Interview: Yorkshire Post (1974)

This interview was published in the Yorkshire Post on 6 April 1974.

The Genesis Of Jeeves, Superstar

by Geoffrey Winter

Three men got together in a Scarborough bedsitter at the weekend to create a musical version of Jeeves. It is likely to be a smash hit. The three men are Andrew Webber, Alan Ayckbourn and Eric Thompson.

While the weekend holiday crowds at Scarborough were scurrying between deckchairs and shelter and Yorkshire cricketers and supporters were cursing the rain that cheated them of their advantage over Glamorgan, theatrical history was being made in their midst.

In a bed-sitter at 146 Castle Road, three distinguished young men of the theatre were constructing the framework for a stage musical based on P. G. Wodehouse's stories of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster.

The trio were award-winning playwright Alan Ayckbourn, Andrew Lloyd Webber, who wrote the music for
Jesus Christ Superstar and Eric Thompson. who brought The Magic Roundabout to the English TV screen. This coming together to exchange ideas and plot the course of the production was arranged by Alan Ayckbourn, who is artistic director of Scarborough's Library Theatre.

The venue, containing a vitally necessary piano, was by courtesy of Helga Wood, the Library Theatres scenic designer. There was only one observer of the scene in the bed-sitter - Helga's six-week-old and so far nameless kitten.

It was Andrew Webber, at 26, a firmly established international theatrical composer, who had the idea to set Wodehouse to music. He told me: "Tim Rice (his usual lyricist partner) is a tremendous Wodehouse fan. He was so keen on the books that after a lot of thought he said he would prefer not to have a try at a musical interpretation. It was a sensible professional attitude. It was rather as if I had been asked to write music for a life of Prokofiev, if you see what I mean.

"I saw
Absurd Person Singular (Ayckbourn's highly successful comedy, with Richard Briers and Sheila Hancock) at London's Criterion Theatre last year, and decided that I must write to Alan and try to persuade him to join me in Jeeves. Alan is, without doubt, the best English comedy writer around today, and Eric Thompson is a director with an extraordinary talent for seeing humour in any given situation I couldn't have found a better team to work with… if it works."

Despite the world-wide success of
Jesus Christ Superstar, Andrew Webber, a son of the director of the London College of Music, where he studied, is not over-confident. 'I'm very superstitious about talking when it could be much too soon to disclose our hopes and intentions.' he said. He did not really want to discuss what might emerge from the meeting in Helga's bed-sitter, which he described with lyrics straight from The King and I as "a getting to-know-you weekend."

While in New York, he said, he had visited P. G. Wodehouse at his Long Island home. The author, who will be 93 next October, had granted the rights for the production and given it his blessing.
[1]

"We're not basing the musical on just one Wodehouse book, but several. Mr. Wodehouse himself has said that the style must be entirely free. There are some things one physically cannot do on the stage, and we shan't attempt them. There is a narrative style one can do with music which can fit fairly closely the style of a book, and you can have someone talking in the first person to an audience, I think our production will be unconventional, but what we all fully realise is that we must provide something which is within the spirit of what Mr Wodehouse would have written."

Usually, said Andrew Webber, he wrote the music for a production and the lyricist added the words, "but with Alan it may work the other way round." P. G. Wodehouse himself is on record as saying of the hit song, "My Bill" in
Show Boat, "I can't remember whether Jerry Kern wrote the music to my words for that, or I wrote the words for his music, Generally with Jerry it was me writing words to his music."

The actual writing of this musical, referred to for convenience by the trio as
Jeeves, which may or may not be the chosen title, would probably take place in Washington next September, said Andrew Webber. All three would be together for three weeks. Alan and Eric for a production of Absurd Person Singular and himself because he would be in America delivering the score for the screen version of Frederick Forsyth's The Odessa File, which was at present being recorded.

Andrew Webber, the reserved young man who wrote the compelling title number for
Jesus Christ Superstar and the haunting lyric I Don't Know How to Love Him, looked at his watch, excused himself and left the Royal Hotel to keep the rendezvous at Helga's bedsitter.

Jeeves is 35-year-old Alan Ayckbourn's first venture into musicals. "Years ago I bought a record of Andrew's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat, but I didn't imagine our paths would ever cross because we were in such different branches of show business. I've never collaborated with anyone before except in the role of director. Its a bit like a trial marriage. I brought Eric into the relationship because I've known him for a long time and admire his work. In addition to directing and probably contributing to the lyrics, he will be an arbiter and provide moral support for me. He's the grandfather of the trio," Eric Thompson is 42. [2]

"Much of P. G. Wodehouse's greatest talent was in his descriptive passages like 'He spoke with a certain what is it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.' An alpha plus passage like that, and there are hundreds more, throws an adapter's problems into sharp relief. I am going to have to create some Wodehouse-style dialogue, but I can't take too many liberties," says Alan Ayckbourn. "There are far too many Wodehouse aficionados ready to pounce. Everyone has his own view of what Jeeves looks and sounds like, but he is a fairly shadowy figure in the books, unlike Bertie Wooster, who is very easy to characterise."

Ayckbourn, whose wit has a Coward like mordancy which Webber would have noted immediately, says "Most of my views on love and marriage are fairly cynical. I'm not totally unromantic, but I can never resist a dig at the end of a line, which may displease audiences. But then Wodehouse never gets soft. He's always a bit abrasive, and his attitude to women is fairly caustic. His ideal heroines are impish, but the others are rather wet or they're blue stockings, Forever reading long books on philosophy.

"P. G. Wodehouse created a wonderful world in which if anyone was hard up it was simply because uncle had temporarily withdrawn the allowance. Nothing as serious as actually having to get a job. In a way all his characters are delightful idiots. The reader may envy them their life style, but never their intellect. One feels slightly superior to them all.

"The treatment we shall give
Jeeves will have a contemporary slant. It won't be a museum piece. The books are so undramatic in terms of theatre that one has to be fairly drastic."

Had the trio anyone in mind for the parts?, "I don't like writing for specific actors, and it's too early for casting. What we shall look for is some young man who is capable of virtually carrying the show along." Michael Crawford, perhaps? "Well, he's quite capable of doing that, but he doesn't strike me as the butler type, We may find a great unknown... but that's unlikely."

The time for the appointment at Helga's bed-sitter was approaching. "It's very important that during this weekend we form a clear idea of what each of us is going to contribute," said Alan Ayckbourn, "Then well split up and do the rest by 'phone and letter until we meet in America."

P. G. Wodehouse would, of course, be invited to attend the opening night, whenever that is "Countless people, including Wodehouse himself, have tried to dramatise the books and have come unstuck," said Alan Ayckbourn, "I think Mr. Wodehouse will just sit back and see if we three whizz kids can do it."

On Sunday I asked Alan Ayckbourn how the meeting had gone, "The framework is there," he said. "
Jeeves is in embryo."

The genesis of
Jeeves had taken place and Helga's bed-sitter had taken on a new importance.

Website Notes:
[1] P.G. Wodehouse died, at the age of 93, on 14 February 1975, two days after it was officially announced that Alan Ayckbourn and Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Jeeves would open in the West End in April 1975.
[2] Alan first worked with Eric Thompson when the latter directed the West End premiere of
Time And Time Again in 1972. Eric would also direct the West End premieres of Absurd Person Singular, The Norman Conquests and Absent Friends.

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