominous tone, but the “Ulla!” cries of the Martians become wailing and mournful. It has a profound effect on the narrator. “Why was I wandering along in this city of the dead?” he asks, “Why was I alive when London was lying in state in its black shroud?” As he approaches the wailing tripod, the cries and also the music cut off suddenly.
Abruptly, the sound ceased. Suddenly the desolation, the solitude, became unendurable. While that voice sounded London still seemed alive, now suddenly there was a change, the passing of something, and all that remained was this gaunt quiet.
An insane resolve possessed me: I would give my life to the Martians, here and now.
This is basically the same thing that happens in the book, and as a purely auditory experience, it’s effective enough. On stage, it’s kind of a wet squib, especially when it’s happening to, once again, the giant disembodied CGI head of Richard Burton. I don’t know how to balance all the consequences of moving the first act’s big musical number all the way to the end, but this is why I said that “Forever Autumn” would probably fit better here. Have him make it all the way back to Carrie’s house, and be overcome by despair there. Not sure why exactly, but I’m also not sure why he came back to London in the first place — they never actually give a reason why he does this when apparently none of the other refugees did after the Thunderchild incident.
As we all know by now, the Journalist’s attempt to commit suicide-by-tripod doesn’t work. He reaches the Martian encampment to find the aliens’ bodies already being disassembled by scavenging animals, “Slain after all man’s devices had failed by the humblest creatures on the Earth: bacteria. Minute, invisible, bacteria. Directly the invaders arrived and drank and fed, our microscopic allies attacked them. From that moment, they were doomed.” In the Liam Neeson version, there’s an extra line in there to clarify that the bacteria he’s talking about are the harmless ones to which Earth life has long since evolved a resistance. I never really thought of it as a plot hole especially that some adaptations fail to point that out, but I guess it technically is, so I won’t call this addition pointless. Especially in light of The Great Martian War‘s interesting modification that the disease which killed their Martians goes on to become an analogue of the historical 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic.
The on-stage tripod’s lights dim, its windows changing from green to red or purple. In some versions, the cockpit lists to one side. The band strikes up again in a reprise of the “Eve of the War” theme from the beginning. Remember how I said Justin Hayward could go home early after “Forever Autumn”? Not quite true: on the original album, “Brave New World” is the last song. But when it was adapted to a live show in 2006, they wheel him back out at the end to sing a few more rounds of “The chances of anything coming from Mars / Are a million to one, he said.” This is retained in The New Generation, and for the new live show, all the other singers return to the stage for this part and join in. I personally think that having everyone come back on stage for one last number at the end is a good way to end a musical. It matters little that half of the people who turn up are dead at this point in the story; we’re already in a world that is substantially unreal. It makes me think of the commentary track for the musical film version of Little Shop of Horrors, of all things. Now, that movie got a fair bit of flack for changing the ending of the stage show. In the original, Seymour and Audrey are both killed by the plant, and its offspring go on to world domination (The original 1960 film is slightly less dire; only Seymour dies and the plant’s murderous tendencies become public knowledge). The ending went over disastrously with test audiences and was completely rewritten so that Seymour is able to kill the plant and lives happily ever after with Audrey. The new ending is a little banal, sure, but the superiority of the original ending on stage relies in part on the conventions of theatre. Frank Oz, though creatively dissatisfied with the change, would later concede that the original ending plays out as much more harsh in the medium of film, because film lacks the convention of the curtain call, where all the characters, alive and dead, come back out and take a bow, implicitly giving the audience consent to have enjoyed their demise. That bit where everyone comes back out and waves at you softens the fact that you’ve been watching really unpleasant things happen to people for two hours in a musical. Like Puck stepping forward to restore amends. It’s absolutely lovely and works really well, doing a lot to give the sense of these people all actually being characters in a narrative rather than a series of isolated set-pieces.
The sub-plot about the Journalist’s girlfriend is dispensed with via the single line, “the thousands who had fled by sea, including the one most dear to me, all could return.” There’s a sort of pastoral, romantic theme that’s inserted here and runs for about five minutes evolving into an upbeat piece with little strains of a march, to suggest the theme of the world picking itself up and returning to normal. You remember that two-part melody I brought up at the end of act I? In a mirroring of what happened there, the second melody, with its six ascending notes, comes back, now more triumphant, and this time the “Martian” part is absent.
In the original stage show, this time is used for the curtain call. The last arena tour, Farewell Thunderchild does something else, though: there’s a new song here. The first wholly new song since the original album.
This is a great idea, and a substantive addition to the musical, and it serves a really important role, and is exactly the sort of thing they should have been doing as the concept album evolved toward being a stage show…
And it’s just not a great song. Sorry. It’s growing on me, slowly, but it just doesn’t quite work. It very clearly takes its inspiration from “One Day More”, the big show-stopping number at the end of Act I of Les Miserables. It’s structured similarly, with each character getting a little block of lines relevant to their character, punctuated by The Voice of Humanity declaring, “Life begins again!”
Only it isn’t, because they can’t leave well enough alone: the Artilleryman cuts in after each round of “Life begins again!” to shout, “We’ll start all over again!” It just doesn’t gel is the thing. The content is overly sappy and sentimental. Also banal. We start out with the journalist: “Life begins again, I will find you if I have to search until my journey’s end.” Um. Yes. You will search until your journey ends. That is how journeys work. You will stop searching once you find the thing you are searching for. Nathaniel appears to tell us, “We’ll be free again, from of world of evil and a land of faithless men,” which is about as good as it gets in this song, but still, sorta undermines the whole theme of healing and moving on if he’s still hung up on this whole thing with humanity being cursed and evil inside. Carrie becomes a real proper character exclusively for the purpose of this song, but all she has to say is, “I’m here for you my love, I wait without fear, the time draws so near.” Ugh. A character with no agency to speak of gets a line just to say that, yup, she’s waiting for him. Beth appears, singing, “Don’t cry for me, my love, the time will pass by, and we will decry,” the setup for The Voice of Humanity’s “Life begins again!” Beth’s line isn’t a terrible sentiment, but let’s think here: the idea is that she’s singing comfort to Nathaniel from beyond the grave. The actress is bathed in light to indicate her angelic status. In isolation, sounds great. But Nathaniel’s dead too. Did they change that in this version? One dead person is comforting another dead person and telling him that he’ll get over her death. What the hell. Also, there are at least 570 words in the English language which rhyme with “by” and you went with “decry”? And that line is the line that the song will eventually end on, everyone joining in to sing it twice to that repeated rising sequence.
The individual segments of the song tread basically the same ground over and over, unlike the Les Miz song, where everyone’s got different and conflicting agendas. It’s the same thing we’ve seen with all the New Generation additions: just retelling us what the story already had succeeded in telling us, only slightly worse. A song with this structure belongs earlier in the story, not here as a postscript. The overall idea conveyed by the structure of the song is one of simultaneity, but what it’s describing is more of a serial process. “One Day More” isn’t the right model for your epilogue. If you want a good model for bringing everyone back together including the dead people for your epilogue, the Les Miz song you want to look to is the reprise of “Do You Hear the People Sing?”
And the thing is, they’ve already done it: the ensemble version of “The Eve of the War” works basically the same way as having Fantine and Eponine and Enjolras and Gavroche and everyone else show up and sing “Do you hear the people sing?” to the dying Valjean. That bit, short though it is, is great. What they ought to have done was to expand that out into a full song with verses and suchlike. Note that this is the second time that I’ve suggested expanding that song. It’s that good.
Once all the live actors have been credited during the curtain call, they do a shout-out to the “on-screen ensemble”, who reappear on the backdrop to bow, and it’s weird and awkward. Carrie is credited, and she blows a kiss to the giant, creepy, disembodied head of Richard Burton, who parrots his introductory line, “No one would have believed,” then, the CGI team showing off, winks. It is super creepy. In the New Generation show, they take “cute” a tiny bit too far by having human-sized holographic Liam Neeson salute his larger narrator counterpart.
The first of two epilogues is performed by the Journalist as the other instruments fade out, leaving only the strings. Their part is, again, the “Earth” part of the musical phrase that had recurred across the first act, and there’s a palpable absence where the other half should be, giving it an anticipatory tone, like the violins keep trying to prompt the other instruments into responding.
As life returns to normal, the question of another attack from Mars causes universal concern. Is our planet safe, or is this time of peace merely a reprieve? It may be that across the immensity of space, they have learned their lessons, and even now await their opportunity. Perhaps the future belongs not to us, but to the Martians.
The second epilogue is the only part of the album to completely step away from the original novel. Its setting is contemporary, and it’s entirely in prose with limited only minimal music. A character identified as “The Voice of NASA” oversees the landing of an unmanned craft on Mars, a subject that was topical in 1978, at the height of the Viking program, and then again when The New Generation was being made in 2012 as Curiosity arrived on the red planet. The screen shows a video feed from the lander. In the later version, the NASA controller is an on-stage character, who appears at a large desk bearing the NASA logo. The performer doesn’t actually speak, though; they retain the audio track from the original album. The role is voiced by Jeff Wayne’s father, Jerry Wayne, a veteran of the stage whose credits include playing Sky Masterson in the original West End production of Guys and Dolls.
The mission seems initially to be a resounding success, until the feed from the lander is abruptly lost. The music shifts to the minimalist alien tones that had opened the second act. The NASA character reports a green flare coming from Mars, then one-by-one loses contact with the NASA tracking stations in Bermuda, Houston, Canberra and Madrid. As he desperately tries to raise someone, the epilogue cuts off suddenly and abruptly. In the New Generation stage show, the dead tripod, still on stage, springs back to life and unleashes a pyrotechnic fireball which destroys the NASA controller’s desk.
(And then, pointlessly, both in the album and on stage, they insert the line, “The problem, of course, is the humans,” from the opening cutscene of the 1998 video game, which had previously been in the CGI prologue to the stage show. I will not dignify this inexplicable choice with anything more than a parenthetical.)
Man, do I love Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds. To a certain extent, it feels like the basic creative process behind it was Jeff Wayne thinking, “You know what I’d like? I’d like Richard Burton to read The War of the Worlds to me while I listen to some prog rock, with occasional breaks to hear The Moody Blues sing to me.” Which sounds silly, of course, but the secret is that, yeah, that’s a pretty excellent way to spend a couple of hours. Musically, everything fits together so well.
Trying to turn it into a stage show has had mixed results, and that’s a real shame. That wonderful gelling that the musical experience has doesn’t translate, because the coherence of the album doesn’t extend to the narrative. There’s basically only two proper “scenes”, and they’re both in the second act. Wayne seems to have understood that the initial translation to a stage show didn’t highlight the right things, as evidenced by the changes made for the New Generation version, but doesn’t close the loop and make the changes necessary to evolve it all the way into a stage musical.
And frankly, maybe that’s okay. Maybe being a very good prog rock concept album is enough, and putting it on stage is should be looked at as a little value-added bonus and not seriously expected to stand on its own.
Yet, here it is. Another adaptation. Something that gave me enough extra to talk about that I was able to pad this out to four parts (For that matter, enough that I was able to pad it out to one part, since I started trying to write this article two years ago, before I’d seen recordings of the stage show, and kept putting it off because I couldn’t work out an angle). And it makes me want a proper great big Andrew Lloyd Weber-style musical with actual actors acting on the stage, that runs for a hundred years and gets a bunch of Tonys and is adapted into a film with inexplicable casting, like Russell Crowe as Parson Nathaniel and Sophia Loren as Beth.
I mean, what could be weirder than that?
- 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.