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Stiles & Drewe on The Wind in the Willows, Half A Sixpence + the future of modern musical theatre

Image courtesy of Stiles & Drewe.

Multi award-winning writers Stiles and Drewe have been at the forefront of pushing the envelope of modern musical theatre.

Currently working on The Wind in the Willows musical, alongside the West End transfer of Half A Sixpence, 2016 has been a busy year.

GT sat down with Anthony Drewe to talk through upcoming new projects, the successes he and creative partner George Stiles have had before — noticeably moving Mary Poppins to the stage — and find out predictions for what might just make it to the stage in the coming years.

Welcome to GT. You’re currently bringing The Wind in the Willows to UK audiences. How’s the reaction been so far? Very encouraging! We are three previews in and it’s getting a great reaction from people of all ages. We’ve already made one or two changes since the first preview and we will continue to do so whilst the show is out on the road. That was the intention, to do a try-out tour before heading to London.

What makes the idea of this tale ideal for a musical? It is a such a well-loved story, it was published 108 years ago and it has been in the public consciousness for that whole period. It seems to be as popular today as it ever was. The story has already been interpreted as a ballet, pantomime, play, animated movie, and a live-action TV movie but, when we were first approached about the project by producer Jamie Henry, all three of us agreed there was still meat on those bones. It was easy to say “yes” to accepting the commission.

How do you go about approaching a story like this and adapting it to the stage? What makes something work in musical form? The first thing we do is look at a story and ask ourselves if the characters “sing”, by which I mean do the characters feel as if their individual stories lends themselves to musicalisation? We all agreed that The Wind in the Willows ticked the necessary boxes – with drama, comedy, action and moments reflection. Julian Fellowes then started to craft the novel into a 2 act ‘book’ structure – in effect a play, and George and I then started work on writing the songs, which propel the story forward, and create a musical arc for the story. Two themes leapt out at me when re-reading the novel as an adult – friendship, and the importance of having a sense of home.

You’re also working on the much-anticipated West End transfer of Half a Sixpence. How’s it going? Amazing! We only started the show a year ago when Cameron Mackintosh asked us if we’d have a fresh look at the famous 1960’s musical with the intention of it featuring in Jonathan Church and Alan Finch’s last season at Chichester Festival Theatre. It ran there for 6 weeks over the summer, received rave reviews and, in the process we discovered an incredible new star in the Charlie Stemp who plays the famous Tommy Steele role. In a way it was a bigger job than Mary Poppins because not only have we written eight new songs, we’ve also adapted all of the original David Heneker songs to varying degrees. It was a very happy process. We met David Heneker in 1985 and stayed in touch with him throughout his later years. He was very encouraging to us as young writers. We are particularly proud to be able to reintroduce David’s wonderful music to a new audience.

 And are you excited for London audiences to experience your work and this show? Enormously – we last had a show in the West End in 2011 with Betty Blue Eyes. It’s very exciting to know London audiences will be able to see more of our work.

We can’t not ask you about a couple of other shows you’ve worked on. Let’s start with Mary Poppins – what an iconic piece of work. What was it like when the call came in to work on that? The initial interest for us to work on the show came in 1994, just after we’d written Honk!. As a pitch for job we wrote Practically Perfect and then had a very long wait while Cameron Mackintosh, who held the stage rights and Disney, who obviously held the movie rights, came to an agreement. The show didn’t arrive at the Prince Edward Theatre until 2004 – ten years later.

 With a show like Mary, audiences know it so well already. Is that exciting or does that add additional pressures to get it right? It adds additional pressure because the songs are so popular and the film so well known, inevitably most of the audience with expectations and knowing the iconic songs. I said to George “If we do this right, no-one will know we’ve done anything. If we do it wrong we will get the blame!”

 Were you both a fan of the movie growing up? We had actually never watched it all the way through! We only did so once we started working on the project. We’d seen substantial parts of it and knew all the songs; the film was often featured on a TV special called Disney Time which aired at Christmas or Easter. In the late 1960s Mary Poppins used to feature heavily but truthfully we were both a bit too young when the film first came out, and perhaps slightly too old when it was re-released. We were huge fans of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang  and The Jungle Book though – both featuring songs by the Sherman Brothers!

 And creating new songs alongside the internationally adored originals. How do you go about writing and slotting new ideas in? For both Half A Sixpence and Mary Poppins, Julian Fellowes wrote a new book for the musical. He had a slightly different dramatic arc, and in the case of Mary Poppins which was a movie, he needed to craft a two act structure, with some sort of crisis just before the interval. Inherently there were differences to the way the story was going to be told, which then gave us the opportunity to suggest new songs. In some instances there were new characters and, as the project developed we were given license to rewrite some of the Sherman brothers’ songs to tie them in to Julian’s book.

 When your shows move beyond UK audiences, do they get seen differently? Is that exciting that each audience might find something new in your work? The shows of ours that have gone beyond British borders are stories that are generally already known in foreign territories. For example Honk! is the story of The Ugly Duckling, which everyone knows. In some instances where we have been directly involved, I have tried to change some of the sensibilities to make it work for the local population – I will ask ‘the locals’ to suggest different jokes or appropriate translations so the humour or joke reads properly and resonates with the audience.

Famous leading ladies and men have undertaken your work throughout the years. Do you have a favourite so far? We have been lucky to work with so many brilliant people. Laura Michelle Kelly in Mary Poppins was a real highlight, Sarah Lancashire in Betty Blue Eyes, Philip Quast as Mr Banks in the Australian production of Mary Poppins. There was also a wonderful lady called Ran Otori who played Mother Duck in the Japanese production of Honk! She was so famous when you went backstage to give her notes after the show, there would be several trestle tables laid out full of flowers for her which, as a hay fever sufferer, I found a little challenging!

Alongside the above, you’ve worked on Betty Blue Eyes, Honk!, Travels With My Aunt, Soho Cinders, Just So, Peter Pan, 3 Little Pigs and so many more. Do you have one you’re particularly fond of looking back? I love Just So not because I necessarily think it’s our best work but because it was our first professional show and we went on a very long journey with it. We first wrote it in 1985 but it wasn’t published and recorded until 2004 by which time it had been rewritten many times. I had directed it myself in Boston, at Arts Ed School and at the Chichester Festival Theatre. It was only when I came to address the show as a director rather than a writer that I was able to make the cuts that maybe as a writer I had resisted up until that point. I love Just So because it represents George and I growing up as writers.

 Is there anything else you think could work well for the stage? Either currently as a novel or even film? Plenty but we’re not giving away what we’ve got in development! You’ll have to wait and see. There are many untapped stories, novels and ideas. I wish there were more original book writers writing for musical theatre. The film industry has so many: the late Nora Ephron and John Hughes and then people like Patrick Marber and Richard Curtis are writing wonderful original stories, I wish they would write musicals. Having said that, original musicals are a hard sell because people tend to go for title recognition, but I would love to think those sorts of brains would write for the musical theatre.

 And finally, what does a night at The Wind in the Willows gives audiences? Amphibians, rodents, burrowing animals…it gives them a classic story which has been reinterpreted as a big, grown up, modern musical – it’s got wonderful sets and costumes. I think we offer a different twist on the story. You’ve got your Kenneth Grahame characters but realised in a modern telling.


GT box office strip

Tickets for The Wind in the Willows can be found here.

Tickets for Half A Sixpence can be found here.

More information on Stiles and Drewe can be found here

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