Seventy-four years ago, a precocious young actor named Orson Welles caused panic with a radio adaptation of H.G. Wells' “The War of the Worlds”. This Halloween, Toronto music collective The Art Of Time Ensemble recreates the historic show onstage.
“I definitely don't think it was an accident,” Art Of Time Artistic Director Andrew Burashko says about the Welles hoax, in which many listeners took the realistically scripted radio play as a real-life news report on a Martian attack. “The fact that he refused to pause and let the listeners know that everything was okay, to me, strongly suggests that he was getting off on the result. But that's what made his career.”
Burashko is the director and music conductor of The War of the Worlds, which returns to the Harbourfront Centre's Enwave Theatre after a short, sold-out run last year. Opening on October 30, which is the anniversary of the notorious radio play, the recreation stars Seán Cullen (replacing Don McKellar, who was unavailable this time) as the young Welles, along with Nicholas Campbell and Marc Bendavid. The set is a mock-up of CBS' New York radio studio during the period, complete with a nine-piece orchestra and a Foley artist (John Gzowski).
But Welles isn't the only icon getting a tribute here. The show opens with Herrmannthology, a suite of melodies by legendary film composer Bernard Herrmann. The suite is accompanied by a live film montage, assembled by Tess Girard, including scenes from Psycho, Citizen Kane and other Herrmann-scored movie classics.
Burashko came up with the idea for the show after learning that Herrmann had been the musical director on all of Welles' Mercury Theatre radio plays. “I knew that 2011 would be the centenary of Herrmann's birth,” Burashko explains. “I was always a fan of his scores and some of his concert works. I immediately thought about how cool it would be to stage that broadcast, because when I think of the Mercury Theatre, I think first of that particular show.
“I thought it would be great to stage it with period clothing, period mikes and so on. So it would feel like the audience members were voyeurs into a CBS studio circa 1938. And then I downloaded the show and listened to it, and I realized that there was barely any music in it. The whole point of the broadcast was to fool people into thinking it was real. They did it with these fake news broadcasts, which kept interrupting what little music there was, and even that wasn't Herrmann's. But by then, I was so attached to the idea that I decided to follow through.”
The crew aimed for as much authenticity as possible, although certain changes were necessary. Mercury used Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto as the theme music for its weekly radio series, but Burashko's smaller ensemble couldn't reproduce it. “So instead, I decided to use a Chopin polonaise,” says Burashko, “which has a similar kind of majestic vibe.” The other musical segments are true to the originals, he adds, but with different arrangements, and there's also new underscoring in the second half during Welles' lengthy monologue as Professor Pearson.
Despite (and because of) the supposed panic that the original broadcast caused, Welles' career immediately took off. RKO Studios awarded him a movie contract unlike anything before or since, offering total artistic control. The result was Citizen Kane, often considered one of the greatest movies ever made; it featured many of Welles' Mercury crew, including Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead and, of course, Herrmann.
Burashko counts North by Northwest, Taxi Driver and Citizen Kane as his favourite Herrmann scores. “It's just the sheer beauty of the music, the colours, and how rich it is. Even before I knew who Bernard Herrmann was, whenever I thought of Taxi Driver, I thought of that theme.”
Herrmann's film-composing career spanned thirty-five years and included many of Hitchcock's key works, as well as The Magnificent Ambersons, Cape Fear and Fahrenheit 451.
In spite of rave reviews and packed houses, last year's production of The War of the Worlds didn't get as much publicity as it could have, Burashko says. “It sold out last year, but it was gone before anybody knew about it. I hope more people get to see it this time.
“I'm really excited about this show.”
The War of the Worlds runs at the Enwave Theatre from Tuesday, October 30 to Sunday, November 4.