Jeff Wayne interview
by: Caroline Westbrook - Last updated: 2007-06-13
Composer Jeff Wayne is best known for turning HG Wells' novel The War Of The Worlds into an album and musical. Originally released in 1978, the album spent 260 weeks on the UK charts and has sold over 13 million copies worldwide.
The 63-year-old, who was born in Queens, New York, and has spent most of his adult life in Britain, has also written numerous advertising jingles as well as the theme tune to ITV's original breakfast TV show Good Morning Britain.
As the album Highlights From The War Of The Worlds is released and he prepares for a tour in December, Wayne chats to SJ's Caroline Westbrook about Martians, HG Wells, family life, and the origins of his name.
Did you ever imagine War Of The Worlds would have such enduring appeal?
No, I had no real ability to forecast the extraordinary life it would turn into. In fact this past Saturday it's 29 years since the album was first released and I can see the long life it's had and that it will hopefully continue for some time to come.
Did you ever envisage it would end up on stage?
I think when my dad and I first partnered up to turn HG Wells' novel into a musical, we hoped if it enjoyed success it would have it would have a life in visual form but not to the scale we're doing the shows at the moment, more like the West End stage, Broadway or a concert rendition. Last year it amazed all of us, it started out as one concert rendition at the Albert Hall and grew into these 14 large arena shows across the UK, sold out pretty quickly something like 100,000 people saw it and all the reviews were pretty much ecstatic. It was just one of those unexpected things.
Are you looking forward to the December tour and do you have plans to base the show somewhere permanently?
Well, they're two different things, the scale of the arena tour requires huge spaces. In fact we start in Australia, New Zealand in September, we're taking it abroad for the first time. It's just a very mammoth show in the ingredients it contains we then come back afterwards and play the UK again. We've had one approach to take it even larger and take it to Las Vegas. It does seem to have a natural feel for this type of production, so I think the life of it is still multi-tiered if that's the right word, over the future. At the moment we've been working flat out since last September, to get these tours going,start we start rehearsals in August then we move to Australia to start the tour, and we go right through to the start of October, before we come back home. We've been putting so much time into it, we're not just taking it out of the box and doing it again in the same way we've invested a lot of time and additional dosh, so to speak, on giving it some new ingredients and improved stuff, so that anybody who came to the show last year will know the structure but a lot of things within it will be substantially different.
When did you first come up with the idea of basing a musical on War Of The Worlds?
It was my dad that passed me HG Wells' book, this was in the mid 70s. I had been composing for movies, TV shows, advertising everything in media, but then I got on a really good and enjoyable run with David Essex where I served as his producer, arranger and toured with him for a couple of years as his musical director. David pretty much wrote the majority of his own material, so that was a chunk of my professional side that had stopped full-time composing, and my dad reminded me of that, and he said don't you think it's about time you returned to what you really have a passion for? I agreed with him so when I was touring with David in the second year I got handed this book by my father. It was one of many books we had started reading but this was the only one at the time I could hear sound and loved the story and the whole feel of it. It was then and it still is copyright in most countries so it took us several months to trace what was the estate of HG Wells representing the interests of HG's brother Frank, we had to convince them that the way I wanted to approach it was worthy of granting us licences. In fact they were very pleased because up to then and even more recently every version had been set in contemporary America changing the characters and storylines. And here I come and I wanted to interpret it in both the time that HG Wells had written it but keep the characters very much true to the way he wrote it. So me and my dad bought all the remaining rights.
War Of The Worlds seems to be a family affair....how much influence have your family been on your work?
Well, separate from the support that all families give each other in the endeavours they pursue I had support my stepmother, Doreen, a professional writer who adapted the HG Wells novel, my father was an executive producer and my wife Geraldine assisted me in producing the sound effects that were produced for the recording. Also one of the ingredients on our live shows is an approximately 100ft high by 20ft wide screen which an animated film we produced runs it features live action scenes as well and my eldest daughter Anna-Marie appears on screen as the fiancee of George Herbert the journalist. And and two of my other three children are in the crowd scenes, in this filmic material that we have. I also have a son named Zeb who is a musician and a DJ in his own right, he did two R&B rap remixes of tracks from War Of The Worlds and that's used as our playout music, so pretty much everyone's involved in some way.
Your dad spoke in 1969 about being the first father and son duo to do a musical, in fact the first Jewish father and son duo to do a musical. Do you think this family tradition might continue with your own son?
Zeb actually gets me to play keyboards on some of his productions, so I've started working with him. Also my daughter Jemma is an author and she's written for the Jewish Chronicle and does a monthly feature in the Jewish News. We've revisited a book I read as a young boy by Jack London called The Call Of The Wild, and we're looking to get down to scoring and composing a musical based on it and she's going to adapt the story. My son in law Damian, who is married to Anna-Marie is co-producer of the live show. So we're a pretty close family unit.
Are you still looking to do a ballet score?
The ballet score, if it's the one I'm thinking of, is about Matisse and it's still being written and re-written. I keep getting updates on it every few months or so, but I'm hoping that it'll come off. It looked at one time as though it was all set to happen, we found a very established choreographer from the Royal Ballet but as with many large projects the elements take a lot of people and at this case the score is something that comes later on.
Do you have fond memories of working on Two Cities?
It was probably the first thing I did professionally that gave me any serious launch into my career, just before that I was in California where I graduated high school and college. I was songwriting, I was playing keyboards in bands that I put together, writing songs for other people. My dad was back here producing various shows in the West End and Two Cities was one of them. He believed in me but looking back he took a seriously gamble hiring a teenager to work on a West End show. But it went on at the Palace Theatre, starred Edward Woodward and he won what is now called an Olivier award.
Did you see Spielberg's War Of The Worlds? What did you think of it?
I have seen it, and I may be the wrong guy to ask that because I'm so ensconced and such a believer in what HG Wells wrote and the right way to unveil his story. Everybody else, including Mr Spielberg, has put a contemporary American slant on it, it's seriously changed, but obviously that was his way of wanting to interpret it. I like HG Wells' story - HG was a pretty young guy, 32 when he wrote it. He was writing this story not as a book, it came out originally as an episodic adventure for a magazine and it became popular in its day. What he was doing was criticising any nation which at the time was misusing power, and at that time the British Empire was a powerful nation and that was his way of taking a pop at it all. I like his characters, they resonate with me, it was as relevant in the 70s as they are today. In the 1890s when the story is set, an alien force comes to our planet with superior intelligence, superior machines and weapons, we as humans only had rifles and cannons and popguns against this force whereas today you'd think we're on a much more level playing field. So it's more terrifying to keep the Victorian setting.
Do you consider yourself American or British?
Statistically I've lived in England for around two-thirds of my life, so I'm more Brit than Yank.
You were involved with the best-selling song The Martian Hop what is it about Mars, exactly?
The background to that is that I was not the songwriter, I was a friend of two cousins, the Lawrence cousins, Bobby Lawrence and I went to college together for about a year, year and a half, we did music classes together. He was part of the Randells who were big at the time, and he knew knew I was into sound and loved experimenting with gadgets. He played me this song The Martian Hop and it was a straight rendition, but I suggested it should be sped up more like the Chipmunks. That was my contribution but it seems to have survived as a good story all these years only in the context in the way I've explained it.
According to War Of The Worlds, the chances of anything coming from Mars are a millon to one. Do you think those odds have now shortened?
No, I think maybe they've lengthened! Although it depends how you look at it, certainly science and research have shown that there's a possibility that there has been or is some fragment of life form, so you never know. I want to believe but I don't believe blindly.
Have you ever done anything Jewish-themed?
No, I haven't but the closest I came was a musical in the early 90s based on a story called Spartacus which while not a Jewish theme took me about three years to research and tap into peoples that the Romans conquered. That connected a bit but it's not a Jewish theme.
What's your family background and what are the origins of the family name?
My real name could have been Krauth, my father was born Jerome Marvin Krauth. His grandfather was a rabbi and his family were from Russia and Austro-Hungary. His father rebelled against the Orthodox family that he was brought up in and really became an Atheist which influenced my dad. He remained that way even though he and I were Barmitzvahed in Israel, I think he softened as his life went on. My mother was one of 11 children from Poland Austro-Hungary, they were an immigrant family in the turn of the century, they were a very Orthodox family and remained that way. So between the two of them they had interesting points of view and that influenced me in our family our Friday nights have been very continual and regular, all through the growing up period it was every Friday night, now our two daughters are married so we get together as often as we can. Our two sons still live at home so our Friday nights remain, they contract and expand according to availability. Faith and religion have remained a constant part of the Friday night debate, so far I'm down 4-0. My wife Geraldine who converted to Judaism many years ago has remained a true believer in all things spiritual and follows the Jewish faith.
So who changed the family name to Wayne?
Oh well that was my father! He was a struggling actor/singer, he had moved from Buffalo New York to New York with a good friend of his. My dad could play the guitar and heard about an audition for a national radio station I don't remember the name of it but they were looking for somebody who could sing love songs and play guitar at the same time, and my father went for the audition and got the gig, and the show was called The Love Songs Of.....with the name winner of talent contest and they hired my dad and didn't bother to check very closely on his name. Suddenly the producer realised The Love Songs Of Jerome Marvin Krauth didn't really have that Hollywood ring to it! So I think more out of the fear of starvation than the loss of a job my father immediately became Jerry Wayne, Jerry being taken from Jerome but he looked out of the window of the radio station, looked out of the window and saw a movie house marquee with the name of very famous actor of the time whose name was Wayne, so Krauth changed to Wayne and remained that way. And then he changed it by deed poll. So it could have been Jeff Krauth's version of The War Of The Worlds.
Which shul do you belong to?
We live in Shenley so we go to Radlett and we also went to the West London synagogue for many years. We've known Hugo Gryn's family for many many years, my dad and Hugo passed away within about a month of each other. We go to shul in fits and starts, it's for different reasons at different times.
Tell us a Jewish joke.
Is it allowed to be slightly naughty? Can it be a little longer than a one-liner? OK, this is the only one that's come to mind, so I apologise. Here goes....Richard Nixon decided he should be circumcised, so he set up circumcision at the White House, with various people who worked there and officials. The mohel who attended felt it should be done privately in a room away from everybody, in the usual time period. So an hour goes by, two hours, then three hours, finally mohel comes out and says, "I don't get this, is there no end to this dick?" There you have it...
Highlights from Jeff Wayne's musical version of The War Of The Worlds is out now on Sony BMG.
Jeff Wayne kicks off a national tour of The War Of The Worlds in December. Tickets can be purchased here.