'By Jeeves': The Butler Did It (Got to Broadway)
LONDON -- IT has not been the most melodious journey, bringing "By Jeeves" to Broadway in the five and a half years since this modest musical, inspired by the stories of P. G. Wodehouse, opened at the Stephen Joseph Theater in Scarborough in the north of England. That's the playhouse run by Sir Alan Ayckbourn, 62, the prolific dramatist of some 60 shows. Back in 1975, he teamed up with a no less established composer named Andrew Lloyd Webber — who at 53 is now Lord Lloyd-Webber — on a West End flop entitled "Jeeves."
Several decades later, the two refashioned the project almost entirely, winning critical praise and a West End transfer. Now, after four separate American engagements — the first in 1996 with the Goodspeed Opera House, the most recent in March at the Pittsburgh Public Theater — and a Canadian DVD, the show has reached Broadway, at the Helen Hayes Theater, where it opens tonight, directed by Sir Alan, who wrote the book and lyrics.
The "By Jeeves" title character (played by the English actor Martin Jarvis) is the Wodehouse butler who smooths the way for his somewhat rattled employer, the title character of the show within the show, "An Evening With Bertram Wooster" (John Scherer).
The evening is set in 1939 at the "Little Wittan Community Center," supposedly to raise money for the village's church steeple. And theatergoers are invited to get into the spirit of the setting before they're in the door. Tea is dispensed at a table set up outside the theater, whose lobby has been decorated in red-white-and-blue bunting; signs over the entrances to the auditorium read "Community Hall"; and, according to one bulletin board notice, free rabbits are available. Other Wodehouse characters, with names like Bingo Little and Stiffy Byng, appear in the show before the "village" audience.
The current $1.9 million engagement, produced by Goodspeed, was imperiled after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. When several investors dropped out, the production was canceled. But within 48 hours, Lord Lloyd-Webber contributed a substantial share of the $800,000 that had been withdrawn from the show, and four others joined him in the bailout.
So it was with a mixture of exuberance and relief that the show's two creators talked one recent rainy morning over coffee about "By Jeeves" at Lord Lloyd-Webber's Belgravia home.
MATT WOLF What were your expectations for this show?
ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER Well, I suppose we both just thought it would be nice if it became a little property that could establish itself and be performed, since it has no kind of nasty bone in its body. And that is what has happened, actually. This Broadway business is all a little bit of an accident because the Pittsburgh production went so well.
ALAN AYCKBOURN (laughs) Perhaps Americans think we're all whacking about Sussex in open-top Bentleys and having cocktail parties.
WOLF Is this a bit of an anomaly in both your careers?
AYCKBOURN It has been quite an odd one to pin our names to. It is definitely Andrew's music but at the same time quite surprising if you have an idea of a Lloyd Webber song being a particular thing. And I don't write like this, really, at all: my plays are much much darker and blacker than this, which is a lighter-than-air machine. It either carries you away, or if you put your feet in concrete, it leaves you behind.
LLOYD WEBBER In a sense, it's not a through-written piece, so the songs get a chance to stand up as songs more than you might find in, say, "Evita." Musically, you don't feel like you're completely on parade, as it were.
AYCKBOURN This is one of the few musicals, I guess, where the title character never sings a note. Bertie sings his socks off all evening and Jeeves just mutters away in the background: "Yes, sir. Yes, sir."
WOLF What's more, you were spared the hassles of either divas or tempestuous sets.
LLOYD WEBBER Please. I'm just doing the "Sunset Boulevard" portion of my autobiography, and I'm telling you, the "Sunset" chapters are going to be far too painful for the public to read.
AYCKBOURN Oh, no, we all like a bad story.
LLOYD WEBBER Well, there were a lot of those.
WOLF Does this production respond to a new thirst in the theater for simplicity?
AYCKBOURN You can get an awful lot of fun out of the fact that Bertie finds himself driving a cardboard box. Of course, in that it's a cardboard box that swivels and does all those things, it's quite a piece of machinery. But the theater is always about, "How little do I need?" And often it's less than you think, in terms of dialogue, set, lighting, everything.
LLOYD WEBBER We all know shows can be very, very simple and look wrong, but if something actually looks right, then you're away. "Sunset" on the road in England now, for instance, looks better, and therefore the material sings better. It's much less monolithic and has got a much greater lightness of touch. There are so many musicals that people have perhaps forgotten about, which, for various reasons, have not worked, which do work again.
AYCKBOURN "By Jeeves" is happy in this scale.
WOLF It probably seems more like a play.
AYCKBOURN It is a play, really, with some very jolly tunes.
WOLF What went wrong back in 1975?
LLOYD WEBBER It was originally produced by the Stigwood Organization, and there really wasn't anybody there to put it together. In those days, I was not at all involved with the producing side of things; it was "Jeeves" that taught me I had to be. It was just a complete chapter of accidents.
AYCKBOURN We both were screaming: "Stop! Stop!" But no one had the authority to stop it, and you could see the thing was going over the cliff. And then four days before it opened, Eric [Eric Thompson, the director] got fired. You know, when in doubt, fire the director. And Stigwood said to me: "Al, I want you to take it over. I know it can work." But it was doomed, I think. Out of town in Bristol it was running four and a half hours. It was so long that at the first performance, the orchestra simply packed it in; they just put down their tools. The musical director grabbed the keyboards and finished the performance.
LLOYD WEBBER I remember Cameron [Cameron Mackintosh, the producer] saying to me after the first 10 minutes that he thought he was going to see the best musical he had ever seen, and then it fell apart completely and utterly. And also, look, we've now had the chance of being around it for four years or more in order to refine it. We've got a new number early on for New York, "Never Fear," in order to compress the beginning of Alan's book.
WOLF How are the two shows related?
AYCKBOURN "Jeeves" and "By Jeeves" are really two separate beasts. There are links, I suppose, but you would have a job as the author of the first one to sue me as the author of the second in terms of the words. And most of the songs have gradually been replaced. The first company had 22 people; now we're down to 10, plus swings and understudies. It's quite a tight ship.
WOLF What do you think of Bertie and Jeeves appearing next door to another well-known stage couple, Bialystock and Bloom in "The Producers"?
LLOYD WEBBER It's delicious. We should have a bit of fun.
AYCKBOURN They certainly don't overlap, do they?
LLOYD WEBBER Maybe we ought to offer the returns queue for "The Producers" a cup of tea from our village fete stall. Also, there's a little irony that we're opposite "The Phantom of the Opera" as well, especially as our gag is, "No singing, dancing Nazis, no crashing chandeliers, no Swedish pop songs." Guaranteed.