Jeeves / By Jeeves: Background

Jeeves was Alan Ayckbourn's first foray into musicals, something which would play an increasing part in his writing. It was an ambitious attempt to translate P.G. Wodehouse's famed and loved characters into a large-scale West End musical. Notoriously, it did not succeed and Jeeves became a well-known West End flop. This initial failure would lead two decades later to a second attempt at the musical, renamed By Jeeves, which was altogether more successful.

The story of
Jeeves and By Jeeves could easily be expanded into a book, given the extraordinary story behind the original production. This is a potted history of both plays, but a more detailed look into the creation of the original musical can also be found here.

The genesis of
Jeeves goes back to 1973 when Andrew Lloyd Webber approached Alan Ayckbourn about writing the book for a new musical based on the Wooster & Jeeves novels by P.G. Wodehouse. Lloyd Webber and his lyricist Tim Rice had had phenomenal success with Joseph And His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar, while Alan was already making waves in the West End. Lloyd Webber and Rice had secured all the necessary rights and had previously attempted to write the musical without success and felt it needed another contributor.

The initial plan was for Alan, already a fan of Wodehouse's novels, to take on the book, for Lloyd Webber to write the music and Rice to write the lyrics. However, Rice - also a big fan of Wodehouse - had reservations from the outset about writing something which could do justice to the original books. There is some dispute about when Rice actually dropped out of the project as he has noted he had decided not to do the lyrics before Alan came on board, whilst archival correspondence shows Rice was involved in at least one meeting with Alan and that Alan and his agent Margaret Ramsay, rightly or wrongly, believed initially Rice was involved in the project. By March 1974, Rice had officially dropped out leaving the musical without a lyricist. Lloyd Webber persuaded Alan he was more than capable of taking on the job - despite Alan never having written lyrics before.

For a director, Alan suggested Eric Thompson, who had directed the London premieres of
Time And Time Again, Absurd Person Singular and was in the process of bringing The Norman Conquests to the London stage. The trio came together for the first time over the first weekend in July 1974 in Scarborough to discuss the project and their roles. In hindsight, the first alarm bells should have started ringing: a composer who had never written for a ‘book’ musical; a director who had never directed a musical and a lyricist who had never written lyrics.

Although Wodehouse had approved the project and given Lloyd Webber free rein to use the books as he saw fit, it was decided the musical would largely borrow the plot of the novel
The Code Of The Woosters; which would be presented within the framework of a banjo concert gone wrong (one of the few elements which survives into By Jeeves). When Bertie's banjo strings break, Bertie is forced to entertain his audience by 'improvising' a tale based on one of his adventures. A detailed plot synopsis (running to 20 pages) was completed by Alan by 14 July 1974 with the trio agreeing a first draft of the book and music would be ready for the autumn when they would reunite in America.

The first draft was completed by the end of September. With this in mind, a trip was arranged to go to New York to meet Wodehouse - now in his 90s and apparently very deaf. From Alan’s
recollections, this nervous meeting went well although Alan is not certain just how much Wodehouse heard of the music and lyrics! With the author’s apparent blessing, work continued apace.

The production process moved up a gear with the appointment of a choreographer, Christopher Bruce (who would become one of Britain’s most acclaimed choreographers) and a designer, Voytek, who was well known for his conceptual design work; his ideas and designs were embraced by Thompson which were often at odds with where Lloyd Webber and Alan believed the musical should be heading. Neither also had any experience of working on big budget musicals. In Alan’s own words: “None of us knew what we were doing.” The situation was not helped by the producers who seemed to have little idea about the creative process and appeared to be driven by largely financial concerns. The producers also appeared intent on rushing through the process, booking audition dates and rehearsal spaces without consulting the creative team.

Jeeves was officially announced on 12 February 1975 with a hefty budget of £100,000 and a leading man in David Hemmings as Bertie Wooster; a acclaimed actor who had apparently never sung on stage before. Despite initial support and encouragement, Alan’s agent Margaret Ramsay expressed disquiet about the project and was nervous about the piece, which was scheduled to preview in Bristol in March. With unfortunate timing, Wodehouse died in New York two days after the announcement of the musical.

With the play rehearsing in Bristol, it became obvious there were major problems. At the first run-through, the play apparently ran for five-and-a-half hours. By the first night, it was barely any shorter. At the four hour mark, the orchestra upped and left as the producers were refusing to pay overtime; the conductor dived to the piano to keep the show going until its finale.

An emergency meeting was called and Alan argued a good third of the play needed to be cut. It was decided substantial pruning would take place including the complete cutting of the character Aunt Dahlia, played by the noted actress Betty Marsden. Morale among the cast sunk, yet the cuts were still not enough and a week before its London opening, Thompson was fired and replaced by Alan - more out of loyalty to the musical rather than any pressing desire to take over a musical that was patently on a crash course. Alan immediately began work on reducing the book further - to give a sense of the scale of the cuts, there are three surviving typed drafts of Jeeves held in the Ayckbourn Archive; the original typed draft comes in at 202 A4 pages; the second draft (the Bristol production) at 158 pages and the final draft (the West End production), comes in at 125 pages. More than a third of the play was cut between first and final drafts.

It was all too little, too late. The play had already performed badly in front of the Bristol critics and its problems were well publicised. It was easy to sense an impending disaster and, in retrospect, it is not difficult to believe several critics relished the opportunity to stick the knife into such a high profile piece. Of the major critics, only Harold Hobson of the Sunday Times had a kind word for the show.

Jeeves opened on 22 April 1975 at Her Majesty's Theatre, London. It closed on 24 May 1975. The reviews were devastating and extraordinarily harsh. There were very few aspects of the musical which were not targeted by the critics with Hemmings, Lloyd Webber and Alan all coming off particularly badly. Later, when Eric Thompson was asked whether the critics had ended the now notorious theatrical and financial disaster, he famously replied: “No. The show killed the show.” Few involved were inclined to disagree. An announcement was made on 12 May that Jeeves was to close within two weeks, but Alan did not take it as badly as might have been feared, as in his mind he had already moved on. He had also been working on his next play, Bedroom Farce, and actually finished writing the play on the day the musical closed. Despite interest in the play and requests to produce it (and a single authorised amateur performance, see Behind The Scenes), Jeeves was withdrawn, never to be seen again.

Realistically, that should have been the end of
Jeeves but neither Lloyd Webber nor Alan were inclined to let their one flop escape them and, more importantly, there seems to be a genuine affection for the musical and to do it justice. Although it has largely been suggested Lloyd Webber was the driving force behind a re-write, correspondence between the two suggests there was an equal desire to tackle the project again practically from the end of the original production. By 1980, Alan was suggesting re-writing it on a smaller scale to be premiered in Scarborough. Lloyd Webber, who runs an annual music festival at Sydmonton, often proposed re-writing it for performance there. This was ongoing to the point of the 20th anniversary of the show in 1995.

By 1993, the pair were seriously looking at revising and reviving the play and both author and composer were looking at the original material and what might be re-used and what would need to be changed. Arguably Alan had grown a lot more confident about musicals since 1975, having written several full-length musicals and 10 revues. He had also developed firm ideas about how to approach musicals and how the songs should be integral in furthering the plot rather than just being for decorative purposes. Both also believed the scale of the show needed to be vastly reduced and worked on the principle of Bertie Wooster's adventure literally being thrown together from props which might be found in the village hall where the banjo concert is being staged. Lloyd Webber also believed there was a strong possibility that the actors Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry might be interested in reprising their acclaimed television roles of Bertie and Jeeves for the stage; although this did not happen.

Alan began working on the book, but having decided to take the villain Roderick Spode out of the piece, he realised it caused a domino effect on the play and that it might be better starting again, whilst incorporating chosen songs from
Jeeves. As a result, the mistaken-identity plot was created, which drives the final musical. By July 1994, Alan had completed a draft of the script he was satisfied with which incorporated six songs from the original Jeeves and five new songs (see By Jeeves Songs for more information). It featured a cast of 10, was relatively cheap and, in his own words, was "virtually a new book." This script formed the basis for a 10 day workshop production in September 1995 of the now renamed By Jeeves which brought together many of the actors who would appear in the final production. The success of this led to a firm decision to move forward with the show.

Concurrent to this from 1990, Alan was involved in the building of the new
Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, which was scheduled to open in 1996. The idea of By Jeeves opening the new building had obvious appeal and was one which Alan had suggested to Lloyd Webber. Nothing was officially announced, but it became an open secret (that or a very badly kept one) with the Scarborough Evening News reporting as early as July 1995 a rumour that the musical Jeeves would open the new venue.

The story that
Jeeves was not only definitively being revised but would open the Stephen Joseph Theatre was unofficially broken on 31 January 1996, when the Scarborough Evening News announced it as front page news (click here to view the story). This news had not been officially announced by the theatre and apparently contracts had not been finalised for By Jeeves.*

By March, Alan and Lloyd Webber had confirmed the show had been substantially rewritten, was now called
By Jeeves, had only 3 of the original songs, would be small scale with a cast of 10 rather than 21 and would be completely different to the original musical. Actually six songs were recognisable from the original Jeeves, but half of them had gone through substantial alterations.

By Jeeves opened on 1 May 1996 at the new Stephen Joseph Theatre and the critical response was the cause of much suspense. Unfortunately, the first review Alan read was disparaging and he had visions of a repeat of 1975. His fears were unfounded though, the majority of the critics loved the show and, crucially, it was a tremendous hit with audiences.

Following its run at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, the play transferred to the West End on 2 July 1996 with the original company. It opened at the Duke Of York's Theatre and transferred to the Lyric Theatre later that year. Reviews and audience reaction were also positive. It appeared
Jeeves had at last been rehabilitated. An exceptional year for the musical was rounded off when the BBC broadcast it on radio in November 1996; Alan re-wrote the book slightly to accommodate radio, but there were relatively few alterations and none of the songs were removed.

Alan was also asked to produce
By Jeeves in America in association with the Goodspeed Opera House in 1996. The production at the Norma Terris Theater, Chester, Connecticut, was the first of several American productions of the musical - including a filmed adaptation - directed by Alan, largely with the same cast, all seemingly intent on a Broadway transfer. However it would take five years before this happened. Finally in 2001, the Goodspeed production of the show was scheduled to move in the Helen Hayes Theatre, New York, in the autumn. The long-nurtured plans to open By Jeeves on Broadway were dealt a serious blow just before launch with the terrorist attacks of September 11.

The subsequent loss of confidence in Broadway in general saw many of the investors in
By Jeeves pull out. Determined the show should go on and it was no bad idea to support Broadway during a difficult period, Lloyd Webber pulled out the stops to refinance By Jeeves and it opened on 28 October 2001 at the intimate Helen Hayes Theatre.

Given the West End and Broadway experiences of
By Jeeves, Andrew Lloyd-Webber expressed interest in reviving the play in subsequent years. In 2011, it was announced the musical would be revived at the Landor Theatre, London; a theatre which had previously produced a number of well-received musicals many of which had gone on to West End transfers. The musical was reworked again largely to incorporate tap-dancing inspired choreography by Andrew Wright into the show; the music was unaltered although Alan Ayckbourn was asked to alter the lyrics to Half A Moment, which he declined. The new production was directed by Nick Bagnall and proved to be popular enough that its limited run was extended by a week.

By Jeeves remains a favourite of Alan's and he has directed it more times than any other of his plays; in 2017 he will return to it again to direct a production at the Old Laundry Theatre, Bowness-on-Windermere, to mark the venue's 25th anniversary. By Jeeves also continues to be popular with both professional and amateur companies and has been recorded for television and the radio as well as having three different cast recording albums released.

*There was a tacit embargo on the news that By Jeeves would open the Stephen Joseph Theatre until an official announcement had been made. However, the Scarborough Evening News discovered another regional newspaper intended to break the news early, leading to a decision to break the embargo by the newspaper most local to the venue (click here to see the newspaper story).

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.