Wednesday 21 March 2018

The aliens have landed! And they sure can put on a show

'The War of The Worlds' is scarier than the IMF, writes Susan Daly

A race of terrifying creatures with "intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic" are set to invade Dublin next week. Relax. It's not a second batch of IMF officials -- just some deadly 35ft-high Martian killing machines.

They are part of the War of the Worlds stage show, inspired by the 1898 HG Wells novel of alien invasion and the iconic soundtrack recorded by composer Jeff Wayne exactly 80 years later.

Wayne's concept album, full of Martian war cries, synthesisers and hit singles, sold 13 million copies and stayed 235 weeks in the UK charts after its release in 1978.

A colleague mentions how he was left alone as a child in the early '80s with the album playing. His mother returned 20 minutes later to find him hiding behind the couch, sobbing that the Martians were coming.

War of the Worlds and its central premise, in which Martians attack an Earth powerless to defend itself, has inspired films, artworks, video games, TV series and at least one very powerful radio play (see panel). Wayne (67), who still conducts the show, says there are reasons why War of the Worlds still resonates.

"HG Wells was a very young man when he created these Martians with extendible tentacles," says Wayne. "What he was doing was taking a pop at the ever-expanding British empire, these tentacles of power.

"Power, if it's wrongly used, then it's just wrong. It's relevant today: Look at the world we live in. It's about territorial expansion and one faith against the other."

It also has some resonance in Wayne's personal story. His father Jerry was an actor and singer of some note in the States in the 1950s. "In his heyday in America, he was a pop star," says Wayne. "I've a poster in my studio of a No 1 he had and in order of billing he is above Frank Sinatra."

Unfortunately for Jerry, he was blacklisted by the House of Un-American Activities Committee for performing at a benefit concert for another victim of the committee, singer Paul Robeson.

He went to England to play Sky Masterson in the original production of Guys and Dolls and brought Jeff with him.

His father introduced Jeff to music production, and he became business partner with him on The War of the Worlds album. He had been the one to hand Jeff the Wells book to read for inspiration.

"He knew as a writer and a composer that I wanted a challenge that would go beyond my career."

Wayne had to that point made money from composing advertising jingles -- "I did about 3,000 in one 10-year period" -- and theme tunes to TV shows such as BBC's 60 Minutes, The World of Sport and Good Morning Britain.

War of the Worlds was a different, well, world. In the 1970s, he had to literally invent sounds to bring Wells' novel to musical life.

"I was there, looking for ways to make the sound of a snowflake!" laughs Wayne.

Gongs submerged in a tank of water, a saucepan rattled against a toilet bowl, electronic voiceboxes -- all were used to generate the unsettling soundtrack that sent my colleague diving behind his mother's sofa.

Now it is the stage show breaking new boundaries -- a 35ft Martian that shoots death rays at the audience, CGI graphics from an animated version of the story that Wayne still hopes to make, pyrotechnics, and a 3D hologram of Richard Burton.

Burton is 26 years dead but the miracle of modern geekery has him return to the role he voiced as The Journalist on Wayne's 1978 album. The role of The Artilleryman, originally played by David Essex, is filled by Jason Donovan.

Thin Lizzy's Irish frontman Phil Lynott played the original Parson Nathaniel, a clergyman sent crazed by the invasion.

"He just had it in his voice and character to play this mad Parson," says Wayne, "Phil Lynott had that something singular about him."

So who could possibly replace him? For this show, it's X Factor's Welsh singer Rhydian with a dark dye job. There truly are greater things to fear than the IMF.

Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds is at The O2 next Monday, November 29. Tickets are available from Ticketmaster.

Irish Independent

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