An Interview with Olivier Award winner Anthony Drewe – Part II

Anthony Drewe with writing partner George Stiles

In the second part of our two part interview with Anthony Drewe , we talk more to this versatile Actor, Director, Writer and Artist about his work with George Stiles on musicals like Mary Poppins, Peter Pan and Travels with My Aunt, work-shopping Soap Dish with Kristin Chenoweth, writing with Downton Abbey creator Lord Julian Fellowes and spending time in LA with Steven Spielberg.

Anthony, thanks again for giving us so much of your time. Your diary must be pretty full – how do you find time to see new productions of your shows?

I remember when we adapted Peter Pan, the show was opening in Denmark: The Danish production got behind in technical rehearsals and I only had a day, so I saw the tech but I never saw the production in front of a live audience because I was working on Honk! at the National Theatre. Usually either George or I can be there, but I do remember one Christmas we had three shows opening in the same week, and that was impossible. You want to see all of them, but the new one has to take precedence as that may need changes made.

Peter Pan - the boy who never grew up.
Peter Pan – the boy who never grew up. Image from Birmingham production.

http://www.stilesanddrewe.biz/peter_pan/

Do you find it a challenge juggling so many projects?

I was speaking to George about that just a few days ago. We had ten days in France just before Christmas re-working Half a Sixpence. If we’d had a month then I’d have finished it, but then it was Christmas, and we were straight into working on Travels with My Aunt, which had a workshop deadline. This past week I was working on the new project with Jerry Mitchell because he was in town for a few days, so we played him six songs. I go to Singapore on Thursday to direct two shows, and then I have four days on my own in France. There’s a Soho Cinders rewrite, then Half a Sixpence for five weeks and then back onto the Jerry Mitchell project. Everything is in the diary – it has to be so that George knows what’s happening. George’s partner, Hugh Vanstone, is a brilliant lighting designer with a wall full of Olivier Awards… Hugh has just done Closer at the Donmar and is going to work in the US for five weeks, so George asked if I wanted to go to France for a month or so. The real difficulty is getting time off to spend with my parents, siblings and ten nieces and nephews.

And you mentioned that you’re re-working Half a Sixpence?

*UPDATE: Since this article was published, Half A Sixpence has received rave reviews at Chichester Festival Theatre and will open in the West End in Autumn 2016 at the Noel Coward Theatre. Tickets for Half A Sixpence are on sale now.*

David Heneker, who George and I knew in his later years was a wonderful composer and lyricist. The original Half a Sixpence was written as a star vehicle for Tommy Steele with a book by Beverley Cross, who was one of Maggie Smith’s husbands. It ran for about two years in the West End and made a big theatre star of Tommy Steele who was already a pop star.

Flash, Bang, Wallop! It's David Heneker.
David Heneker, writer of Half a Sixpence which made a musical theatre star of Tommy Steele.

David Heneker was the last Brit to have two shows running at the same time on Broadway, as well as in the West End – until Lloyd Webber came along. He wrote Charlie’s Aunt, Half a Sixpence and Irma La Douce. Cameron (Mackintosh) spoke to George and I and said that the reason Half A Sixpence has never been revived is that the show doesn’t hang together. So he wanted us to do exactly what we did with Mary Poppins which was to put some new songs in, in the style of David Heneker, to unpick some of the songs already there and to write in some new sections and also to undo the “star vehicle” quality – I think there were seventeen songs in the original show and Tommy Steele sang fifteen of them! The book, Kipps, by H G Wells makes more of a social point than the original stage show. Cameron asked us to take on the project with Julian Fellowes who we worked with on Mary Poppins. So far I’ve added some sections, written a new lyric to an old tune and also penned a completely new number which George is setting to music. Julian has done a pass of the whole book already, but obviously he’s rather busy with Downton Abbey!

Do you enjoy working in so many collaborative styles?

Our current projects are all so different – working with Elliot Davis on Soho Cinders, Robert Harling on Soap Dish, Ron Cowen and Dan Lipman on Travels with my Aunt and with Julian Fellowes on The Wind in the Willows. It’s always that cross-pollination of ideas. When I played Cameron some of Soho Cinders he said he never would have thought it was by George and me…and I quite liked that. With Mary Poppins, we had to write in the style of the Sherman Brothers.

Writing Royalty: The team who gave birth to classic movie soundtracks Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Slipper & The Rose
Writing Royalty: The Sherman Brothers gave birth to such classic movie soundtracks as Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Slipper & The Rose

We did go out on a limb with “Temper, Temper”, but “Practically Perfect” could have been written by the Shermans themselves. It’s the repetition and use of the title – we really studied how they write. They’ll take a title and keep using it and layering it. The Sherman Brothers said they wished they’d written it which was a huge compliment!

How do you choose your next project?

Well for example, our next projects are kids’ shows. I’ve worked a lot in Singapore, both as an actor and a director – in fact almost every year since 1997. The guy that runs things asked me to write a show…he has a big market for 3-6 year olds. Brand recognition is very important – shows like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves for example – but the problem with that is that is the size of the cast. He wanted a show with a maximum cast of about five. So I had the idea for a trilogy of trios. I’ve written the Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and the Three Billy Goats Gruff. They were shows that came from me, but were written to a brief. We do have to turn down a lot of things, and I do need to get away from shows with animals!

Although you have a zoology degree?

Yes indeed. My agent said “Darling, you have got to stop doing these animal shows!” But they’re not really animal shows, they’re fables. It’s like taking Cinderella and turning it into Soho Cinders – it’s all about the story underneath. Honk! is about the Ugly Duckling, but then I’d say that every movie that Barbara Streisand ever made was about the Ugly Duckling. If you think about Yentl or Funny Girl, they’re fairy stories. The fact that we might tell the story through the eyes of animals is so that children can enjoy it. In all of our shows it’s really important to see the actors’ faces and the human emotion. Its anthropomorphism – but we always stress to the designer the important to seeing an actor’s face. If we can inspire a love of theatre in young people then that’s wonderful.

Was that the inspiration to write a musical version of Peter Pan?

Actually it was suggested by Steven Spielberg. He’d just made Hook, in 1992, and had bought the rights to our musical, Just So.

Spielberg "I haven't"
Cameron turned to us as said “Why don’t you both write a new musical and maybe Steven will film it?”

Cameron, George and I flew out to LA and spent two weeks with Steven, to discuss how we could turn our Just So into animation. And one night over dinner Spielberg said “I don’t think I’ve got the Peter Pan thing of my system”. So Cameron turned to us and said “Why don’t you both write a new musical and maybe Steven will film it?” That’s when the seed was sown…

Of your current work, are there shows which you chose just for the joy of writing?

Yes, Travels with My Aunt is a show we decided to write for ourselves. We’re working on it with the guys who wrote Betty Blue Eyes with us – two American guys, Ron Cowen and Dan Lipman who approached us with A Private Function via our website. At the time we were busy with Mary Poppins on Broadway so we couldn’t commit to it, but as soon as Poppins had opened they contacted us again. We were in LA anyway, so we agreed to meet them, expecting to let them down gently. We met them for coffee at 11 o’clock in the morning…and we were still there at 11 o’clock that night. They’re like the Sherman Brothers – complete anglophiles. They love writers like Alan Bennett and Graham Greene…where everything is a grey area and nothing is black or white: where morality is always a bit blurred around the edges.

We wanted the rights for Travels with My Aunt, which at first weren’t available. As soon as they became free we snapped them up. We’ve just done a full workshop with Maureen Lipman, and it looks like it will be happening in 2016. The shows that have come to us were Mary Poppins, Half a Sixpence and The Wind in The Willows. Oh….and of course Soap Dish.

"I can write a bitch!" Saly Field in the delightfully bitchy 1991 film Soap DIsh.
“Oh, I can write a bitch!” Sally Field in the delightfully catty 1991 film, Soap Dish which is getting a Stiles & Drewe musical makeover.


Tell us all about Soap Dish!

In the film, Sally Field plays actress Celeste Talbert playing a character called “Maggie” in a TV Soap called The Sun Also Sets. In many ways it was ahead of its time. My parents watched it slightly confused – is this Maggie or Celeste? The same guy wrote the book and the film and when you read it, it will say “Celeste (as Maggie)”. We’ve finished the show. Kristin Chenoweth has done two workshops for us already and we’re really hoping that she’ll be playing the part when it comes to the stage. She is this little powerhouse, such fun and she sings like an angel. I can’t see where her lungs would fit because she’s so tiny!

Bobby Harling wrote the book, and knew Kristin because he wrote another show she was in called Good Christian Bitches – although they couldn’t call it that in America – they had to call it GCB. He’s a lovely man and he lives in Louisiana. He also wrote Steel Magnolias and when they were filming that, Dolly Parton, Julia Roberts and Sally Field all moved into the area. Every night, Bobby went out to dinner with them…and one night Sally Field said “no-one ever writes me a part as a bitch – I always get theses cuddly mumsy characters.” And Bobby said “Oh, I can write a bitch!” and that’s really how Soap Dish came about.

Kristin Chenoweth and Sally Field - Film Celeste meets Musical Celeste
Kristin Chenoweth and Sally Field – Musical Theatre Celeste meets the Movie Celeste…neither actress was injured in the diva-off.

Do you have a date for Soap Dish to open?

We’re just looking for a lead producer. That was going to be Broadway Across America but they suffered a heavy loss on Big Fish and then decided they wouldn’t produce any more new shows. So it’s been a bit held up, but it’s looking good. It’s been a while since Betty Blue Eyes, but we’ve got so many shows about to open; Three Little Pigs in the summer, The Wind in The Willows in the autumn, and then Half a Sixpence in the spring or autumn which will be produced in a UK theatre along with Travels with My Aunt. There will also be a big workshop of the show we’re working on with Jerry Mitchell next summer.

Do you have a big team around you?

Actually George and I have just taken someone on, for the first time in 32 years of writing together, Lettie Graham. Lettie is running our Creative and Business Development – and she’s fantastic. She went through the Stage One Producer’s scheme, so she has production nous. George and I will be producing a show this summer and I’m directing, but Lettie is taking care of the day to day budgets, Twitter, Facebook, and a new website which we’ve been perfecting over the past six months and that’s about to go live – www.stilesanddrewe.biz .

You’ve written so many great numbers – do you have a soft spot for a particular one of your songs?

In fact, someone asked me that just the other day – George and I were doing a sort of “Mr & Mrs” and George said he thought mine would be “Does The Moment Ever Come”….which it kind of is actually. We’ve written a song for The Wind In The Willows called “A Place To Come Back To” and I was so pleased with it I said “You can play this at my funeral” and I’ve obviously said that about more than one because Julian said “It’s going to be a very long funeral dear…”

Oscar winner Julian Fellowes
Oscar winner, Lord Julian Fellowes “It’s going to be a very long funeral, dear…”

I was very pleased with “Different” from Honk! when I wrote it. George was away in Australia when I wrote the lyric. Occasionally that happens. I wrote the title song from Betty Blue Eyes when George was on holiday – I usually write a bit of a lyric and give it to him, and he’ll come back and say “I want the music to do this…” Some songs I know exactly what I want to do with it, and I’ll write the whole thing before I give it to George.

Will George ever suggest a lyric or you suggest a melody?

George won’t really suggest a lyric, but he might suggest a certain number of syllables in a sentence because musically he wants it to go somewhere – and I don’t have any involvement in the music unless I’m saying “that sounds like something else” – it drives him crazy! Sometimes it will just remind me of something he’s written rather than something by somebody else.

What do you think was your early “key moment” as a writing team?

It was because during our student years we built up that trust with Stewart Trotter and he was so thrilled with the success of Tutankhamun. It did eight performances and totally sold out. The day after we closed, he called us up to London. We stayed with him and his wife in his flat in London, and he took us to a preview of Starlight Express – and perhaps more importantly for me, he introduced me to Little Shop of Horrors. He said “You’ve got to listen to this!” and now I’m a huge fan of Alan Menken & Howard Ashman and I know Alan, I’ve met him a few times now.

Did things change quickly after Tutankhamun?

After Tutankhamun, George and I took a holiday to Tenerife, and when we came back, everyone knew we had been talking to Warner Brothers…and the rumour was that we’d sold the rights for a hundred grand and disappeared! Of course we hadn’t done anything of the sort…we’d gone on holiday because we were exhausted! But we did do a deal, and that kept us going for two years. Warner Brothers were very good to us. When I look back on the people who have been so important to us, it’s been people like Cameron Mackintosh, and John Stirling who was Diana Rigg’s brother-in-law and managing director of Warner Brothers.

Cameron
“When I look back on the people who have been so important to us, it’s been people like Cameron Mackintosh….”

He’d just signed Bananarama and Chaka Khan that week, and said “I don’t know what I’m gonna do with you boys, because I don’t do musical theatre. But I just know that I like you, and I want you to have money to live on for two years so that you don’t have to become teachers”. And we never did.

Thank you – you’ve been very generous with your time. Before we part, I have to ask, from the many great musicals out there…what’s your favourite show?

Sweeney Todd, because I never tire of it and it was that which got us started – and it’s the fusion of comedy and darkness, music and lyrics. And I’d never seen a Sondheim show until I saw that. And now I know Stephen really well – I actually wrote a song with him last year. Elaine Paige asked Stephen if he would rewrite “I’m Still Here” from Follies and Sondheim said “It’s too complicated a rhyming scheme…and too long. Ask Anthony.” So Cameron rang me and asked would I do this favour for Stephen and Elaine. I did it – it took me three days – for the Royal Albert Hall, and she’s actually going to do it for the Stiles and Drewe prize this year as a treat. And they’re doing Follies at the Albert Hall this year – Elliot is producing. So…I love Sweeney Todd, I love Follies…I love most Sondheim shows, but Sweeney Todd is my favourite. I love Little Shop of Horrors, I love Guys & Dolls. I love a lot of Rodgers & Hammerstein shows. When you’re young, you think they’re a bit old fashioned, but you realise as you get older just how good they are.

And if you DO ever get time to relax?

I can watch a whole series of 24 in just three days! That’s the only time I ever watch television – in fact I don’t even have a television. I don’t want to be distracted, although I did watch my nephew Solomon in The Apprentice…

*

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/

*UPDATE: Since this article was published, Half A Sixpence has received rave reviews at Chichester Festival Theatre and will open in the West End in Autumn 2016 at the Noel Coward Theatre. Tickets for Half A Sixpence are on sale now.*