I saw The War of the Worlds: The Musical at the Dominion Theatre in London. The Dominion is an enormous theatre--one of the largest in the West End--with a seating capacity of more than 2000. For many years, it was the home of We Will Rock You, a rock musical set in a dystopic future. Perhaps The War of the Worlds seemed to fit--in scale and theme--with this long-running popular production, but it did not live up to this promise. The vast auditorium was eerily empty, with more seats empty than occupied. Why didn't the people who flocked to see the Queen rock musical return to take in a bit of musical Wellsian terror? 
The musical is based on the 1978 concept album by Jeff Wayne. And there is the curious Dickensian link: Wayne had, a decade earlier, composed the score for A Tale of Two Cities: The Musical, which was, by most accounts, a theatrical flop. Beyond the horrific and world-rattling horror at their centers, the two stories wouldn't  seem to have much in common. Chaos, destruction, disorder--both are deeply engaged with the sensation of terror, but their "human" narratives feel rather different. One is an historical novel, looking to the past; the other is a future-peering speculative science fantasy. There is in both an interest in the breakdown of civil order and the chaos of the crowd. The link probably tells us very little about Wells and Dickens, a bit more, perhaps, about pervasive 19th-century anxieties, and something about the persistence of those anxieties into the 21st century. It says something, too, about the translatability of stories of large-scale human disasters into musical and theatrical idioms.

There was, I must confess, not much in the production that I found entertaining. Or intellectually interesting. There were lasers. And walls of flame. Guitars screamed. 
It was loud. So very loud. And with the flames shooting from the stage, rather warm in the front rows. The choreography was little more than a frenzied running about, with the actors dodging lasers and bursts of fire, occasionally becoming "frozen" to show that they had been hit by the Martian heat ray. So many lasers. So much running about.

There wasn't much acting. The story was invested almost entirely in a video narrative. Every few minutes, a screen would descend from the ceiling so that a pre-recorded Ralph Fiennes could tell us the story. So there was lots of description and running about, but not much in the way of drama. Is it that the production team felt bound to the concept album? Is Wells's novel not particularly theatrical? Does emphasizing the technology and the terror come at the expense of the human drama of the story? Is the piece simply not alternative enough?

I wondered what had brought people to the show. The two middle-aged women behind me were surprised to learn, from their programs, that the show was "based on a classic." One thought that its originary was the 2005 Steven Spielberg film and hoped that this show would "be true" to that "classic film." The comment is interesting, as it reminds us that The War of the Worlds is one of those novels that everyone knows without having to read it for themselves: it has been so frequently adapted as to have achieved an identity independent of its written text. From the famous radio drama to the many film adaptations, The War of the Worlds has entered into free cultural circulation. What, then, does "fidelity" to its source mean, when everyone in the audience has in mind a different originary?

Given this disconnect between written text and story, it is somewhat curious that the production relied so heavily on the "holographic" narration. Why not sever the link to the originary novel's first-person narration--often very awkward to achieve on stage--and embrace more fully musical and theatrical tools? In some sense, the video screens did double duty, delivering Wells's words--thus assuring us of the production's fidelity to its source text--but also recalling the electronic media--tv and film--that for many--if not most--in the audience may have been the first--or only--encounter with Wells's story. The video voice-over thus "authenticated" the production by linking it to its predecessors, across different media.

Another somewhat curious "authenticating" move was provided by the period costumes. As Spielberg's film showed us, The War of the Worlds can translate to the modern day, speaking as it does to contemporary anxieties about foreign terrorism, military invasion, and global conflict. For Wells's initial readers, it was a warning about imperialism and, a generation later, a grim forecast of the development of weapons of mass destruction. At mid-century, it was an all-too realistic portrayal of total war. It's not strictly a nineteenth-century story, and needn't be set in Victorian England. With the modern electric guitars and laser lights, the period costumes feel a bit anachronistic. The costumes do remind us of the show's Victorian source--reinforcing the show's "classic" roots. The costuming also creates a rather odd sense that what's playing out is a conflict between the technology-driven modern age and an idyllic, human historical past. What's odd is that the show encourages its audience to identify with that lost historic idyll, though the show itself seems to celebrate the sensory effects of modern technology. It's a curious tension.

The musical War of the Worlds was not my cup of tea. For me, it just didn't work. Yet it does pose some questions that get to fundamental issues of adaptation. Why do we revisit particular stories at particular moments and in particular ways? What draws us to modern renderings of "classic" texts? What makes a particular adaptation "successful" (and on what basis do we make that determination)? How can adaptations acknowledge their literary source texts--and predecessor adaptations--while also remaining free to create something new? How is our knowledge and experience of nineteenth-century literature mediated by modern adaptations? And what do we do with the curious links that modern adaptations create among originary texts (linking, in this example, Dickens with Wells, Revolutionary France with Martian imperialism)? 
 


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