Interview: Two Minute Call

“George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, this is your two minute call…”  Musical theatre writers Stiles & Drewe have penned music and lyrics to a number of successful shows including West End hit Mary Poppins, Honk!, Peter Pan, The Three Musketeers and The Card. On the eve of a new, 25th anniversary production of their first hit, JUST SO, they talk to Westendtheatre.com about their love of Kipling, escape from the world of teaching, and big new Cameron Mackintosh musical Betty Blue Eyes.

George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. Photo: Alastair Muir

George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. Photo by Alastair Muir

What was your first professional project working together?

It was JUST SO, our second musical, which had won the first ever Vivian Ellis Prize and was optioned by Cameron Mackintosh. Cameron then co-produced the show at the Watermill Theatre in May 1989, directed by Julia McKenzie and designed by Mark Thompson.

If someone only sees one musical in their lifetime, what should it be?

SWEENEY TODD changed our lives. It was seeing a small production of the show at The Drum in Plymouth in 1983 that inspired us to start writing together. It is the perfect blend of great music, lyrics and story. Declan Donellan’s production at the RNT in 1993, starring Julia McKenzie and Alun Armstrong, was sublime musical theatre.

What’s your favourite West End theatre venue and why?

Probably the Prince Edward Theatre. Not only has it been beautifully restored, but it is where MARY POPPINS resided for three years. Other happy memories there include the opening night of CHESS in 1986 as guests of Tim Rice, and attending CRAZY FOR YOU with our dear friend, the late and deeply-missed director Mike Ockrent.

Just So, at the Tabard Theatre

Just So, at the Tabard Theatre

If you hadn’t chosen composing and lyric writing what would your chosen professions have been?

Having graduated at Exeter University (George in Music, Ants in Zoology) we both had places at the University’s Post Graduate School of Education. So, if we hadn’t deferred our entry and started writing, we would probably have become Music and Biology teachers respectively. The Education system has a lot to be grateful for!

What first led you to write a musical around Kipling’s Just So Stories?

We had been reading another Kipling story, Rikki Tikki Tavi, to George’s young niece and nephew and something in the playful style of Kipling’s storytelling, and his ‘sing-song’ use of language, led us to re-examine some of his other books.

Is it harder or easier for writers of musicals to get their work produced today?

Getting a musical on has always been hard – there is so much to get right, and producers don’t like to take risks. The good news is the way in which the popularity of musicals seems to go from strength to strength, and regional theatres in both the UK and USA are starting to champion new shows.

Stars of Betty Blue Eyes, Sarah Lancashire and Reece Shearsmith, with producer Cameron Mackintosh (centre)

Stars of Betty Blue Eyes, Sarah Lancashire and Reece Shearsmith, with producer Cameron Mackintosh (centre)

Tell us a secret about how you work together.

George doesn’t like me to be in the same room when he is composing a song. He doesn’t mind me being within earshot, even in the next room! He usually starts away from the piano, reading my lyric through to find his own rhythm for it, before he approaches the piano.

What’s your single most important piece of advice to budding musicals writers?

Keep writing! Listen to everyone’s opinion, but don’t feel you have to agree with everything they say. Open yourself up to collaborate – putting on a musical is the ultimate example of teamwork. Don’t give up, we’ve been writing together for nearly 28 years of which it took the first 17 years before we felt we had arrived.

Your next project is Betty Blue Eyes at the Novello Theatre. How did you come to adapt Alan Bennett and Malcolm Mowbray’s screenplay?

We were approached by the two American bookwriters, Ron Cowen and Dan Lipman, who had watched the film and thought it would make a musical. By good fortune we were recommended to them as songwriters for the project by one of their old school friends, Stephen Schwartz.

* * * *

A brand new production of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe’s musical JUST SO, adapted from Rudyard Kipling’s timeless Just So Stories and directed by Andrew Keates, runs at the Tabard Theatre in London from 1 December 2010 to 9 January 2011. Book tickets at www.tabardweb.co.uk. Their new musical BETTY BLUE EYES, based on the award-winning film A Private Function, opens at the Novello Theatre from 19 March 2011 starring Sarah Lancashire and Reece Shearsmith and directed by Richard Eyre.

LINKS

Book tickets to Betty Blue Eyes at the Novello Theatre in London