Interview with Half a Sixpence composers George Stiles and Anthony Drewe
George Stiles and Anthony Drewe are two of Britain's foremost musical theatre composers with successful shows such as Honk!, Betty Blue Eyes, Just So and Soho Cinders playing in various productions all around the world. Having previously collaborated with Cameron Mackintosh and Julian Fellowes on the stage musical of Mary Poppins which ran on Broadway as well as a successful run in the West End, the team have reunited on two new musicals that are opening in London.
The first of these shows is a revival of Half a Sixpence which officially opens this evening at the Noel Coward Theatre following a successful summer run at the Chichester Festival Theatre. Having been convinced to board the project by Mackintosh, Stiles and Drewe worked with book writer Julian Fellowes to craft a new version of the musical that manages to feel fresh and contemporary yet maintain the charm of the original British sound.
We caught up with the duo ahead of the London opening to hear more about the development of the show, their future projects and the race to write a new song before press night:
Dom O'Hanlon: Pleasure to meet you both in what must be a very demanding week!
Anthony: In a way I'm thinking our work's done, isn't it George? You should never say that...Cameron might want another new song by tomorrow!
George: We wrote a new song last Friday and put it in...
AD: It was based on one of the songs from the Chichester production and on Friday before opening Cameron said it needed a chorus. It currently doesn't have one, but he thought that it felt like it needed one. It was a song that kept suggesting it was going to burst into a bigger number like “There's No Business Like Show Business”, but it never did. On Friday we wrote most of it, on Saturday we finished it, on Sunday George recorded a demo to send to the actor who was going to have to sing it as well as the orchestrator who was going to have to orchestrate it. On Monday it was rehearsed, Tuesday it was rehearsed with the lighting and the orchestra and it went in on Tuesday night.
DOH: That's amazing – there's a touch of David Merrick and a hotel in New Haven in that story that's quite incredible...
GS: It was the most showbuisness thing I think we've ever done – having a show previewing in the West End and putting a new number in, that was a first for me!
AD: It got a great reaction!
GS: It got the first big reaction of the night. It's sung by Ian Bartholomew in act one and its called “The Joy of the Theatre”.
DOH: Other than that obvious change, what has been the biggest challenge from Chichester to the London production?
GS: The proscenium arch I think for everyone, going from a substantial thrust stage, it has been a big challenge for everyone putting it into a proscenium.
AD: Other than George having to write some different scene change music because of the vastly different time between scenes we didn't have to do a vast amount between the first production and now, whereas the choreography, staging and set design had to change. Although Paul Brown the designer had always known this was a likely home for it he was able to work on a footprint for both the Noel Coward and the main house in Chichester. So we had a scheme in mind, but you never really know. It's different being in a rehearsal room to how it is when you're in the theatre, you realise that the scenery might be loud so may need a swell in the music. I think it's transferred rather well.
DOH: In terms of reworking Half a Sixpence, has it always been a show that you'd wanted to adapt and work on?
GS: Cameron has been after us to try and look at it for quite a few years and we've always batted it away. Partly because we'd already done a 'gussy up' job with Mary Poppins, which in that case was a film and an incredibly famous one with an incredibly famous score and we dared to mess with it and change and adapt existing songs. We didn't feel an overwhelming need to do that again. In my mind Half a Sixpence was a fairly cheesy thing that I knew vaguely as a movie and I can't say I was moved by the idea. However Cameron wouldn't let up, and he thought Julian would be a great addition to it and we loved working with him on Mary Poppins and we were already working with him on The Wind in the Willows. Julian kept saying “Make it go away, make it go away”. Finally Cameron got me on my own and he said now look – here's the score, here's both the recordings from London and New York, here's the script, here's the original novel by HG Wells, go away and find a day or two to read and listen to all of this stuff. But then I loved it.
AD: It was also a ticking clock because it was Jonathan Church's final season at Chichester, so Cameron said if we didn't do it this year we'd have lost the chance to do it at there. We opened in July, and it must have been a year before that that we'd sat down and committed ourselves to do it, so it was all very quick.
DOH: Was it any easier going through the process again after Mary Poppins?
GS: In a way what made it slightly easier was that it was a less well known score so we could be less reverential with the songs. If we really wanted to remove a song altogether because it didn't quite fit what Julian needed it to do, we could, and in other cases it was about moving a song to a different position, adding lyrics to them and adding reprises. It was really a case of Julian coming up with an idea of how the story could be retold with a brand new synopsis and then we would go through it and see what songs still worked and what could be repositioned. One of his masterstrokes was moving “Flash Bang Wallop” to the end of the show, because that's the most famous song from the show so it was proving difficult to do something beyond it, so that was a real masterstroke.
AD: He solved one of the problems that the original didn't solve. Wells worked on the original book for 6 years and he couldn't get it right. It's only in this version I think because it's so far away from when it was first written that Julian could solve the problem: the hero can't decide who he wants to be with until the very end of the story, whereas the book and the original story has him decide who he wants to be with about a third of the way through Act Two, and therefore by some extent the story is over. By delaying that decision but managing to get a lot of the plot that was required for the rest of the story to be effective into the earlier part I think he achieved what Wells didn't manage to and I think that's why it's managed to be so effective.
DOH: What really struck me with Half a Sixpence was the wonderful orchestrations. What's your process like when working with an orchestrator on your music?
GS: I think a lot of people don't understand what orchestration is, and it's incredibly important. The way we've worked with Mary Poppins and also this is we take the piano part very seriously. I write a piano part that reworks everything that the Sherman Brothers have written or in this case what David Heneker wrote, and I rearrange it to what I think is more contemporary and also more timeless. The arrangements that existed for a Half a Sixpence were very, very 1960s - the harmonies, the instrumentation were all so 60s. What we've tried to do is make it sound more timeless, so we've worked with the legendary Bill Brohn, who was brought to Cameron's attention thanks to Miss Saigon. I worked with him that very year doing score layouts for some extra money whilst we were working on Just So. Since then it's been a dream that he would orchestrate one of our shows. He and I hung out in Connecticut and we went through the whole score in five days, we literally went through how the whole show would sound.
DOH: You've had quite a whirlwind year with Travels With My Aunt, Half a Sixpence, Wind in the Willows and a host of new shows. Do you find it difficult to work on multiple projects at once?
AD: I find it hard. Not that it's impossible to do, I just like to get my head space into the world of the musical I'm working on. When we're working on a new show, for example we're going down to France next week to work on the show we're doing with Jerry Mitchell and I know that the first day or two will be me just getting my head back into the style of the piece, the vocabulary that the characters would use, reminding myself of what we've already written, so I don't like doing things disjointedly. Doing three new musicals back to back in the past year has been hard because there's little time between one opening and the next going into rehearsals. We have been pretty hands on throughout the preview period and throughout the rehearsals, and it's hard to concentrate on that when you're then taken out for a meeting about a toad or an 80 year old aunt. Cameron is amazing at it, and he's always been amazing at it – he doesn't drop the ball at all. I feel personally I do drop the ball if I haven't had time to prepare for the next thing to happen. It's been an amazing year, we didn't intend to have three shows this year but they came along like London busses. It's been very exciting.
AD: We're working on Becoming Nancy with Jerry Mitchell and we've got another show after that. Also another show that we've finished called Soapdish that looks like may happen next year. We know we've got The Wind in the Willows into the Palladium now and at the end of the year we might have Soapdish on and then hopefully a workshop for Becoming Nancy, and then this next one in 2019.
GS: Even I'm confused! I quite enjoy it – for me it keeps my brain young switching between things very quickly but it does tire you at the end and it is better when you get a run at things at least for two or three weeks rather than two or three days. I was down in Southampton to see The Wind in the Willows because we hadn't been back. It was really good to go and see it and it was extraordinary to see something you've created only weeks before but it seems like another lifetime.
DOH: How do you choose your sources in terms of what you want to adapt for the stage?
GS: It has to be for me something that I haven't done musically before. I love it to be a challenge. Travels with My Aunt was set in 1969, Becoming Nancy is set in 1979 and the differences in the musical landscape over those ten years is vast so it immediately gives you a great challenge. That's the big thing for me.
AD: We get offered things quite a lot so when it's something that both of us think can work as a musical. The Wind in The Willows was a commission, Half a Sixpence was a commission. Becoming Nancy was through a meeting with Jerry. We were originally asked to write the songs for Kinky Boots and as a result had met Jerry and he read the original book, he read it on a plane, got off the plane and called the publishers straight away and optioned it for a musical, then he asked us to write it. But it varies from show to show, we like to do something different.
DOH: And you seem to enjoy working with animals...
GS: Please no more animals!
AD: George has been saying for years lets stop writing shows for animals. I have a degree in Zoology, so I have an interest in animals. A lot of these stories are as much about people as they are about birds and toads and badgers. There's something I find quite appealing about anthropomorphising these characters and giving them a story that works for adults and children on different levels, and I think Wind in the Willows and Honk! both do that.
DOH: It's fair to say Honk! Is your most well known work around the world – there are countless productions of it on each year. Did you know it was going to be so successful?
AD: We had no idea. When we wrote it in 1993 we were working at the Watermill Theatre where they have ducks walking on the lawn outside. George was in Australia and I'd been to see a production of The Witches so it was packed with families and I thought this is ridiculous – we ought to tap into this. I rang the Watermill and said I had this idea of adapting The Ugly Duckling and they said great – let's do it next Christmas. I met George at the airport and I handed him a 32 page treatment of how it was going to work as a musical and said we were doing it. That was 1993, it was doing as a reading in 1995 in Long Island then Scarborough in 1997 and then two years later at the National Theatre and it became this global thing. Now it's been done all around the world, we've now heard it in a dozen different languages and it just doesn't stop. Don Black says the moment you try to write a hit song in a show is the moment you won't write a hit song. When you try and write a musical and think this is going to be an international hit you wouldn't be able to do it. It just took off.
GS: That's a reason it's so successful – you don't need a lot to do a great production. You can be at university, school, an amateur dramatics company, all you need is some backwards baseball caps and some Doc Martins and off you go. The story of tolerance and the concept that everyone at some point in their life feels different or 'other' is just so universal.
AD: We keep talking about doing a revival of it or a one-off concert, in fact Gavin Creel who has been in Honk! twice and was in Mary Poppins, he said why don't we try and do a great big concert at Carnegie Hall or something as a benefit for an anti-bullying charity, then we can maybe do a smaller production of it somewhere. It's never been on Broadway – we've turned down three productions of it haven't we George? We didn't think the producers got why the show worked and they wanted it to be a huge spectacle. The second you've got a set that's more spectacular than the moment the ugly duckling turns into a swan then you undermine the entire story. At the moment we don't need the qudos of it on Broadway because it's doing so well. So we want to look at it down the line when we have a crack team all ready to go on it, so that's what we're planning.
DOH: Back to Half a Sixpence, why do you think this new production will speak to audiences in London of 2016?
AD: It's got a freshness to it, and for no other reason but to see Charlie Stemp – he's extraordinary and you don't see many performances like that these days. We've found an amazing star who steals the show.
GS: I think having gone back to the novel I think it's a very timeless tale about how you know when you've found the right person in your life. The glorious young cast bring such a burst of energy to the stage every night that the thing feels literally like it could have been written yesterday. David Heneker's melodies have such a timeless feel and that's what got me in the end, they really do stand the test of time. They remain beautiful and joyful and god knows we need that at the minute.