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 three interviews with Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist Simon Murgatroyd for By Jeeves premiere in 1996 and his revival in 2017.

Interview with Alan Ayckbourn & Andrew Lloyd Webber (March 1996)

Simon Murgatroyd: Jeeves was a notorious flop for you both, why have you returned to it?
Alan Ayckbourn:
We're very pleased and delighted that Andrew and I, after 20 years, have got together to review something that's haunted us both over the years. We’re determined to get it right - and hopefully this time we have - and what better place than in the new theatre with a new audience?

Why do you think your first attempt at Wodehouse failed?
Andrew Lloyd Webber:
It was always a good idea, but I had no experience of working together with Alan and a good deal less experience of musicals than I have now. We both knew it was bad and we couldn't do anything about it. It looked so wrong and the more money was thrown at it the worse it got! It wasn't sensible, we forgot the first principle of simplicity.

Alan, although you’ve since written both the book and lyrics for numerous musicals, this was your first attempts at lyrics….
I remember having a very late supper with Tim [Rice – the original intended lyric writer] when we discussed the project and a couple of weeks later we found the lyric writer wasn't there! Tim said he didn't want to do it after all so Andrew said I could do the lyrics because that's a piece of cake. It's taken me 20 years to come to terms with that! They were the very first lyrics written by me.

So how have you altered the piece?
Lloyd Webber:
Alan sent me a totally new play except for the characters! There was a new story and totally new script. We had talked about Jeeves on and off for the past 20 years. This isn't a revival; it bears little resemblance to the original. Alan and I knew what interest there would be if we did it again and we don't want to make the same mistakes again. It's not Sunset Boulevard and it is not intended to be. It's one of the most simple of musicals, with a small cast of 10 and a small orchestra of four. Most of the songs are newly composed, three have been kept.

Finally, there are going to be those who question the wisdom of opening the Stephen Joseph Theatre with a flop musical….
It's the show that will open the new theatre, I would not have put myself behind it if I thought it would close the theatre. I hope it'll be just the right show to do. It's light, it's fun and it's silly.

Interview with Alan Ayckbourn (28 November 1996)

Simon Murgatroyd: It’s seven months since By Jeeves opened the Stephen Joseph Theatre. It’s been a critical and commercial hit, transferred to the West End, opened in America and just won the prestigious American Express Award for Best Musical at the British Regional Theatre Awards. This must beyond anyone’s expectations, any thoughts? Alan Ayckbourn: It's really quite funny. I said at the Regional Theatre Awards, anybody who puts on one of the greatest flops of musical theatre of the 20th century as an opening production deserves a bit of luck on the way!

So why did By Jeeves succeed when the original Jeeves failed so spectacularly? By Jeeves was done in hindsight with a lot more experience than the first one. More importantly, I had control over it. It was still a risk though, but we had control over it and brought a scale and elements to it that I could control. The best thing Andrew [Lloyd Webber] did was stand well back once his side of the piece was in. He came in to see the band and dealt with that side which is, of course, exclusively his own. But he was a very easy collaborator, which is very helpful. Although his reputation is quite fiery, he is very astute and knows when to intervene.

From Scarborough, you took the show to a packed run at the Duke of York Theatre in London, before transferring to the Lyric Theatre. In September, you then took it to the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut. These are all very different venues and audiences, has this affected your perception of the show?
It's interesting, the first New York review came in and was very glowing, but said you would have to be careful where you took it. Which we knew. By Jeeves is very venue decided. The Goodspeed Opera House is easily the best place outside Scarborough because it's a small, informal brick-box that we were able to make it look as though it cost tuppence to put the show on - it cost considerably more! My theory is the show should always undergo certain changes depending on its venue. Whoever does it in the future will need a lot of imagination. Depending on where they do it, they're going to have to think on their feet. The best venues are very much in The Round or not formal theatre spaces. Even in the Lyric, you're aware you're watching a low-tech show in a hi-tech theatre!

By Jeeves was an enormous hit with Scarborough audiences, would you consider producing it again at the Stephen Joseph Theatre?
It's now old ground for me, but who's to say what could happen in a few years? There is talk of going to Australia with it, I wouldn't mind doing that! I've never been to Australia. After that, I'm hoping its content has been noted by somebody.

So you’d prefer to do a new musical if the opportunity arose?
If another Jeeves should come up, perhaps I'll do it, but I'm much more interested in music and words rather than music and song. Andrew [Lloyd Webber] has said he'd like to collaborate again, but it's up to me to find the right idea to latch on to and I'd want to do something original. I've found in general directors are better off moving on. When you see them doing the same old job over again, you know they're on the way out. They get past their sell-by date. I need to be a bit scared when I'm writing.

Interview with Alan Ayckbourn (2 March 2017)

Simon Murgatroyd: It’s been 16 years since you last directed By Jeeves - with its Broadway premier - why have you returned to it in 2017?
Alan Ayckbourn:
I was asked to revive it by the show’s original designer, Roger Glossop. I think he had a yen to return to it for the Old Laundry’s Theatre’s 25th anniversary. He approached me when I was in Bowness-on-Windermere in the autumn. He and his partner asked if I’d fancy directing it again. I said yes.

You’ve directed By Jeeves many times and in many different permutations, how are you approaching this production?
I think Roger really wants to repeat the original experience at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, so I’ll do my best. But it’s not in the round anymore, it’s three-sided, which is certainly makes a difference - although it’s not going to make quite so much difference as sticking it back in a Proscenium Arch. So it’s going to be the same intimate style of production we had back at the opening of the Stephen Joseph Theatre and I hope we’ll recapture some of that magic.

It also seems to be a case of bringing the old gang back together!
Hopefully a lot of the original creative team are coming back. Roger is back to design it alongside Sheila Carter, who who did the original choreography. Sadly, our lighting designer, Mick Hughes, isn't there but Jason Taylor - who I’ve worked with regularly - is doing it. We also have a new Musical Director, Steve Ellis, who I worked with on Where is Peter Rabbit? at the Old Laundry Theatre last year. We’re all really looking forward to it and to rediscover it really because it was quite a long time ago and there is a new generation of audiences who haven’t seen it.

What do you think is the essential element for By Jeeves to work?
I think it’s so reliant on PG Wodehouse and I remember writing it and imbibing his style before I wrote; so it is, to all intents, and purposes a Wodehouse script. Although not a lot of the incidents were taken from the Wodehouse novels, because it’s a totally different plot, they are nonetheless essentially his characters and a lot of the writing is his dialogue or a direct tribute to his dialogue. It is very Wodehouse-ian - and, hopefully, we caught that Wodehouse atmosphere, which I thing is almost - if you can use the word - immortal.

What do you think Wodehouse’s enduring appeal is?
His writing is like all great fiction - all great art really - it just continually finds a new generation of fans. It’s beautifully written and it’s full of wonderful heart and - in Wodehouse’s case - it’s a totally harmless art. It’s a joyful art that just embraces you and it’s such fun. You get the same feeling, I hope, watching By Jeeves as you do when you pick up one of his books, where you get that nice warm expectancy of, ‘good, we’re back with Jeeves and Wooster and he’s going to get into terrible trouble. And he’s not going to be able to find his way out of it, but Jeeves is there to help.’

You’ve worked with Roger frequently since the 1980s, but you’ve never directed specifically for his theatre the Old Laundry, what are your thoughts on that.
It’s quite nice to be directing at the Old Laundry Theatre for the first time. I don’t step outside much of Scarborough - and we’re rehearsing By Jeeves in Scarborough - so I’ll only be there for the tech week and launch. But I’m looking forward to it and as one of my rare forays outside of the SJT, it does confirm that I’m now totally freelance and free to go where I want.

What are your thoughts on the Old Laundry Theatre itself as it was modelled on the second of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s home in Scarborough?
It’s not only technically modelled on Westwood, but it also has the spirit of our old theatre in there. Roger built it in 1992, just before the SJT moved to its present home, and he really caught the spirit of the old building. So it feels like I’m going back in time to direction which is quite a strange feeling. It’s also nice to be working at one of the few theatres in the UK which are actively expanding. They are just going hell for leather in recent years and they had a very big success with Where Is Peter Rabbit? last year, which was great to see.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of copyright holder.