Jeff Wayne on The War of the Worlds evolution and 2025 Spirit of Man tour

In 2025, Jeff Wayne’s musical version of The War of the Worlds returns to stage. Dubbed The Spirit of Man, this latest iteration marks the next evolutionary step in what has become one of the most successful albums and productions of the past half century. Headliner paid a visit to the man himself to find out about how technology continues to push the boundaries of the show’s possibilities, as well as how he almost embarked on a career outside of music entirely…

The sprawling grounds of Jeff Wayne’s resplendent Hertfordshire home open up before us, as Headliner drives through the gates of a real-life Wayne Manor. It’s a relentlessly rainy February morning, but the setting, much like our host and interview subject for the day, could scarcely be more welcoming.

We enter through a side door that leads straight into a home studio that is at once magnificent and rather cosy. A Steinway concert grand piano is the centrepiece, while personal photos and mementos are scattered around much like one would find in a person’s living room, albeit some of them featuring A-list stars from the world of music and film. A small kitchen area, similar to that of any modest studio, adds to the accommodating feel of the space.

Perhaps most intriguing is a corner of the room where shelves are stacked with all manner of The War of the Worlds memorabilia. There are models of the famous Martian Fighting Machine; branded shot glasses and tankards; playing cards; and amongst them a smattering of awards, including a pair of Ivor Novellos. It feels part home, part studio, part museum.

After 10 minutes or so spent browsing these artefacts we meet Wayne, who is instantly warm, charming, and affable. He speaks softly and eloquently about a variety of subjects. Before we take our seats, we discover he was a highly promising - and still highly competitive – tennis player, who was friends with legend of the sport Arthur Ashe. “The only player to double bagel me,” he laughs (double-bagel meaning two 6-0 set defeats in tennis parlance).

As we prepare to settle in for the next hour in a corner of the room, he shares some history about the illustrious musical heritage of the place he has called home of the past four decades.

“The history of this place goes way back beyond the time that we first moved here,” he begins. “It was quite a major property. What you see today is about one third of what existed originally. There was a big fire in 1938 that burned down about two thirds of the property. The people who owned it were very good friends and acquaintances with royalty, politicians, entertainers, and this room, which is my studio, was originally an open plan ballroom. And Edward Elgar would occasionally bring his band, which was a string quartet or a chamber orchestra, and debut new pieces in the studio. I say regular prayers to Edward, please give me some vibe here! I need your help!”

I always promised myself that I would never do the same tour twice. Jeff Wayne

There was a time, however, before Wayne would go on to commit further musical chapters to the fabric of his home, when a career in music was largely absent on the horizon. While his father (Jerry Wayne) enjoyed a career in music and theatre, the young Wayne was a Grade A student primed for a career in investigative journalism.

“It was a love of the idea of uncovering stories that needed to be told,” he reveals, explaining how and why his passion for reporting almost took his life and career in an entirely different direction. “My dad was a major artist from about 1950 and I saw him get blacklisted during the McCarthy period. He was what you would call a left-wing person who supported certain causes that today would seem quite modern, but it cost him his career.

“That led me to want to know why, even in his later years, living here, he would never bring up the McCarthy period. My wife would occasionally ask him about it, and he would just put it into historical perspective, whereas I have remained quite angry throughout my whole life about what happened to him and many others who didn’t deserve the demise of a major career. But what it led to was moving to England.

“I got a journalism degree in California where I graduated high school and college, and my dad was working on a theatre production based on Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, which ran at the Palace Theatre and did quite well. He asked me to compose the music for it. I got an AA (associate of arts) degree but instead of staying on for my Master’s degree I switched to music. That led me to becoming the musician I eventually became.”

It was also via his dad that Wayne happened upon HG Wells’s literary classic The War of the Worlds. With a lingering love of storytelling from his brief time in journalism, Wayne’s father knew there was a way for his son to fuse this with his new musical career.

“It all goes back to my dad,” he says. “He started reminding me that I always wanted to find a story I could fall in love with, that said something to me, and that made me feel like I had a blank canvas to create from. Over the course of a year, I read a lot of wonderful books, and for one reason or another there was nothing I felt that passion for. Or it was so literate that I couldn’t find a path through. But it just happened that I was going on a tour and my dad came over to wish me luck, and he gave me this book, which was HG Wells’s War of the Worlds. I read it once and knew that it was saying something to me in a big way. It wasn’t just about a Martian invasion of earth, it was about the principles of invasion, of the principle of invaders from any nation, any army. And there were themes of love, hope, faith, and it had a lot to say in what was a short book. I could see a path straight in.”

I think where it has really evolved is since we started touring arenas. Jeff Wayne

However, before he could embark upon that path, a lengthy period of securing the requisite rights ensued.

“In the period I’m talking about, which was around 1973, the HG Wells novel was still in copyright, so we didn’t have the rights to do it,” he explains. “So, it took about three months. Through an American law firm we eventually found Frank Wells, who was the son of HG and inherited his dad’s works - certainly The War of the Worlds. We met with Frank who had a set of agents and there were two main things that convinced them to sell us the rights. One was the fact that my idea was to do a true interpretation of HG’s story – keep it in the time it was set and keep with the themes, the times and the characters – whereas pretty much anything that had been done to HG’s The War of the Worlds was set in contemporary America, but I fell in love with a dark, Victorian tale.

“The other thing was that we were a father and son team that he liked. And quickly after that we acquired all the rights, other than feature film and TV rights associated with it, and of course the original book publication. Everything else we acquired, and I was up and running putting all together pretty soon thereafter.”

Equipped with the rights and a clear vision for what he wanted to achieve in his musical retelling The War of the Worlds, Wayne could never have predicted the kind of success he would go on to achieve. Released in 1978 as a double studio album, it has sold an estimated 16 million copies and has played to theatres and arenas the world over since its stage debut in 2006. Yet the juggernaut that it has become, Wayne tells us, was born from humble beginnings.

After reading and re-reading the original text – a hardback version of the novel that resides on a bookshelf behind us – he set about scribbling notes across his pages and piecing together ideas for what would become the blueprint for Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds.

“The first chapter is called ‘The Eve of the War’ and to me it read like an overture,” he recalls. “It gave me the idea of composing an opening theme, with a bit of singing, but mostly a theme that creates the sense of an impending event that’s going to take place, just as his story does. I thought if I succeeded with that then maybe I have an audience that would stay with me for what became a double album.

“It took about six weeks to compose the first draft of the score,” he continues. “I deliberately set myself a challenge, which is I booked the original band, and I had six weeks to arrange all the band parts and prepare for the session, not knowing I was going to complete it all and be ready. But I had gotten so proficient at meeting deadlines, so I set myself one by booking an expensive studio with excellent musicians and crossed my fingers that I’d have it done in time [laughs].”

I’m never happy. I always look back and think I could do things better. Jeff Wayne

Wayne’s incarnation of The War of the Worlds began to take on new life when it made its first foray into the realm of theatre. When it made its stage debut in 2006, so began an ongoing period of evolution that continues to this day, as its score and the technology that shapes it continues to develop and grow ever more sophisticated.

“I think where it has really evolved is since we started touring arenas,” he states. “I learned a lot from conducting to live audiences, and translating a double album to a live medium is a different thing. I never want to lose the heart of my score and the story, but there are a number of avenues we have opened up. I always promised myself that I would never do the same tour twice. That’s given it a life, as there are some people who have come back to see us and as we’ve built more and more shows so every one is different. And technology has changed so dramatically that an idea one would have dismissed all those years ago is now pretty commonplace, and you use it in a way that gets the audience excited.”

From an AV perspective, technological advancements have enabled Wayne to expand the scope of the production.

“I’ll give you an example of something we started with and how it’s grown,” he elaborates. “And that’s our Martian fighting machine. It’s been with us from the start, is about 35 feet tall, weighs about three tons, and about half an hour into the story it descends having been hidden from the audience, and it lands on stage and fires its main weapon. It started off being laser lights, but now it’s real flames. It fires about 12 feet over the audience, and as the conductor I’m very aware every time it fires [laughs]. It’s an amazing bit of engineering.

“And we have gone from straight animation and imagery to more 3D effects. We now have multiple screens that we couldn’t have had many years ago. Just yesterday we saw a demonstration of a new LED screen that we are going to be using where the clarity is absolutely stunning.”

And what of the audio aspect?

“It was always an important ingredient to immerse – that very popular word now – our audiences in the arenas, and we did that with surround sound,” he notes. “Our sound is placed and mixed for different reasons, but the quality of the sounds and the systems have evolved, and I’m going to be seeing a system next week that will demonstrate that sound can travel from front to back without missing out the middle of the audience in any way. That’s something we’ll be looking to bring to The Spirit of Man tour.”

Launching in March 2025, The Spirit of Man marks the latest incarnation of Wayne’s musical vision for the show. Featuring new music, Wayne explains how it seeks to address contemporary issues within the original story’s framework.

“Our focus is, without trying to be a lesson in politics and history, that we are living in a dangerous world,” he says. “It’s self-evident. And there is duet between a parson and his wife who take the opposite sides of life, and it’s a duet called The Spirit of Man. The parson - the person you think you’d go to for spiritual comfort in times of need - is the first person to go totally bonkers. He thinks the Martians are devils and only he can meet them and face them, but he has no hope for mankind. Whereas his wife believes there is something to live for, something to die for. It’s the thematic part of what they are saying, that is what I wanted to name the show around. It’s the heart of this story.”

To witness Wayne’s undimmed enthusiasm for The War of the Worlds first-hand is genuinely inspiring. Though his demeanour is gentle and unassuming, there is still a fire and ambition that radiates when he discusses The Spirit of Man and his plans to continue tweaking and expanding upon his work. At 80 years old, he exhibits no signs whatsoever of stepping back from proceedings. The key, he tells us, is to continue evolving without losing sight of what made him fall for the source material in the first place.”

“I’m a fiddler,” he smiles. “I’m never happy. I always look back and think I could do things better. For the new show I’ve modernised some of the grooves; the sound quality we review every tour. I added a new song in 2014 and on our last tour in 2022 it became the name of the tour: Life Begins Again. It was appropriate because we’d just come out of Covid and it was like we were going to start again. This tour is n not about trying to educate or take a view, but it has an emotional content that is appropriate for the times.

“I fell in love with a dark Victorian tale set in England. And to paraphrase our journalist who starts The War of the Worlds with “no one could’ve believed”… that couldn’t be more true about everything I’ve ever done!”