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 Alan Ayckbourn and Andrew Lloyd Webber discussing Jeeves & By Jeeves in The Guardian on 24 June 1996.

The Odd Couple

Neil Simon's Felix and Oscar [from The Odd Couple] aren't the only odd couple back together in the West End after a long absence - Andrew Lloyd Webber and Alan Ayckbourn have teamed up again after a 20-year gap. An unlikely pairing, indeed: the former is a Telegraph-reading Tory and a composer who thinks internationally; the latter, judging from his plays, is a liberal sceptic who detests Thatcherite values and, though performed worldwide, is never more at ease than in his adopted Scarborough.
Yet they seem to enjoy a genuine rapport, cemented by both dismal failure and heady success. Their 1975 musical,
Jeeves, was a derided stinker which, now totally rewritten as By Jeeves, was hailed this year in Scarborough and now moves into the Duke of York's in the West End. Talking to them in Lloyd Webber's Belgravia workroom, you feel they were closely bonded by the disaster of the original Jeeves.
"Most of the best theatre stories derive from flops," says Ayckbourn, cheerily. "Nobody ever tells a funny theatre story that begins 'I was in this tremendously successful show that got 15 curtain calls'. With
Jeeves, I was writing lyrics for the first time, the director had never done a musical before and the producer was never there. Traditionally, with a musical, you do a Saturday-night run-through before you open on tour, but we never even managed that. I felt this didn't bode awfully well, but I thought maybe this is how musicals operate.
"We then had this disastrous experience in Bristol: on the first night, the band stopped playing 15 minutes before the end because the producers wouldn't pay overtime. So these poor, non-singer actors were left completely adrift, without accompaniment. I remember walking back to the hotel with my son, who was then very young, and he broke a very long silence by saying 'I'm sure it'll get better'. But it didn't much, and if we'd got good notices in London, we'd have thought the critics were barking crazy."
Lloyd Webber looks back no less philosophically. At the time, he was the boy-wonder composer of
Joseph And His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar. "I learned more about musical theatre in those six weeks than I'd ever done before. Hal Prince wrote me a letter saying that you can't listen to a musical if you can't look at it. I met him for a drink at the Savoy, and he said 'Don't worry kiddo, just bank the score because it'll come in useful. But you can't look at the damn thing because it's all out of scale.' It was very wise advice. I also learned that if you've got a great song - even if it's Some Enchanted Evening - the audience won't register it if it's in the wrong show in the wrong place at the wrong time. I remember Tim Rice said, quite correctly, that the pits of the original Jeeves was the song called Summer Day. Out of sheer pig-headeness, I used its chorus for Another Suitcase In Another Hall in Evita. To this day, I don't think Tim knows."
On a larger level, Lloyd Webber and Ayckbourn learned the importance of being in control of your own destiny, which they have since achieved through, respectively, the Really Useful Theatre Company and the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. They also learned that a musical has to have a visual unity and be plot-driven, which is precisely why
By Jeeves works. Their latest collaboration was often conducted at a distance, with Ayckbourn faxing dummy lyrics from Scarborough and Lloyd Webber responding with a tune played down the phone. Every song now earns its keep, says Ayckbourn. "Before, we had A Madrigal, which was lovely but did nothing for the story. Now, we have a number called It's A Pig, which moves the plot on an entire cycle, yet the song maintains a structural integrity and you can listen to it outside the visual action."
But the success of
By Jeeves has larger implications for the musical in that it is a total antithesis to the big, quasi-operatic, through-composed shows that have dominated the West End for 15 years, a point Lloyd Webber readily concedes.
"I was trying to remember when there was last a musical-comedy in the old-fashioned sense of the word, and I think you have to go back to
A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. I suspect that the day of the very big musical could actually be past because these things go in cycles. My next one, Whistle Down The Wind, which will open in America later this year, is certainly not on a vast canvas. I'm not saying the era of the through-sung musical is over, as you can see from the success of Rent in New York, but I suspect the book is going to become much more important as people become more sophisticated."
Neither is visibly dismayed by the prospect of opening a new musical in the midst of a West End recession. Both, however, believe theatres could be much more audience-friendly. "I've got a bee in my bonnet about several London theatres," says Ayckbourn. "The audience gets pushed out into the street five minutes after the show's finished. Theatres should be open all day, even if people just want to come in for a coffee or a drink or to see an exhibition. With something like
By Jeeves, which has a very simple set, you could also do lunchtime shows and maybe early evening platforms, just like they do at the National and as we do in Scarborough."
Lloyd Webber concurs, quoting a parallel with churches, which have decided to keep the nave open on weekdays for "urban activities". The problem, he says, is that most West End theatres lack the space for restaurants or exhibitions. Both say something urgently needs to be done to make the West End more amenable.
But what drives them on? Both must have earned enough to last several lifetimes, yet both are compulsive workers. Why? Lloyd Webber says it's the privilege of doing what one enjoys, adding that "I borrow money to buy pictures all the time, so I have to make a few bob to pay for them. I enjoy it all, but I often feel I'd like to re-invent myself and write a book about my other great love, which is art."
Ayckbourn, likewise, says he is sustained by a sense of fun, and cites
By Jeeves. "We got a group of people around us who we liked and they had a good time. It's a bit like managing a rather jolly holiday camp."
But is there anything either envies in the other's career? Lloyd Webber answers instantly: "When I first met Alan he explained what he was doing in Scarborough and I was so jealous. That's why I started my own little arts festival at my home in Sydmonton where I've since premiered every piece of mine. It's a wonderful chance to try work out, though you don't always spot the flaws which are exposed when you blow the whole thing up on a bigger scale. For instance, we were over-confident with
Sunset Boulevard because it was so extraordinary in a tiny space. We didn't really get back to that until we had a chance to work on it in a different way."
Ayckbourn, in turn, has learned a lot about musicals. But what they clearly share is an innocent delight in the pleasure of creation. The odd couple turn out to be unusual soul-mates, united by a mixture of
Jeeves, puissance, the ability to run then-own show and the determination to work together again in future.

Copyright: Guardian News & Media Ltd.