In the week that Disney and Cameron Mackintosh announced a new UK & Ireland tour of Mary Poppins, I met with the show’s talented lyricist, Anthony Drewe. Anthony and his writing partner George Stiles are best known for their musicals Just So, Honk! and Betty Blue Eyes as well as additional songs for the hugely successful stage version of Mary Poppins. Yet there is an awful lot more to this versatile actor, director, writer and artist and while the tea infuses, we chat about everything from Spielberg to Sondheim.
Stiles & Drewe are synonymous with British Musical Theatre. How did you and George first meet?
We met at Exeter University. My brother had gone to Maidstone Grammar School and then to the Royal College of Music. He had started writing musicals and Maidstone Grammar began producing them and I appeared in those. I already had an interest in musicals when I went to Exeter and I really wanted to help get my brother’s work staged. So, I directed his first musical, and found I was competing against George who was directing the Pirates of Penzance. I had to go and get permission to use the Northcott Theatre because they ordinarily gave it to the Gilbert & Sullivan Society every year. I approached Stewart Trotter, the Artistic Director and asked whether, if I formed a new Society in the University to do new musicals, I could have a week in the Theatre? He liked the idea, so in my second year I directed my brother’s musical, and it went well and made money. Stewart asked me if I would do a show the following year – my brother had written another one – and we cast George in that.
So we met, in a nice way, as rivals. People said we were so similar that we would never get on. We were always competing for the same talent, especially the boys, to be in our shows.
And the Northcott Theatre is part of the University?
Yes, and that had a big influence on us. The Northcott was built on the campus – Exeter University donated the site and the Arts Council and local organisations built the Theatre, which is professionally run. George had started writing music for some of Stewart Trotter’s productions, and then for visiting directors. Nick Hytner directed Anthony Schaffer’s Murderer, the first 20 minutes of which is all action – no dialogue. George wrote the score, and that’s how we met Nick. I think that was only the second show he ever directed. Stephen Pimlott, likewise, came and directed Deathtrap and George wrote a synthesized thunderstorm for that. So then we asked Stewart Trotter, if we wrote a musical, whether we could stage that the following year at the Northcott. We booked the theatre before we graduated – and then we knew we had nine months to come up with an idea, to write it, and direct it! That was March 1984.
And what was that first Stiles & Drewe show?
Well, the inspiration came from seeing Sweeney Todd. My brother’s show, Sour Grapes, had just closed and the following day George and I drove down to Plymouth to see a production of Sweeney Todd. We were driving back and we said “Shall we try and write a musical”? At the time I had a place at teacher training college to teach Biology and George had a place to teach Music: We said “Shall we defer for a year, write a musical, and if it works, we won’t become teachers?” And that’s what we did – the show was Tutankhamun. I must have been about 21. My parents were completely supportive, but even so, I got to about 25 and they said “how long are you going to give it?” We were making a living writing, but it was all a bit hand-to-mouth and we were having to sell rights to keep going. We did a deal with Warner Brothers Music Publishing – later Warner Chappell – and they signed us up and gave us enough money to live on for two years. That gave us time, and we wrote Just So, which won the Vivien Ellis Prize in London, and that’s where we met Cameron.
So Cameron Mackintosh was one of the judges on the Vivien Ellis Prize?
Yes. Originally it was going to be a one off competition to honour Vivien Ellis’s 80th birthday. The judges were Tim Rice, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cameron Mackintosh, Mike Batt, Don Black, David Heneker, Dan Crawford who ran the Kings Head, Jonathon Simon who ran Really Useful Group’s music publishing, and John Hosier who was the Principal at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. I’ve still got the certificate at home.
I remember, Cameron was standing beside us in the line-up to have our photograph taken and said to George “So, what are you going to do with Just So now?” George turned to him and said “What are you going to do with it?” I think Cameron was slightly taken aback! He said, give me a call – so we called him the next day and arranged to meet and talk about the future for the show. At that stage we already had a production lined up at the Barbican Theatre in Plymouth, a tiny theatre on the Hoe, and Cameron came down to see it. He even got some sound equipment from Autograph Sound for us because they hadn’t got much of a budget – so that’s how our relationship started with Cameron. In fact I’ve just been on a little trip with him in France. I said, “It was April 26th 1985 that we won the Vivien Ellis…this year will be our 30th Anniversary” and so we’ve put in in the diary to have a little anniversary dinner.
Do you think those kinds of opportunity still exist for young writers?
They do. George and I are both on the board of Mercury Musicals http://mercurymusicals.com/ and we get a big grant from the Arts Council, together with the Musical Theatre Network http://www.musicaltheatrenetwork.com/ and between the two, there are lots of new things coming up; festivals, showcases…we give the Stiles and Drewe Best Song prize every year which is coupled with the Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year http://sondheim.org/ .
George and I are planning to instigate a writer’s retreat after the Stiles and Drewe prize where whoever wins it in coming years will also come down to the house in France. We’ll go down there and mentor an intensive workshop, going through their story, and how they write.
What are the submission criteria for the Stiles & Drewe Prize?
Well it’s changed a little this year. Sondheim agreed to his name being used for the Student Performer of the Year only if it included new writing. So each of the twelve competing students – drawn from all the drama schools around the country through an audition process – choose a Sondheim song. But they also choose a new song from among a pool of twenty which in turn have been whittled down from over a hundred for the Stiles and Drewe Prize. Of course in theory the students may not choose the twelve best songs, so we will also mention a song if we think it’s particularly good, meet the writers and congratulate them. This year, the songs do have to be from a show – we were getting some great cabaret songs – but it’s really about musical theatre. We ask for a page to put the song in context within the show, and it has to be a show that’s being written, not one which has been professionally produced. The submissions also have to be solos because of the way they are performed in the competition.
Which of the past entries really stand out for you?
There’s a writer, Tamar Broadbent who was runner-up one year, and won the next, who has really carved out a career for herself. She writes both music and lyrics as well as performing. Her songs have a wonderful modern edge.
If Bridget Jones Diary became available again, she’d be wonderful – she’s that kind of writer. She does Edinburgh every year, and she’s a great Cabaret artist. We met for breakfast one time, and suggested she write a musical. She would work wonderfully with a book writer. You find a lot of people, wannabe Sondheims, who want to write book, music and lyrics, but there will always be a weaker of the three disciplines. Whereas if you bring in another talent, it’s like cross-pollination of ideas. Like us now working with Elliot Davis…
Elliot Davis, as in West End show Loserville?
Yes. Elliot http://www.elliotdavis.co.uk/ co-wrote Loserville (with James Bourne), and is one of my best friends. When Soho Cinders went from being a concert to a stage show, I knew I wanted somebody else to work on the script with me. I wrote the original script, but the plot was too complicated. Although I’d written the book for Honk! and Just So, working on Mary Poppins with Julian Fellowes – who we’re also working on Half a Sixpence with – was great because it meant there was a third person in the room with George and me. I’ve always felt more secure writing lyrics than writing the book. I like to be able to bounce ideas off someone…Elliot and I have very similar senses of humour; sometimes we’ll write a joke on top of a joke – or a hat on a hat as I always say – and it needs one or the other of us to say “no, we’re going too far off character”.
I gave Elliot the Soho Cinders script and asked him to rework that, and then we did the final pass together. In fact we’re doing the same thing on a new show that we’re working on with Jerry Mitchell, the American choreographer and director.
That sounds exciting! What’s the name of the new show?
Ah, that’s top secret! I can tell you the show is set in 1979. For George and me it’s a perfect moment in our education – the era of Blondie, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Madness and Abba. The end of the ‘70s was a great time musically. The show is set in a South London Comprehensive School where they’re doing a very well known Musical, and the Drama teacher doesn’t think there’s a girl in the school who can play the lead character and so gives the part to a boy. When the show starts, he doesn’t know whether he’s gay or straight – he’s never even thought about it. By the time he’s introduced to the guy playing opposite (who’s the head of the School Football team) he realises he is gay and falls in love. It’s got a wonderful “kitchen sink drama” element to it.
And Jerry Mitchell approached you with the idea?
Yes. Jerry was on a flight from London to New York, reading the book the show is based on and immediately rang to see if he could get the option. George and I had been considered to write the songs for Kinky Boots which Jerry directed & choreographed. We actually discussed the new project over the phone – I’d introduced myself to Jerry when he came over to do Legally Blonde. And Jerry targeted us! He said “It’s a London based story, and I just think your humour is wonderful”.
George and Jerry and Elliot and I acquired the rights together from the author. It works on many levels….and it’s ever so rude! There’s a scene where a guy is getting off with his best friend and he’s thinking about Sting while he’s doing it. I think it’s really going to resonate with young people, but it’s as much about parents coming to terms with having a gay child as a guy coming out, which these days isn’t such a big deal…but in 1979 it still was. It touches on fascism and it’s got a few political statements to make; it’s the year Thatcher came to power and having had a fairly open immigration policy with lots of Ugandans coming over to escape Idi Amin’s brutal regime and Thatcher put a block on a lot of people coming into the country. There’s an interesting dark side to it – there’s a National Front rally. There’s a school geek who infiltrates the neo-nazis. It’s also very, very funny and very, very rude. Kylie Minogue is a huge fan of the book – in fact it’s her name that’s quoted on the cover.
Did you get to meet Kylie when she did the voiceover for Betty Blue Eyes?
Yes! Betty, the pig in the show isn’t meant to sing, but Cameron thought it would be funny if it sang the final line of the show. Cameron invited us to go to Paris and meet Kylie, where she was doing one of the final legs of her Mighty Aphrodite tour…and then we got the message that she couldn’t meet us in Paris, so could we come to Amsterdam instead? So we flew to Amsterdam and had about 45 minutes with her and she was just delightful and completely adorable. When we saw her she had just flown in from Paris…and we heard her coming down the corridor singing Betty Blue Eyes!
When she got into the room with us, she thought she was going to do the whole song – not just the last line. She tried it lots of different ways and she just couldn’t have been nicer. She came to see the show, met the company…she even recorded a video message for the whole cast on opening night. Of all the companies that I have ever worked with, that was the happiest…and the most devastated when the show closed. I remember Cameron hugging me on closing night and saying “This isn’t the end of it”. Since then, there’s been a tour and it’s played across the States in Austin, Texas and Milwaukee. Our work has travelled rather a lot – especially Honk!
How much did Honk! winning the Olivier Award change things for you and George?
Enormously. And it happened just before we both turned forty. We’ve never done anything except write, either here in the UK or in America. We were both thirty-nine, and I remember George saying “We’re never going to be the next Tim Rice or Andrew Lloyd Webber, so do we carry on or do we just call it a day?” And I said to myself, no, I’m doing something I love and I’m making a living at it….and then we won the Olivier! I could really wrap everything up into just that one moment. And Honk! suddenly became known all around the world because it beat The Lion King.
Tim Rice wrote to us and said “Well done Lads, I’m so glad” and Peter Schneider, the head of Disney Pictures wrote to congratulate us too! Cameron was producing Mary Poppins with Disney, and he always wanted us to do Poppins, but up until then Disney had always wanted a sort of Alan Menken/Tim Rice partnership. But when we beat them, they said to Cameron, “Okay, let’s meet these guys”. But more than that, winning against the Lion King made Honk!! a worldwide name – within days we had productions lined up in Japan and America – I think now there have been something like 8,000 productions worldwide. I have it set up on google alerts, and just about every other day that pops up with another production – there’s also interest from some West End Theatres to do it again and on Broadway too. But we’ve actually turned down Broadway four times because we didn’t think they got it – they were going to turn it into something it’s not. The minute you add big special effects, you’ve got nowhere left to go. There’s something quaint about how that show works and the way it touches people. It’s got a strong anti-bullying message and in fact, if we do a concert we’d like to do it in conjunction with an anti-bullying charity. It’s still something that I worry about in schools…and in society. My nephews have mixed heritage and still if we fly anywhere they will get pulled out in the line just because of the way they look.
And I believe one of those nephews is Solomon Akhtar, a finalist on the most recent series of The Apprentice?
That’s him. Solomon’s mum is my sister, his dad is from Pakistan, and at five years old he was getting racist abuse. I thought “I’m going to write something which is about being a minority, about being persecuted”. Those early years of Solomon’s life really inspired me to write Honk!
The Apprentice must really have changed Solomon’s life?
“Absolutely. Solomon already worked in Social Media, but even on that front The Apprentice was quite incredible. Before the show Solomon had less followers than me, and by the time the show went out, his social media account alone had 44,000 followers.
Solomon turns 24 next week – he loves the whole Twitter and Facebook world. I do Treks to raise money for Charity and the first one I ever did, I raised all the money by going on Facebook and Twitter and just saying “Please sponsor my Trek”. That first year I did it I trekked to the Himalayas and I raised £4000 on Facebook alone!
You’re an experienced trekker now – you must have been to some amazing places?
The first one was the Himalayas, where we got snowed in 4,500m above sea level for three days – and it was minus 7 inside the tent! You unzip the tent and everything is white. You have no idea where the ground stops and the sky starts. The next one was Machu Picchu, then Cuba and then last year I did Burma.
I had altitude sickness in Machu Picchu and Cuba was hot…and muddy. Burma was hot but it wasn’t oppressive. We went from Monastery to Monastery sleeping on wooden floors; no running water, no toilets and no showers – so that was interesting (he chuckles).This year I’m planning to do the Sahara Desert – If I’m not in rehearsals!
And who do you trek with?
My friend Elliot Davis, who I wrote Soho Cinders with. We’re the only theatre people in a fantastic group. There are people from the brewery Industry, an architect, a girl who runs a café in Ireland….it’s amazing. It’s become one of the highlights of my year and this year I’ve got them all coming to stay with me in France. The Treks are always for the Teenage Cancer Trust https://www.teenagecancertrust.org/ . Elliot got me involved through a visit to see Maggie Darling (Alistair Darling’s wife) at No.11 Downing Street. They were trying to raise awareness of young people with cancer. They wanted to get people from the fashion and music industries involved – Mark Ronson was there for example – and it got to the point in the evening when I assumed they wanted us to write a cheque, but instead they said “would you do something to raise the profile of the charity?” I thought “I don’t mind that, take a few days out and go for a walk” – of course it turned out to be rather more than a walk! Normally there’s a paramedic, a professional mountaineer and a local guide….and every trip I’ve been on, the paramedic’s been sick and had to be taken back down on a horse or a yak. Fortunately Solomon’s dad, my brother-in-law, is a doctor and always packs me some hypodermic needles and some powerful antibiotics just in case!
Is there anything you wouldn’t do?
Yes! I wouldn’t throw myself out of an aeroplane and I definitely wouldn’t bungee jump!
You can find George Stiles and Anthony Drewe on facebook at https://www.facebook.com/stilesanddrewe
You can also find out lots more about this amazing writing duo at http://stilesanddrewe.biz/
Read part two of our interview with Anthony Drewe as we chat Steven Spielberg, Soap Dish and Kristin Chenoweth.
Really enjoyed reading this interview. I’m always interested to learn how different people got started in the industry and find out about how passionate they are about what they do. Thanks!