No one said to me ‘This record is broken, can you fix it’. I had to challenge myself.
“I didn’t want people to think I’d got some new guest stars and was just going to do a quick remix. I really wanted it to be a reimagining.”
So says Jeff Wayne of his root and branch recreation of his 15 million-selling 1978 classic double album Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version Of The War Of The Worlds titled The New Generation.
The original album, inspired by H G Wells’s sci-fi classic of Martian invasion, featured the talents of Moody Blues singer Justin Hayward, David Essex, Phil Lynott and Julie Covington, with the late legendary Welsh thespian Richard Burton as journalist George Herbert, the narrator.
Now there is very little of the original soundtrack left on the New Generation album which was released last month.
“I reworked it using today’s technology and styles of production and arrangement,” says Wayne, who also conducts the orchestra for the live shows.
“It was almost two years of effort. I didn’t want it to be a club mash-up to show how clever I could be. I wanted to make sure the reworking had the core compositions and storyline. It should sound familiar, but it should sound fresh.”
There was one major sound he couldn’t change though – the Martians’ battle cry, Ulla.
“It was the only one of the sounds we couldn’t improve on,” he says. “It does sound thick and wide now, which the aficianadoes will love.”
When Wayne decided to revisit the album it was Burton’s narration which had to go first – allowing him to expand the script and put in a subplot about the journalist’s separation from his lover Carrie as the Martians invade.
“It came back to me that when we made the album we had almost twice the amount of content that we could fit onto the record,” he says.
“Burton did 74 sequences on the album and onstage. Liam Neeson has 90 sequences.
“We couldn’t make a new performance around Burton [who passed away in 1984]. That was the hardest and first emotional part, saying farewell.”
Neeson topped the list of actors Wayne felt could fill Burton’s shoes, both in terms of screen presence and quality of his “big, booming, mellifluously resonating voice”.
For Neeson though it wasn’t an easy decision.
“When I met him in New York before he committed to doing it he asked me if I wanted him to do a Richard Burton,” says Wayne.
“I said ‘No way, I want you to do a Liam Neeson’. I wanted him to take on and expand the character.
“He said he would have to think about it, because of ‘the demons’.”
It turned out Burton had been a regular presence when Neeson was starting out as an actor – with Neeson even taking a small part in the mini-series Ellis Island where Burton was the star.
“He remembered watching him work and realising he was a great actor, with a unique voice,” says Wayne.
Burton was a 3D holographic presence in the live version of the War Of The Worlds. Neeson has continued that holographic tradition for this reimagined live show, filming sections in New York both for the big screen and interacting as a hologram with characters onstage.
At one point the holographic Neeson hands a glass of water to Kaiser Chiefs frontman Ricky Wilson who plays The Artilleryman.
“We hope the audience will say: ‘How do they do that?’,” laughs Wayne, who has increased the technical wizardry of the show every time it goes on tour, to include giant fighting machines, heat rays sweeping the audience, and even, in this new version, an onstage incineration.
“You can feel the heat ten or 15 rows back,” he says.
“I have always called War Of The Worlds Live a living work. It has always represented a challenge to top the previous one.”
For this tour, Wayne has also said goodbye to many of his old tour stalwarts, including original vocalists Justin Hayward and Chris Thompson, whose parts are now being played by Wet Wet Wet’s Marti Pellow and Jettblack’s Will Stapleton.
Also in the cast are Wicked and We Will Rock You star Kerry Ellis, and Jason Donovan who has shifted from the role of The Artilleryman in the last touring version to the troubled Parson Nathaniel in this new generation show.
Wilson, taking the role of the Artilleryman both onstage and on the record, had grown up listening to the War Of The Worlds. “Every time he went on a family holiday his parents would put the cassette on in the car’s music system,” says Wayne. “He knew his part already.”
The record also features contributions from Take That’s Gary Barlow, Maverick Sabre, Joss Stone and Alex Clare.
But when it came to the live show, Wilson was one of the few artists to transfer onto the stage.
“His attitude was ‘anything that scares me must be a good challenge’,” says Wayne.
“For the director it was a challenge to work with somebody who wasn’t a trained thespian – he spent three days working with Ricky on ways to build up the character.”
Now there is only the audience reaction to worry about.
“I’m hoping The New Generation will grow on its own merits – and those who know it will say it is a great companion to the original.”
- Brighton Centre, King’s Road, Sunday, December 16, and Monday, December 17. Doors 7pm, tickets from £42.50. Call 0844 8471515