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Interview with Julian Fellowes, the West End's busiest musical book writer
Academy Award-winner Julian Fellowes has suddenly become the West End's busiest bookwriter. Since winning the Oscar for his screenplay of 'Gosford Park', he has become internationally renowned for creating the hit ITV period drama 'Downton Abbey', which ran for its final season in 2015. Having previously worked on the musical adaptation of Disney and Cameron Mackintosh's Mary Poppins alongside George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, this week sees two of his musicals open in London's West End, with a third currently on UK tour ahead of a London bow at the London Palladium in Summer 2017.
Book writers are notoriously the forgotten core of any musical theatre team, and the art of shaping a new musical or adapted revival often hinges solely on the skills of the book writer as a dramaturg, editor and script writer. Collaborating alongside the songwriters, director and lyricist, it is the book writer's job to ensure that each song is placed in the most appropriate slot, so that each number reaches its maximum potential. At the same time, they're responsible for ensuring the narrative sense and story telling of the show is clear to an audience, juggling both plot and character to come together in an effective and powerful manner.
After being nominated for the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical at the 2016 ceremony, our New York Editor caught up with Fellowes to find out more about the three projects he is currently attached to - School of Rock the Musical with Andrew Lloyd Webber, the revival of Half a Sixpence and the new musical version of The Wind in the Willows which has been created alongside Stiles and Drewe.
Discussing the genesis of School of Rock, Fellowes stated how the initial idea came from Lloyd Webber himself: "Andrew had the idea and bought the rights to adapt the film and he then came to me and asked me if I’d be interested in doing it", Fellowes explained. "Of course, I was a surprising choice, in a way, for a rock musical, but anyway, the collaboration seems to have worked. It was a very fun job to be involved with because we all got on very well. We’re all quite alike and had great chemistry, so it was a very nice job actually, and I’ve got no sad tales to tell!"
Having not worked with Lloyd Webber before, he spoke about the process of adapting School of Rock from the pre-existing screenplay and the specific challenges that doing so presents:
"Andrew completely dictated the musical side of it, but it was my job to write a book that would slightly open the story up to a broader audience. I loved the film but the audience for a Broadway musical is slightly different from that of a movie, so that was partly my job. In some instances, I would guess where the songs were going to come, then Andrew would read the script with Laurence and they would say: “No, we’re going to do this instead. This is where that number should come and not there,” and so on. Gradually you have this kind of emerging shape. It’s all very collaborative. It goes back and forth, back and forth until all of those different departments are happy."
Talking about his transition from screenwriter to musical theatre, Fellowes stated that he was very "lucky" to be chosen to work on Mary Poppins as the timing of it emerging in 2002 came just one month after him winning the Oscar for 'Gosford Park'. "I was in the news and I had just written something of a similar era, so I became a likely choice for something like ‘Mary Poppins.’ To be honest, I think if they had settled it six months before, you would now be talking to Tom Stoppard!"
The process of adapting P.L Travers' short stories into one narrative for Mary Poppins seems similar to working on The Wind in the Willows. "Essentially the book is in the form of short stories, so I had to take episodic work and turn it into a stand-alone story, which I hope I’ve managed to do. But it is Kenneth Grahame’s ‘The Wind in the Willows.’ It’s not anyone else’s."
For Half a Sixpence Fellowes has once again turned back to the original book, the H.G. Wells novel “Kipps” which was the original basis of the 1963 musical. "It was very much designed as a star vehicle for him and was immensely successful" he explains. "This version is not really a star vehicle in that sense. It’s not built around a star. It’s closer to the novel really. I never want to talk as if I think I’m improving everything, it’s just different. It’s got a different balance and it’s closer to H.G. Wells’ novel."
All three of Fellowes' musicals have received excellent critical notices, with Lloyd Webber commenting this week that he was "not used to this" in reference to the "best reviews I have ever had".
"We can only ever do our best" comments Fellowes. He was hopeful that School of Rock would enjoy the similar success to the New York production which was nominated for the Tony Award for Best New Musical, losing out to Hamilton. "I think it’s a good show and I really enjoyed watching it" he stated. "I saw it many, many times, obviously, before I came back from New York, after we opened. I thought it was a great evening out. It was a real feel-good evening. I like it when people come out of my shows happier than when they went in."
Don't miss Julian Fellowes in Conversation on February 10 at the Hampstead Theatre