Jeeves / By Jeeves: Interviews

This section contains interviews with Alan Ayckbourn and Andrew Lloyd Webber about the musicals Jeeves & By Jeeves. Click on the links above or in the box below for more interviews.

This page features extracts from a Royal Society of Literature event in May 2017 at the British Library during which Alan Ayckbourn touched upon his experiences with Jeeves in 1975.

Royal Society Of Literature - In Conversation

Alan Ayckbourn
I’ve also opened the worst musical in the world with Andrew Lloyd Webber, to name but three, in the 1970s called
Jeeves, which was based on the lovable stories of one of my favourite writers, PG Wodehouse. What could go wrong? Practically everything in that case.

Peggy [Margaret Ramsay], my agent, said ‘the boys want to meet you, they need a book writer,’ and I said, ‘who are the boys?’ And she said, ‘Andrew and Tim, those two,’ and I said, ‘oh, the
Jesus Christ Superstar chaps, OK, well I’ll go and have dinner with them.’ So we chatted and then we got going and we said goodnight and I arranged to go and see Andrew and Tim the following day to discuss further progress. When I turned up, Tim wasn’t there and I said to Andrew, ‘where’s the lyric writer?’ and he said, ‘Oh, Tim wants out.’ I said, ‘out!’ He said, ‘no, he doesn’t want to do it.’ So I said, ‘is it something I said?’ and he said, ‘no, he just doesn’t think its got legs’ and I said, ‘pity so who are you going to get to do the lyrics?’ So he said, ‘you.' And I said, ‘me? Do the lyrics?’ I don’t write lyrics, Andrew, sorry - it’s a very specialised craft. He replied, ‘it’s a piece of cake!’ And I remember almost hearing Oscar and Hammerstein and Ira Gershwin all turning over in their graves at ‘a piece of cake.’

So I wrote the lyrics for a West End show, absolutely sight unseen and we were the blind leading the blind. It was the first time Andrew had written a musical, which was an acoustic musical -
Joseph and Jesus Christ Superstar had both been electronic musicals with a lot of mic-ing but this was an old fashioned acoustic musical with a book. We booked a choreographer, naturally, who had never choreographed a musical before - a very good classical, modern dance director called Christopher Bruce - and then we had a designer - Voytek - who had never designed a musical before and we were on a ship of fools. I was reading Harold Prince’s memoir later and the care and attention that the Broadway boys go to to get their musicals right is incredible and we just blundered through.

We opened in Bristol cold, we were on the road prior to turning up at Her Majesty’s Theatre in the West End some weeks later - and on the first night we had not done a run-through of the play and we had no idea how long it ran. Answer: it ran very very long. In fact so long that the orchestra - of which there were some 20 or 30 sitting in the pit - downed tools round about the three quarter mark and - being the Musicians’ Union members that they were - all went off to the pub, leaving the Musical Director diving for the piano to do the last couple of numbers accompanied by a cast who barely knew the score on a piano. The whole thing died not with a bang but a whimper.

I remember leaving the theatre, walking with my head down, and my young son - who was about eight or nine and who had come from school to see it - and he was very sweet and he knew what a disaster it had been from just the solitary clap. So he and I walked for miles around Bristol, I don’t knew where we walked. And then his little voice suddenly, he said, ‘it will get better.’ And i said, ‘I somehow doubt it, Steven, I somehow doubt it.’

Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Transcription by Simon Murgatroyd.