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Vertlieb's Views

Vertlieb's Views

Commentary on science fiction and fantasy media past and present by Steve Vertlieb

Jeff Wayne's musical
The War of the Worlds

Jeff Wayne's musical debuted in 1978, on stage and on record. In 2006, the work was re-released in CD format, both as a 2-disc and 3 disc, collector's item set (featuring a making-of documentary among other things.) The live version is also touring. See their website at

The Thunder Child asked Steve Vertlieb to review the CD.

The difficulty with "retro" critiquing a recording written and produced nearly thirty years earlier is, of course, that it's virtually impossible to understand or estimate the power and influence it might have had without having been there to gauge the tenor of the times. One cannot, forinstance, talk intelligently about Citizen Kane and its influence over film makers and students during the past sixty six years without understanding how truly ground breaking a film it really was for its time.

Audiences may laugh in complacent ignorance at the perception of dated dialogue or situations in contemporary screenings of Hitchcock's Psycho, while not grasping the power with which it held audiences in 1960 upon its initial release, before any of its familiarity had turned to cliché.

Therefore, I find myself in the uncomfortable position of being asked to review an album that, in certain circles, may have been considered revolutionary for its time. Perhaps, it is the very suggestion of discordant adaptation that caused such a stir in the beginning. It's hard to imagine contemporary "rock" being successfully or even convincingly added to a story firmly entrenched in nineteenth century sensibilities. Although, having said that, it occurs to me that such experimental films as Moulin Rouge have made the transition quite effectively, and grown successful in their daring, while George Pal and Steven Spielberg have each brought the famous H.G. Wells novel into both the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Still, the drama must jell. The variance at which the parts come together must comfortably co-exist, or one will come away feeling that he had seen two entirely separate presentations on a single stage or screen. Disparity without confidence or logical commitment becomes Theatre of the Absurd, floundering upon the rocks of pointless exhibition.

While, admittedly, not an admirer of "rock" I can still dispassionately discuss the merits of a "rock" opera. I don't think that one must have an appreciation of opera, necessarily, to understand or sense what works and what doesn't on the operatic stage. Nor does one need to appreciate the relative merits of such musical composition. You either feel it or you don't and, in the case of Jeff Wayne ambitious undertaking, I'm afraid that I just didn't get it.

When wearing a glove, the glove must fit comfortably over one's fingers and hands or the point of the endeavor has been lost. One can appreciate the beauty of a great operatic voice without enjoying or even understanding the presentation in which it is being showcased. Conversely, one doesn't have to enjoy poetry to be moved by an artist's construction of his craft. The passion simply speaks for itself.

When George Pal filmed his production of War of the Worlds for Paramount in 1953, it chillingly conveyed the sense of hopelessness and despair consuming an Earthly population under attack by beings technologically superior. "Guns...tanks...they're like toys against them," cried Gene Barry in anguish at the stunning defeat of our military defenses. Leith Stevens' haunting dramatic score musically illustrated the overwhelming sense of other worldly dread and foreboding punctuating Pal's prophetic cinematic vision.

Similarly, in Steven Spielberg's visually stunning recreation of the story in 2005, both the music and the action work together in building an air of palpable suspense and horror. Symphonic or classical scoring seem better suited than a hip, modern composition in painting a dramatic, surreal, science fiction landscape. Perhaps it's because of the overt theatricality of more traditional thematic musical direction, but it would appear that the more "serious" the music, the more believable the fantastic canvas becomes. It's rather like a parent, the last refuge of childhood refuge and security, succumbing to ultimate fear and despair.

Teenagers in jeopardy have proliferated the airwaves and motion picture screens for decades, generating little genuine emotion from adult audiences. However, if you place a mature, grounded adult into a situation eliciting fear, that's truly disturbing. Such circumstances turn familiarity to upheaval, toppling weights and balances, eliminating the security of rational explanation and safe retreat.

Therefore, when Jeff Wayne's "candy rock" explodes into song during an attack by Martians upon the Earth, the resultant calamitous consequences appear as dire as an invasion by The Archies, and as menacing as Alice Cooper. It's loud and bombastic, but lacking either in direction or inspiration.

It's hard to imagine that Wayne's discordant themes and repetitive phrasing were in any way, shape or form inspired by the shape of things to come in Wells' frightening science fiction novel. In fact, with such little originality or drama, the themes seem better suited to Rod Stewart than to Rod Taylor who piloted another Wells conveyance in The Time Machine.

So unconvincing is the inspiration or sincerity of this Wellesian influence that it's fair to say that Richard Burton might well have been narrating an entirely different recording. The speaking roles, dominated by the otherwise distinguished actor, are workmanlike. Perhaps, without the intrusion of Wayne's bubble gum accompaniment, the narration might have contributed to a more compelling recorded conception. One might imagine what this production might have sounded like had music dramatists such as Bernard Herrmann, Miklos Rozsa, Jerry Goldsmith, or John Williams been in the composer's chair.

As it is, however, Wayne's production of the H.G. Wells' story on album and compact disc is frustrating and unsatisfying on nearly every level. From a dramatic standpoint, the recording cries out for more and longer narration. Too often the drama is prematurely ended in favor of long, ponderous stretches of uninspired "rock" music, going nowhere and achieving little. That Richard Burton signed on for the production at all seems motivated more by economic reward than by artistic compensation.

Perhaps I'm getting old, but I cannot fathom the meaning, reasoning or significance of a project so mired in personal ego that it eclipses the integrity of the work that supposedly inspired its creation. Whatever mood Wells succeeded in capturing in his victorian imaginings is in slender supply here. So miniscule is this "tribute" to the legacy of H.G. Wells, it might better be called "The Wart of the Worlds."

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