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 Andrew Lloyd Webber's recollections of the original Jeeves in 1975, as related to Danny Danziger in The Independent in July 1996.

Best Of Times, Worst Of Times

Lord Lloyd Webber, 53, has composed some of the most successful musicals of all time. But he hasn't always struck the right chord. In his mid-twenties, he adapted P G Wodehouse for the stage - and even the dream team he enlisted to help him couldn't save it from being a write-off.

I have always been a fan of P G Wodehouse. I found the books terribly funny, brilliant, and just thought something should be done with them in musical theatre. We soon realised that Wodehouse is extremely difficult to do, because much of the humour is through the narrative, and to that end we contacted Alan Ayckbourn. who was the No 1 British playwright emerging at the time. And so what was supposed to be the dream ticket was assembled: Alan Ayckbourn, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, all Wodehouse fanatics.
But it was the blind leading the blind, really, because Robert Stigwood, who was our producer at that time, knew nothing about Wodehouse, and a creative team was formed who knew nothing about musicals, because none of them had actually done one.
We hadn't even written anything when Tim came to the conclusion that it wouldn't work; he didn't want to go ahead with it and suddenly, very abruptly, withdrew. "We have a very difficult situation here," I said to Alan. "Have you ever tried thinking about writing lyrics yourself?" "Well, not really.'" he said, "but I'll have a crack." There were endless rewrites as we tried to capture the essence of Wodehouse, but everything was too big for the scale of it. If
Jeeves had had Some Enchanted Evening in it, it still wouldn't have worked. You see, the Wodehouse stories are not something which could be blown into something as big as our production became, and this creaking ship of a play emerged, taking water at even' level, 4½ hours long when it was first performed in Bristol.
It should have been stopped then. But the awful thing that happens with musicals that are hurtling to disaster is. nobody ever puts the brakes I on. I was only 24 or 25. I couldn't say: "In my experience, this is what we
have to do..." I hadn't had experience. I'd never done a musical from scratch -
Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph And The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat had been performed in other ways before they had got to the stage. But I had instinct, and the instinct was that it should be stopped.
If the Bristol audiences were disappointing, in London
Jeeves was appallingly received.There was booing on the opening night. Alan and I didn't even watch the second act. We couldn't. Another disaster in London was that we opened in May. It had been freezing cold until then, but suddenly it was boiling, and they couldn't turn off the heating in the theatre. Years later, when Her Majesty s was suggested as the home for Phantom of the Opera, I was not too keen to go to that building.
The reviews were appalling.They pretty much all said the same thing; "This is one of the most awful things that has ever been put on the stage" I remember Tim Rice saying to me. he thought the lowest point was a song called Summer Day - which I promptly reused in
Evita, without telling him, as Another Suitcase in Another Hall. It was pure composer's conceit - I was so cross when he said that, l just thought I'd see if I could pass it off on him. And to this day he has never noticed.
We all rallied around after the first night, and worked on
Jeeves for about two weeks after it opened, and got it down to something that was much more manageable. It only played for about another five weeks - with those reviews there was no way we were ever going to build up an audience, but by the time it actually closed, it was a lot better than when it opened.
I was quite depressed for a while. Here I was, hailed as "the new hope of British theatre" - although in fact all I'd written was
Joseph and Jesus Christ Superstar - and there was Jeeves. This total turkey. It was an amazing setback. However, on reflection,! think a disaster would have come along sooner or later with something; if I hadn't had the disaster then, I might have had it with Evita, and done a shambolic thing about Eva Peron.
Many years later I bumped into Alan, and he said: "I think we should do it again with the opening of my new theatre." "Are you sure?"I said. If it was going to be the opening of his theatre, then all of the major critics would come and see it, and I guess I was a bit frightened about that. But there was an clement of both of us thinking it would be wonderful to get it right. We knew that buried in there somewhere was a piece that really was very sound, and it hadn't been such a bad idea to make a musical out of the P G Wodehouse books.
We did it very simply this time, and thought, finally: "This is the right scale, because
Sunset Boulevard it ain't." The first night was very emotional for me, because Madeleine, my wife, was in hospital, giving birth to Isabelle, so I took with me as my mascot my first wife, who remains a great friend of mine. And of course she was the poor girl who had to live through all the traumas and disasters of the original Jeeves. We sat together, and both of us were in tears when some of the songs came on, and our daughter by that marriage, who wasn't born when it was written, looked after both of us. Thank God it seemed to have worked this time.
I used to make a point of mentioning
Jeeves in interviews, particularly in America, where people keep going on at me,"You've had this unstoppable career, Andrew," and all of that. I'd always reply, "Ah, but you forget the disastrous debacle of Jeeves," which used to upset all my publicists hugely. "Why do you keep wanting to tell them about that?" they'd say. Nobody seems to think it's a good idea to mention mistakes, but I think it's important to acknowledge the mistakes you've made in life, because it's through those that you learn things. I've made hundreds and this was my major professional one.

Copyright: Danny Danziger.