Behind The Scenes of Jeeves

Yesterday marked the 45th anniversary of the opening of Alan Ayckbourn and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Jeeves in the West End.

The musical became notorious as one of the West End’s biggest flops and Lloyd Webber’s first London flop: Alan has already had a taste of West End failure in 1964 when his first West End production, Mr Whatnot, closed after just two weeks.

To mark the anniversary, the blog is presenting an extended article looking behind the scenes at Jeeves through documents and correspondence held in the Ayckbourn Archive at the Borthwick Institute of Archives at the University of York.

A rare promotional flyer for Jeeves featuring Betty Marsden, whose role was cut before the play opened in London!
(© TBC)

Behind The Scenes of Jeeves by Simon Murgatroyd

Theatre history records Jeeves as one of the most notorious flops to have been staged in London’s West End. Uniting the talents of the playwright Alan Ayckbourn and the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, it proved to be a disastrous attempt to bring the characters of P.G. Wodehouse to the stage. The story behind the musical is worth a book in its own right, yet despite its notoriety its history has rarely been touched upon in any depth. The Ayckbourn Archive at the Borthwick Institute for Archives holds a considerable amount of correspondence and material relating to Jeeves, which although incomplete and predominantly containing material directly related to Alan’s involvement in the play, does offer at least some insight into how one of the West End’s most anticipated shows became one of its biggest failures.

Jeeves does not begin with Alan Ayckbourn, but with Lloyd Webber and the lyricist Tim Rice who conceived a musical based around Jeeves at least two years prior to Alan’s involvement. Both men were fans of Wodehouse novels and felt the stories of Bertie Wooster and his manservant Jeeves were prime material for transfer to the stage. 

“I have to take the blame for having thought of the whole idea in the first place. I’ve always found P.G. Wodehouse books terribly funny and thought there was something to be done with them in musical theatre. Jeeves was to be the follow-up to Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph [and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat]. I was going to do it with Tim Rice, and we thought it would be great fun.”
Andrew Lloyd Webber

Together they produced a rough draft of the musical, but Rice was unhappy with his own contribution and realised he would have difficulty doing justice to the much-loved characters.

“It wasn’t very good, particularly the lyrics. The tunes were good, probably better than those in almost any other British musical, but the words were dire, they were mine, and the plot wasn’t working out. So I abandoned it.”
Tim Rice

The lyricist’s precise involvement in Jeeves from this point onwards is not clear as interviews with the key players contradict each other. Lloyd Webber was determined to continue despite Rice’s reticence and had even visited Wodehouse in New York to get the author’s blessing; he also began searching for someone to join them on the book, apparently in the hope that Rice would then be inspired to stay on board the project.

Enter Alan Ayckbourn.

Encouraged by his agent Margaret ‘Peggy’ Ramsay to give serious consideration to writing the book for the musical in November 1973, Alan arranged to meet Lloyd Webber and Rice to discuss working together. 

“We had a private meal between Tim Rice and myself and Andrew… and we talked about what a great idea it would be. Tim would write the lyrics and I’d do the book, which would be merely structuring them a storyline. And I said: ‘Well, I think I can hack one out for you.’ And Andrew had already got some music sketches.”
Alan Ayckbourn

Alan, also a Wodehouse fan, agreed to write the book, but Rice was still uncertain about his involvement and by March 1974 had decided to step away to concentrate on writing Evita. Alan and Lloyd Webber began discussing alternative plans – although at no point was it suggested Alan would write the lyrics. 

“We’ll have, as they say, to hold ‘a most promising lyrics writer’ competition! Obviously the most important thing, finally, is to get someone who sparks you [Lloyd Webber] off and vice versa.”
Alan Ayckbourn

Despite the lyricist issues, the musical already had financial backing in the shape of the Australian producer Robert Stigwood. Based in Los Angeles with interests in music, television, film and theatre – but ironically apparently no interest in Wodehouse’s work according to Lloyd Webber – his diverse career had recently seen him produce the movie of Lloyd Webber and Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar. Despite providing the finances, his presence was rarely felt and Alan recalls only meeting him twice and apparently only after Jeeves had opened in London. In his stead, Bob Swash was appointed to act as the executive producer and go-between for Stigwood.

The musical also lacked a director and for this, Alan suggested Eric Thompson. He had successfully directed Alan’s plays Time And Time Again and Absurd Person Singular in the West End and shared a great rapport with Alan; he was also directing The Norman Conquests for Greenwich Theatre and due to transfer Absurd Person Singular to Broadway later in the year. Alan argued that not only was Thompson on his ‘wavelength’ but also that ‘if we’re going to catch the Wodehouse flavour, it needs to be the essence of comic timing – both musically and verbally’; although it later transpired Thompson had no experience at all of Wodehouse’s writing. The central creative team was now assembled for Jeeves. None of them had ever worked on a West End musical before.

Meanwhile, discussions had perhaps inevitably turned towards Alan contributing the lyrics.

“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.”
Alan Ayckbourn

Having agreed to now provide both the book and lyrics, Alan’s submitted his first attempt at the songs – ‘for better for worse’ – to Lloyd Webber on 2 May. Alan’s uncertainty highlighted when he wrote: ‘Writing them is like having chicken pox – almost impossible to stop picking at them – and that doesn’t necessarily make them any better.’ He also added that if Lloyd Webber was not happy, he could always turn to an unspecified Plan B.

The situation seems to have been fluid though as by mid-May, Bob Swash confirmed to Margaret Ramsay that Alan would write the lyrics jointly with Thompson; although Thompson did make some initial contribution, it has never been clarified what his exact contribution was, which led to contractual disagreements between him and Stigwood later. 

The apparently haphazard approach to the musical shifted up a gear on the weekend of 4 July 1974, when Alan, Lloyd Webber and Thompson came together for the first time to begin, as a spokesman for the Library Theatre in Scarborough phrased it: ‘hammering out tunes, lyrics and ideas for three days.’ The trio were based in a bedsit in Scarborough complete with a piano and a six week old kitten owned by the theatre’s scenic designer Helga Wood – who had also provided the piano. At the end of the weekend, the basic shape and plot of Jeeves had been agreed, lyrics had been approved, altered and drafted (with Thompson convinced he had positively contributed towards them) and an agreement made for a first draft to be completed by September, when the trio would meet again in America. The events of the weekend were chronicled several days later in the Yorkshire Post, in which Lloyd Webber spoke about Alan’s involvement in the collaboration.

“I saw Absurd Person Singular at London’s Criterion Theatre last year and decided that I must write to Alan and try to persuade him to join me in Jeeves. Alan is, without doubt, the best English comedy writer around today, and Eric Thompson is a director with an extraordinary talent for seeing humour in any given situation. I couldn’t have found a better team to work with… if it works.”
Andrew Lloyd Webber

Alan meanwhile offered an insight into his thoughts on adapting Wodehouse for the stage: “The treatment we shall give Jeeves will have a contemporary slant. It won’t be a museum piece. The books are so dramatic in terms of theatre that one has to be fairly drastic.”

By 14 July, Alan had supplied a second longer draft which Lloyd Webber worked on for the New York meeting, now scheduled for the first week of October. The most obvious problem at this stage – and one which would haunt Jeeves – was Alan admitted his inexperience with musicals meant the script was far too long.

“The script was heavily over-length, because the other thing, of course, I wasn’t used to was incorporating the songs: and as I’d written the lyrics I’d been pacing myself on a play, so we had something about one-and-a-half times too long.”
Alan Ayckbourn

That Alan and Lloyd Webber were not in full control of the project was made clear in September when Swash told Lloyd Webber he was anxious for casting to start by October at the latest as he had theatres lined up for March; it is a sobering thought that casting did not actually begin until January, yet the show was still lined up to open in Bristol less than three months later. Clearly, the producers were dictating the pace of the show and had fixed ideas about how long the process should take. Alan’s response to this was sage, but perhaps prophetic: ‘I hope Bob Swash’s urgency won’t panic us into a rush job.’

At the start of October, Alan travelled to New York for the opening of Absurd Person Singular on Broadway and met Lloyd Webber and Thompson as arranged with a complete draft of the musical. Stigwood had also arranged for them to visit Wodehouse at his Long Island home to hear the musical for the first time, although as Alan noted Wodehouse ‘was very, very deaf.’ The group was taken to the home of an experimental composer who possessed a piano and, much to Lloyd Webber’s horror, it transpired he had invited friends along to hear the music too. What was intended as a private audience for Wodehouse had become an impromptu performance with Lloyd Webber playing the piano and singing. At the afternoon’s end, Wodehouse declared he was happy with what he may or may not have heard and was shuffled off home by his wife Ethel (Alan’s own memories of this event can be found here). 

With Thompson now free to concentrate all his energies on Jeeves, the first major doubts about the scale of the musical began to emerge. Alan had incorporated some elaborate staging including the exterior and interior set of Totleigh Towers on a revolve, the idea being that over the course of the play, Bertie and his antics wreak havoc on the stately home as these stage directions illustrate.

A pleasant looking country house frontage, complete with balconies, trellis work with climbing plants etc.

Jeeves and Bertie pull up at the front door and dismount. Jeeves packs away the car. The are admitted by the butler. They enter.

The house revolves through 180 degrees so we now look into it from the back, like a cross section of a open doll’s house.

This then leads at the end of the play to:

The house revolves. We see the front for the first time since the beginning. It is now a complete wreck. All the downstairs windows are broken. Shutters are torn off. Creeper pulled away. Balcony wrecked.

However, Thompson was worried about what could realistically be achieved, although this would soon prove to be moot with the appointment of Voytek, an avant-garde and apparently very strong-minded designer, who had very clear ideas about what Jeeves needed, which tallied with Thompson’s ideas but not Alan’s. 

Unfortunately Voytek and Thompson both happened to be in Holland, while Alan and Lloyd Webber were in England unaware of what was happening. When Alan realised a significant part of the script didn’t work – specifically the use of Bertie’s Drones as a chorus – he decided he should cut them. 

Unfortunately, Thompson and Voytek had decided the exact opposite and made the Drones an integral part of the staging which had replaced Alan’s physical set with a series of abstract silk backcloths, the constant flying of which would noticeably slow down the pace of the musical.

The New Year broke with the good news that Wodehouse had been knighted and that auditions would take place in January at London’s Palace Theatre. Given the growing buzz behind the musical and the involvement of two such major West End talents (The Norman Conquests having now transferred to the West End and been a hit of unimagined scale for Alan), the demand for roles was high with a great deal of noteworthy talent auditioning for the coveted roles of Wooster and Jeeves. Given this, it was perhaps all the more surprising when the Evening Standard printed an exclusive report in mid-January.

“When the casting is announced probably next week, it is certain that film star David Hemmings and actor Michael Aldridge will be named for the star parts. Hemmings, making his West End debut, will play Wooster and Michael Aldridge will play Jeeves. The announcement of the casting will come as a disappointment to a number of London’s top stage stars who had eagerly sought the roles. A spokesman for producer Robert Stigwood said: ‘No contracts have been signed for these roles yet and I cannot confirm or deny anything until they have.’”

The news was unexpected (although presumably the leak had come from Stigwood’s office) and would not be confirmed for another month; Hemmings was a bona fide star having made his name in the film Blowup in 1966, but had no experience of the West End stage and apparently his singing abilities were not strong. Lloyd Webber was not convinced by his leading man, who it appears may have been pushed onto Jeeves by the producers.

“[He] was an extraordinary individual, quite self-destructive. He would never go to bed, and during the previews you’d find him at three in the morning in the hotel bar, even though he’d have rehearsal early next day. 
Andrew Lloyd Webber

Even Hemmings seems surprised to have landed the role and had given little thought as to what it would require of him.

“How did the role come up? I was feeling a bit restless at the time and I was shown Alan Ayckbourn’s script, which I found hilarious. Then I went to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s home to listen to the music. Many people were being considered it. I went for an audition at the Palace Theatre and sang Code Of The Woosters, from the show, just like that. It was a very frightening moment. Then the producers asked me.”
David Hemmings

By the time the choreographer Christopher Bruce (who would go on to become one of the UK’s most pre-eminent choreographers) was appointed in February, it was a company of firsts: Neither Alan, Lloyd Webber, Thompson, Hemmings, Bruce or Voytek had any previous experience of West End musicals.

“It was the blind leading the blind. Though we were all experienced in our own fields, neither myself, the director, the leading actor, the choreographer nor Andrew had worked on a live theatre musical before. You can only afford so many firsts in a show.”
Alan Ayckbourn

On 12 February 1975, Jeeves was officially announced to the public with a press conference featuring Hemmings, Aldridge and the actress Gabrielle Drake – again not known for her musical experience. The noted actress Betty Marsden was also announced to play Aunt Dahlia in the £100,000 musical which would open at Her Majesty’s Theatre on 22 April.

Judging by the headlines though, the announcement of a major West End show was secondary to Hemmings’ private life. His divorce from Gayle Hunnicutt was raised during the press call and his forthright thoughts on the subject led to some sensationalist stories and lurid headlines.

David Hemmings accuses ex-wife Gayle

Gayle and me – by David Hemmings

Aristocrats? It’s better than being married to a bum actor says David Hemmings

Not the most auspicious start. To make matters worse, three days later the musical made headlines again for the wrong reasons when it was announced Wodehouse had died at his home in New York on 14 February at the age of 93.

Rehearsals for Jeeves began in the last week of February, just four weeks before the production opened for a two week pre-West run at the Bristol Hippodrome. The musical had gone through at least two more drafts. The first was 202 pages long and featured 18 songs, which become 158 pages and 19 songs for the original rehearsal draft. It is this draft which opened the show on 22 March at Bristol, running at 4½ hours and accompanied by a notorious incident with the orchestra.

“[We] 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 musical accompaniment. I remember walking back to the hotel with my son, who was then very young, and he broke a long silence by saying ‘I’m sure it’ll get better’. But it didn’t.”
Alan Ayckbourn

The critics in Bristol were not kind, but offered little indication of the bloodbath that was soon to follow. It was also patently obvious to both Alan and Lloyd Webber that there were major problems: with the latter noting Jeeves had opened in Bristol ‘taking water at every level.’  

Neither had sufficient influence though to bring the production to a halt, they were at the mercy of the producers and the momentum of a major West End-bound musical. In a candid contemporary interview, Lloyd Webber noted: ‘There is still a lot of work to be done on Jeeves. It will have to be reduced in length, and there are one or two bits I’m not happy with.’

Alan’s agent, Peggy, had seen the first night too and enjoyed it, even though she questioned whether it was possible ‘to snip a little bit here and there throughout all the scenes?’ She was confident enough though to suggest to Lloyd Webber’s agent they needed to clarify foreign and other rights: ‘There is no doubt that the moment the London press carry the notices we shall be inundated with inquiries.’

Performances continued in Bristol, but with the running time still over four hours the first of several drastic decisions was taken. A frequent criticism of the amount of sub-plots led to the role of Aunt Dahlia being completely cut; Alan’s description of her reaction to the news from Eric Thompson memorably recorded by Paul Allen in Alan’s biography Grinning At The Edge.

Betty: Hello darlings!
Eric: Erm, Betty…
Betty: Don’t tell me, you’ve cut the whole fucking role!
Eric: Yes.
Betty: I don’t believe it. I do not believe it. I do not f—
Eric: Well, you see –
Betty: Well, that’s it. ‘Bye!

The play transferred to London for previews from 11 April, without Marsden and with a reduced running time of 3½ hours, and Robert Stigwood finally appeared to appraise his investment. Less than happy he made his presence felt immediately by removing Thompson as director on 18 April.  

Alan agreed to take his place as director, more to protect what had been achieved than a desire to take charge of the sinking ship. When later asked why Thompson had been fired, Alan replied: ‘They felt they had to sack someone.’

Jeeves opened on 22 April as planned at Her Majesty’s Theatre and by this point had, thanks to the work of Alan – and Thompson prior to being fired – been reduced to a running time of 2¾ hours. A substantial pruning from the day it opened but still not short by anyone’s standards. The running time was the least of the problems though as the critics arrived and left little unbloodied. Barely anyone came out well with Hemmings foremost amongst the many victims castigated for being out of his depth, closely followed by Lloyd Webber and Alan – who succinctly summed up the experience: ‘It was one of the least successful West End musicals and probably distinguished Andrew’s career as the biggest failure he’s had. It really did get a critical drubbing the first time.’

Worryingly, it wasn’t just the critics who were dissatisfied as Lloyd Webber reported: ‘there was booing on the opening night.’ Just three days after it opened, Bob Swash wrote asking the creative talent to waive their percentages to give the show a chance of a run; the producers having already waived the management fee and negotiated a rent reduction with the theatre. But there was little hope for Jeeves. The reviews had had an immediate and devastating effect on the box office. During previews, the show had been generating an average of £1,726 per performance; that figure dropped to an average of £960 for the five performances after the reviews were published.

The waivers were agreed and the next day Alan wrote to Stigwood: ‘Sorry we weren’t able to get off in a bigger blaze of glory. I think we were within a hair’s breadth of slightly kinder reviews but, alas, once critics decide they don’t like something, they really do go too far.’

Jeeves limped on to decreasing box office as furious cuts and amendments continued during the next two weeks. But nothing could halt the slide as week by week the average take per performance dropped from £738 to £617 to £523. On 12 May, Stigwood threw the towel in and it was announced Jeeves would close on 24 May just 38 performances after it opened.

Despite all the time, effort and money that had gone into the production, its only lasting legacy was to be forever remembered as one of the greatest flops to have been staged in the West End.

Ironically, the effect of the closure was far less traumatic for Alan than might have been expected. Granted, there was a certain inevitability to the early closure and the reception of the play, but even so, Alan was sanguine about the whole experience:

“Jeeves left me very unaffected. Well, it took a lot of energy out of me – but the whole episode was so ridiculous and remote in a way, that any sadness I felt was for Andrew (whose career it was at stake) and not for me.”
Alan Ayckbourn

The experience was also tempered somewhat by the fact that as far as Alan was concerned, it was old news. He had finished writing his new play – the soon to be tremendous hit Bedroom Farce – on the very day Jeeves closed in London.

With the production over and Alan and Lloyd Webber adamant that Jeeves had no future in its current form, there was nothing left but to chalk it up to experience and reminisce.

“I don’t think I could ever collaborate with another writer, but I did find collaborating with a musician very stimulating. The book, however, was eventually running for four hours. I could have cut it in about a day in Scarborough circumstances. But with a vehicle like that, by the time one got round to cutting, it was like treading on eggs. Actors all had their favourite bits, and so on. The producer of Jeeves I met twice as he spent most of his time in Los Angeles. We were all left to our own devices, which would have been alright if any of us had done this sort of show before. We badly needed Hal Prince, or someone like him. I did, however, develop a close working relationship with Lloyd Webber, which I hope might lead to something else, something conducted on our own terms.”
Alan Ayckbourn

“Frankly, Jeeves should never had made it to London. No-one on the team had a clue what they were doing, Stigwood never saw the show out of town and I really only had practical experience of musical theatre via Joseph and Jesus Christ Superstar, both of which had been heard on record before.

“We came into London to a deserved critical bloodbath. Alan and I couldn’t even watch the second act on opening night, we just buried our heads in far too much wine at the old Petit Club Francois.

“[We] were shattered but we knew we had it coming. We felt in our bones that we had done some good things and we still felt a musical on the Jeeves stories could work. We also knew we’d created an outsized turkey. But two things happened during the fiasco. First, I think I learned as much the hard way about musicals in eight weeks as I’ve done in the past two decades. Secondly, Alan and I became close friends.’”
Andrew Lloyd Webber

Aside from a single heavily abridged student production at Dulwich College in 1981 to mark P.G. Wodehouse’s centennial, Jeeves was never again seen in the form it took in the West End. It was never forgotten though and over the next two decades both Alan and Lloyd Webber would talk about revising and reviving it. Convinced there was a good musical in there, they would eventually get the chance to prove it on the 21st anniversary of Jeeves when By Jeeves was chosen to open the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in 1996.

The result? Everything Jeeves wasn’t. Not least a hit. Almost unrecognisable from the original musical, Alan and Lloyd Webber’s clever and small scale reinvention of the musical proved Jeeves always had potential, it just needed to be approached in the right way.

It is also worth noting that an alternate viewpoint of many of these events can also be found in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s memoir Unmasked, which offers alternative perspectives to many of these events. Unmasked is available to buy here.

You can find out more about Jeeves and By Jeeves – including a selection of interviews with Ayckbourn and Lloyd Webber at the Jeeves section of Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website here.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd and copyright of Haydonning Ltd. All images are copyright of the respective, named copyright holders. Please do not reprise this article or images without the permission of the copyright holders. 

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