Andrew Lloyd Webber on Jeeves

Andrew Lloyd Webber was the composer of Jeeves and instigated the project with his then collaborator Tim Rice. This page contains quotes by Andrew Lloyd Webber offering his perspective on Jeeves. Where the account differs significantly from Alan Ayckbourn's recollections, notes are amended.

Behind The Scene Of Jeeves: Andrew Lloyd Webber

"I, like Tim [Rice], am a devoted fan of P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves stories and I was overjoyed when we both enthusiastically decided to write a Jeeves musical. We chose The Code Of The Woosters as our prime source material and Tim was very chuffed with the title Suddenly There's a Valet.
(Unmasked, pp. 178)

"We [Lloyd Webber & Rice] had numerous contacts with P.G. Wodehouse's old book writer / collaborator Guy Bolton, whom the great man once described as 'like mulligatawny soup… advisable not to stir.'…. No one knew what hold Guy Bolton had over Wodehouse, but he (Guy) had heard about our Jeeves plans and even though he was nearly 90 years old tried to get in the mix. We had several meetings where he suggested we write songs for various enterprises that he had failed to get produced."
(Unmasked, pp. 193-194)

"Robert Stigwood's [the producer of
Jeeves] in-house theatre man was an entertaining hard left-winger called Bob Swash. His politics, however, did not preclude him from seeing pound signs if he could steer the Jeeves project into the capitalist swamps of the West End via some of its best restaurants. Bob Swash knew progress with Tim [Rice] was slow. Maybe a helping hand with the book might push things along. Enter playwright Alan Ayckbourn. His Absurd Person Singular had just opened to critical raves and Bob thought that a Jeeves project written by the trio of Rice Webber and Ayckbourn would send luvvies into an orgy of frenzied anticipation. So he arranged for us to meet. I immediately got on well with Alan, especially when the conversation got onto Burmese cats, and I thought we were seriously in business. But the fact that Tim allowed such a high-profile third person into our marriage should, in Wodehousian words, have put the Persian among the pigeons. For on September 20 Tim pulled out of Jeeves. It wasn't so much this that upset me. He had every right to withdraw from a project that he had qualms about. It was the way he pulled out. I learned the news by way of a letter he wrote to Guy Bolton which he openly copied to me and David. However my initial upset soon turned to delight, Tim having ankled from the three-way collaboration, Alan instead immediately offered to write the lyrics himself,[1] I was triumphant. At last I had a real theatre collaborator - and not only that but the British theatre man of the hour. This would show Tim a thing or three."
(Unmasked, pp.194)

"In November, P.G. Wodehouse himself wrote fo me offering himself as my lyricist and suggested an existing
Jeeves script by Guy [Bolton] as the basis for a Wodehouse, Bolton and Lloyd Webber partnership. But things had gone too far with Alan by then. But by goodness, if only I had realised at the time just how amazing 'Lloyd Webber and Wodehouse' would have looked on my CV."
(Unmasked, pp.195)

"In the case of
Jeeves the team on paper looked really strong. At 25, I was the youngest but my form didn't look bad, Alan Ayckbourn had scored on both sides of the Atlantic with How The Other Half Loves and his latest trilogy The Norman Conquests confirmed him as catch of the day. Furthermore he brought with him another man of the hour, British director Eric Thompson, father of the actress Emma. Eric had not only directed Alans recent successes but also plays like My Fat Friend and he was basking in his fame as the voice and script-writer of the BBC TV show The Magic Roundabout. The choreographer Christopher Brace was feted as top dog at Ballet Rambert. The designer Voytek came with a pedigree featuring film work with Roman Polanski and a recent RSC production The Marquis of Keith.
(Unmasked, pp.198)

"Here lay the problem.
Jeeves had no producer, Robert [Stigwood] had decided movies were his forte and would never see Jeeves until opening night. Michael [White] was not the 'lead' producer and was happy to let us theatre luminaries get on with it. Stigwood's man Bob Swash was great on nuts and bolts but no creative lead. The only person who had any creative experience in musical theatre was me, I had never worked on a new musical before and anyway who was I, a theatre newcomer ten years younger than Eric and Alan, to challenge a duo who had had so much success together?"
(Unmasked, pp.199)

"Things started really well. Alan and I coincided in New York at the beginning of October. We had a look over some of the songs but our big excitement was our visit to Remsenburg, Long Island, so Alan could meet 'Plum,' as Wodehouse was known to his friends… Alan, Sarah [Brightman] and I set off with Peter Brown plus a fey-looking photographer, whose task was to record the cathartic meeting and who Peter eulogised about. No mere snapper he. Here was the major artist the occasion demanded… After a rather stuttery chat it was time to play some music. There was a grand piano by the window and nerves were not calmed when the great man said Jerome Kern had played
Show Boat on it. Since singing was not top of either Alan or my credits we had prearranged that Alan, script in hand, would mutter his lyrics in Wodehouse's ear whilst I banged the tunes out. When we got to Half A Moment he was visibly moved. After I had finished he fixed me in his eye. 'Mr Webber, I don't think my characters can sustain an emotional song like this.' It was a nice way of saying that what I'd written was a hopeless mismatch for his stories. Things looked up when we played When Love Arrives, a song which went down well even in the carnage of our first night. We had just finished when Wodehouse shouted, 'Ethel, come here, there's a camera crawling around our shrubbery.' Alan and I swivelled round. There in the bushes outside the lounge window was Peter Browns fey photographer, crouching and looking distinctly furtive. 'You there masquerading as an azalea, come out and show yourself!' commanded Plum. By the time Peter had explained that this was his acclaimed photographic protege bringing his unique artistic flair to the permanent record of our historic meeting, it was time to go. The Wodehouses had had enough. With an unforgettable parting shot to me, 'I'd love to have had a go at writing that pretty ballad if ever you get stuck with the lyric.'"
(Unmasked, pp.201)

"The casting seemed excellent. David Hemmings was confirmed as Bertie Wooster and on paper ticked every box…
[2] Eric Thompson cast the splendid character actor Michael Aldridge as Jeeves to great approval from Alan Ayckbourn. Indeed all Eric's casting paid huge attention to character even if it meant that the cast was made up of actors who could sing rather than vice versa."
(Unmasked, pp.202)

"The first hint of impending doom was the script. This was no phantom Leslie Thomas job. It made
Gone with the Wind look like a pamphlet and the songs made up barely 20% of the running time. When I squawked to Bob Swash, he said not to worry. Alan and Eric were a team consummate pros, and suggested Alan spewed all his guts out in a first draft which the pair filleted away until the the script was as razor-sharp." [3]
(Unmasked, pp.202)

"Rehearsals began in a church hall in then terminally dreary Clerkenwell. I turned up for the meet and greet, eagerly anticipating a new lean and mean script but instead what I
and an instantly wary cast were handed was something the size of the European Convention of Human Rights. Equally unpromising was the tot of cheap supermarket wine that appeared at midday on Eric Thompsons work desk. From day one it was clear that Eric had a real drink problem… Consequently the cast had little respect for him. Meanwhile choreographic rehearsals were taking place in another room with no guidance about how dance might fit into the story… There was absolutely no sight of a producer who could
get a grip."
(Unmasked, pp.205)

"Despite not even doing a rehearsal room run we left for our Bristol tryout with ridiculous optimism that somehow
Jeeves would all come together once we had sets, costume and an audience. It was the same during our dreadful time in the Bristol Hippodrome. There were endless excuses like the theatre was too big (it was) and it will all come together in the half-sized Her Majesty's in London. The truth was the show was ridiculously long - the first preview was nearly four hours. Nothing coalesced, the design did not fit the script and my score didn't fit it either. A whole plot strand involving Bertie Wooster's food-obsessed favourite Aunt Dahlia was cut, thus unemploying the wonderful actress Betty Marsden and cutting two of the songs. David Hemmings literally drowned his sorrows after shows in the hotel bar, where he ordered whiskies and performed close magic tricks for any travelling businessman who would keep him company at two in the morning. When finally co-producer Michael White did turn up, it was blindingly obvious that the London opening should be aborted. He too clung on to the straw that some 'deus ex machina,' as Jeeves might have said, would come out of the closet and save him and his investors. He did, however, move Eric Thompson sideways and put Alan [Ayckbourn] in the director's seat."
(Unmasked, pp.206)

"I took Hal's advice about banking the score of
Jeeves literally. Tim [Rice] opined that Jeeves' worst moment was a song about a tennis match called Summer Day. He was right. So I reused its chorus for Another Suitcase [in Evita]."
(Unmasked, pp.239)

Andrew Lloyd Webber's autobiography Unmasked with his complete recollections of Jeeves can be found on Amazon via this link.

Footnotes

[1] This does not tally with Alan Ayckbourn nor his wife's recollections. Having had a dinner meeting with Andrew and Tim regarding Jeeves where it was agreed Andrew would compose, Tim write the lyrics and Alan the book, the next door sale Tim announce he was leaving the project. A number of suggestions were made about how the project could proceed without a lyric writer, but it was only at Andrew's suggestion that alan agreed to write the lyrics, despite never having written a lyric before.
[2] Alan's own recollections were that David Hemmings had never fronted a large scale West End show before and had never sung on stage. Whilst an obvious attractive name for the producers, he - like everyone else involved - was well out of his depth and his safety zone.
[3] Of course if Swash had any familiarity with Alan's work, he would have known the playwright rarely made alterations to his first drafts. Throughout his career Alan's first draft has been the performed script but with only minor alterations.

All research for this page by Simon Murgatroyd. Please credit if reproduced.