It’s not easy to put in perspective how startling the news was in 1996. But when those of us on the senior staff at Connecticut’s Goodspeed Musicals first learned that we would be producing the US premiere of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical – on our 200-seat second stage, no less – I suspect an observer would have watched our collective jaws drop simultaneously. Bear in mind that Cats and Sunset Boulevard were both playing their original Broadway runs at the time.
But as the relatively new general manager of the company (with two years under my belt), whose background was more in plays than musicals, my shock was compounded and even superseded by the news of the book-writer, lyricist and director of the project. “No, you don’t understand,” I told my colleagues. “We’re doing an Alan Ayckbourn show.”
The project under discussion was By Jeeves, a significantly rewritten version of Ayckbourn and Lloyd Webber’s Jeeves, a famous West End disaster. It had just been given its premiere at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre, part of the company’s opening of its new home, a renovated cinema across from the Scarborough train station. Lloyd Webber, perhaps still smarting from the show’s 1975 reception, didn’t have any great ambitions for the revised work, and was happy to have its American debut take place in the cosseted confines of Goodspeed.
But a funny thing happened with By Jeeves – it was a success. Not a smash, mind you, but the Stephen Joseph production transferred to the West End for a six-month run, first at the Duke of York’s and then the Lyric. Despite that, Andrew and Alan their commitment to little Goodspeed, with an unprecedented 14-week run at Goodspeed at Chester (normal runs were three weeks).
Over the following five years, By Jeeves would travel to the newly reopened Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles (where it didn’t go over too well), the Kennedy Center in Washington DC (a huge hit in its 500-seat space), and the Pittsburgh Public Theatre (another success).
After Pittsburgh, the production was filmed for video up in Toronto, and that’s the version that is released today on Lloyd Webber’s The Shows Must Go On YouTube channel, where it streams for 48 hours. The cast includes some of the original Goodspeed company (actors had taken various other jobs along the way), including John Scherer as Bertie, with Donna Lynne Champlin, Emily Loesser and Ian Knauer.
By Lloyd Webber standards, it was an intimate show, without flying tyres or falling chandeliers
By Jeeves would make one more stop in the US: Broadway. Unfortunately, it was scheduled to open in early October – that is to say October 2001, just weeks after the 9/11 attacks. In the wake of that horror, Andrew withdrew the production, only to change his mind and have the show open at the end of October. The timing remained inopportune and By Jeeves closed at the end of the year. But overall, unlike the original Jeeves, By Jeeves had proven that it was the little show that could.
I say little because, by Lloyd Webber standards, it was indeed an intimate show, without flying tyres or falling chandeliers. A ladder stunt in Act II was trickier than it looked (there was a carefully engineered counterweight system under the stage deck to insure actor safety) and the set pieces that appeared to be made of nothing more than cardboard boxes were all framed with aluminium interiors, so they could hold up week after week. The show’s megamix finale introduced a new set of costumes for the whole company that hadn’t been previously seen anywhere in the show. But it didn’t look epic.
I have extremely fond memories of By Jeeves, because it was my introduction into the extended Ayckbourn creative family. Choreographer Sheila Carter and designers Roger Glossop and Mick Hughes were delights to have around (in multiple cities). While Andrew popped in and out through the rehearsals and run, he proved thoroughly companionable, often with his wife Madeleine and two young children in tow.
Most importantly, By Jeeves began my friendship with Heather and Alan Ayckbourn, among the closest of my professional career. I have been to Scarborough some 16 times since my first visit in 1998 and spent time with the Ayckbourns in London, New York and Los Angeles (including a whirlwind trip to Disneyland). I have now seen roughly 40 Ayckbourn plays, the majority in productions directed by Alan himself, which is the very best way to see them.
While I managed to watch a rehearsal of Alan’s revival of By Jeeves at the SJT two years ago, I’ve never watched the video being released today, so it will be a major nostalgia trip for me and I hope a treat for those who are unfamiliar with the show as well as its fans. But I will describe it in advance the way I always did back in the 1990s: it’s an Ayckbourn entertainment by way of Wodehouse, with songs by Lloyd Webber and Ayckbourn. Don’t go looking for a grand spectacle. Just open yourself up to silliness and charm, which is exactly what will be on offer.