Forty years ago, the twenty-seven year old Andrew Lloyd Webber was witnessing his third show arriving in London. However, this was the first to be planned and developed for the West End. The other two, Joseph and Superstar, had become West End shows eventually but were not initially designed as such.
Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice had hit upon the idea of making a musical of P G Wodehouse’s Jeeves novels and had obtained the rights to do so. Wodehouse was in his nineties and living in the States and was reported as being enthusiastic. While there had been other attempts to bring to the musical stage Jeeves and Wooster, they had not been successful.
Not having written directly for the stage, Lloyd Webber and Rice involved Alan Ayckbourn, another Wodehouse fan and a man riding high on West End and Broadway hit plays. After a while Tim Rice came to the conclusion that he could not do justice to Wodehouse’s works and left the project. Ayckbourn became librettist and lyricist having hardly ever delved into the world of the musical and he brought Eric Thompson, his trusted and successful director of many of his plays, to direct his first musical.
In early 1975 the Daily Express reported that Webber and Ayckbourn had visited Wodehouse to present the finished Jeeves, based mainly on the novel The Code of the Woosters: ‘we went through the whole score with him. He seemed very pleased. He’s terribly modest and was only worried whether the characters were strong enough for a musical’. He was also reported as being rather deaf!
Wodehouse died on the 14 February, just weeks since being knighted and a month before the 22 March 1975 opening at Bristol Hippodrome. There were problems as the Stage review indicates: ‘Ayckbourn, who has been faithful in both adaptation and lyrics, has attempted to squeeze every conceivable Wodehouse situation, character bon mot, and contrivance into as plot which is at present over long. The show would benefit from the subtraction of at least two of the sub-plots, and three or four of the fringe characters.’
The main characters were, of course, Jeeves and Wooster, and for those roles Michael Aldridge and, with over the title billing, David Hemmings were contracted. Gabrielle Drake was Madeline Bassett, the love interest, and Betty Marsden Wodehouse’s Aunt Dahlia. In the major rewrite much was cut, including Dahlia and, behind the scenes, Ayckbourn involved himself with the direction.
It opened on 22 April at Her Majesty’s to mainly bad reviews and hostile first nighters in the balcony (something the writer can vouch for as he was there). David Hemmings left slightly wounded but was soon back in front of the camera. A year after he said: ‘I don’t exactly want to rush back to the theatre for a few years. Now in retrospect, I can say I did enjoy being back on the stage. I would not have missed that. But it was so abysmally unsuccessful. It was so depressing being on stage in front of an audience who had already been told by the critics that they would not enjoy themselves. That was awful’.
Jeeves was recorded and the LP released, but once that pressing had sold it was withdrawn and has never seen the light of day again. The happy ending was that in 1996 it was revisited by Webber and Ayckbourn and By Jeeves appeared with a tighter plot and changed score – but that is another story!
RSB illustrations are from our archives