Interview – George Stiles and Anthony Drewe on a Chichester double and nurturing new writers

Roy Tan

As busy as ever – songwriters George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. Picture: Roy Tan

Travels With My Aunt, which has just opened at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester, is the latest in a string of acclaimed shows by one the UK’s most successful show-writing partnerships, GEORGE STILES and ANTHONY DREWE (George and Ants). The pair met 30-odd years ago at Exeter University and went on to compose award-winning shows across a wide spectrum of subject matter, from – among other things – a musicalisation of the movie A Private Function (Betty Blue Eyes) and Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling (Honk!) to a modern-day gay retelling of Cinderella (Soho Cinders) and, most successfully, a revamping of the Disney classic Mary Poppins.

Their newest venture to reach the stage is an adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1969 novel Travels With My Aunt, which stars Patricia Hodge as the titular relative. One of many projects currently underway from the tireless twosome, the show is a whistlestop tour around the globe following Aunt Augusta as she acquaints herself with her nephew, played by Steven Pacey.

In a Chichester double for the writers, their new stage version of Half a Sixpence will play at the Festival Theatre from 14 July until 3 September. This is a completely fresh version which reunites Stiles and Drewe and book-writer Julian Fellowes (Mary Poppins). The score is inspired by and features several of composer David Heneker’s songs from the original production, including ‘Flash Bang Wallop’, ‘Money to Burn’ and ‘Half a Sixpence’.

Craig Glenday spoke first with Anthony, then George, about the genesis of Travels With My Aunt, and also discussed the pair’s role in the upcoming Sondheim Society/Mercury Musical Developments competitions to find the Student Performer of the Year and the Best New Song – an annual competition that this year, the tenth anniversary, will feature the introduction of a new mentorship award: the MTI (Music Theatre International)-sponsored Stiles + Drewe Prize.

Patricia Hodge and Steven Pacey in Travels With My Aunt at the Chichester Festival Theatre. Picture: Roy Tan

Patricia Hodge and Steven Pacey in Travels With My Aunt at the Chichester Festival Theatre. Picture: Roy Tan

Congratulations on Travels With My Aunt – how’s it coming along?

Anthony Drewe: The previews went really, really well. We’re very happy at the moment. We made a few little nips and tucks, which we always do at the preview stage, but we’re thrilled with the way it’s going. The cast is amazing and it’s just great to be back in Chichester because we haven’t worked here since I directed Just So here in the main house in 2004. It’s like London buses, you know? Nothing and then suddenly two back to back in the same season – it’s wonderful.

What’s it like working in Chichester? 

Anthony: It’s lovely. In a way, the Minerva, where we’re doing Travels With My Aunt, is kind of a perfect space for a show like this. You have to be imaginative with the way it’s staged, because it moves from location to location. The Minerva is like a miniature version of the main house here – it’s still a thrust stage – but it’s a great size audience. It just seems to be the perfect place to try out a new show, I think.

It’s quite a small space for such an ambitious show, isn’t it?

Anthony: Jonathan [Church, the artistic director at Chichester] said: “I think the Minerva is the right place to try because it’s the first time that the show’s ever been seen and it’s a 300-seat theatre.” I said: “How are the figures going to stand up? You’ve got 14 in the cast and eight in the band, so for a 300-seat theatre, it’s quite big forces to be dealing with.” And he replied: “The way things work here is that there’s a certain subsidy that can spread across both theatres… If the main house production is doing great business, it can support the smaller venue and help to boost the budget.”

It’s great that new writing is being supported…

Anthony: It really is. Amazing! I think it’s the third new musical they’ve done here. Love Story started down here, and they did Damsels in Distress, which was sort-of a new musical based on old songs, doing what Mike Ockrent did with Gershwin songs in Crazy For You. And now this musical version of Travels With My Aunt, which Jonathan’s been supporting almost since we first told him about the idea. He and Chichester have funded the two readings we did in London prior to getting to this stage, and here we are now doing the first full production. That’s very exciting.

Patricia Hodge and Hugh Maynard

Patricia Hodge and Hugh Maynard in Travels With My Aunt. Picture: Roy Tan

You don’t seem to struggle getting shows staged, but do you? Is it still challenging, even though you’re so well established?

Anthony: I think we’re quite lucky in that some shows have been a commission: Half a Sixpence was commissioned so we automatically knew it was coming to Chichester. Wind in the Willows was a commission, so we knew it was going to start somewhere, we just weren’t quite sure where. It’s now going to be in Plymouth in the autumn, by the way. So, I think we’ve been very lucky in that as we’ve become more known, people start to sniff around the next project before we’re even finished with the last one.

[At this point, we’re joined by George Stiles]

George: Hello, so sorry I’m a bit late, I was just having a moment with our leading lady, Patricia Hodge. She’s amazing. She has to deal with so much material, it’s very hard to get any rehearsal time with her. She’s in almost every scene – well, many of them – so we play that game of trying to find time together. But I’ve just had 25 minutes with her, which was lovely.

I think she’s a great choice for that part. Perfectly cast…

George  : She’s got such great comic timing, apart from anything else. Funnily enough, when I saw her down here in the foyer, right behind us on the wall was a black-and-white photo from 1981 of her in The Mitford Girls. I was 20 when I saw The Mitford Girls down here, and I was going to be a biology teacher at that stage. I said to her: “I saw this poster of you on the wall and I had a little moment thinking, I’ve become a writer and now you’re in my musical and we’re in Chichester together.” That’s how life goes sometimes!

So, what inspired you to develop Travels With My Aunt? In one sense, it’s a great choice for a musical, but in another, it’s not an obvious subject, as it’s not that well known, and certainly not by the younger generation of musical theatre fans…

Young performer Grant McConvey (front centre) sang the winning song in the Stiles & Drewe Best New Song prize, written by Joseph Finlay (front left) and Richy Hughes. Picture: David Ovenden

Young performer Grant McConvey (front centre) sang the winning song in last year’s Stiles & Drewe Best New Song prize, written by Joseph Finlay (front left) and Richy Hughes. Picture: David Ovenden

George: It’s not, and I’m not sure – if I’m absolutely honest – that we thought about generations when we came up with the idea. We thought, very particularly, that it’s a story about second chances later in life, and as we have now reached the grand old age of 54 and 55, the notion of how you are at this point in your life is something to write about. Graham Greene had obviously reached a similar point.

Anthony: Especially with people living longer nowadays. The leading man, Henry Pulling – played by Steven Pacey – is a retired bank manager at the age of 50, and nowadays fifties isn’t retirement age, it’s the beginning of the next stage of your life. With people living longer, fifties and sixties is not the end: it’s a whole other phase of your life.

George: And as Augusta proves, your seventies are not the end either. So do you embrace new things in that era or do you carry on doing what you’ve always done? Do you collect your clock when you retire and watch daytime TV or do you stretch yourself and have new adventures and new challenges? That’s what Aunt Augusta tries to inspire Henry to do.

Anthony: The idea really came from Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, who we collaborated with on Betty Blue Eyes. They’re American – they live in Los Angeles – and are such anglophiles that they’re drawn to these British subjects in the same way that the Sherman brothers were drawn to Bedknobs and BroomsticksThe Jungle Book and Mary Poppins.

There’s a wonderful fascination that some American writers have with things that are quintessentially British. Graham Greene is Ron Cowen’s favourite author, and when we finished Betty Blue Eyes and were looking for another subject, he said: “Can we do a Graham Greene?” There was then a dance to be had between us and the Greene estate to get the rights to turn the book into a musical. George knew the story and I didn’t – I’d only read Brighton Rock at school.

CF16_PressImage_Travels-with-My-Aunt-300x169George: I loved the story and remember reading it at school. I was also intrigued by the challenge that no one had successfully adapted Graham Greene into a musical, because he’s not necessarily as in vogue as a writer as he was 20 years ago, and also because his morality is famously grey; he talks about people who are neither good nor bad… he talks about how there’s a bit of flaw in every human being.

That’s what was particularly interesting to us. It’s a very grown-up musical. It’s not something that you’re going to necessarily take a non-English-speaking audience to see, or a massive commercial hit West End show. It’s much more of a chamber piece and it’s much more about a quintessentially British set of characters in a very specific era.

Anthony: The story’s set in 1969, which is lovely from George’s point of view because that inspires the flavour of the music, and for Nick Skilbeck the flavour of the orchestrations.

George: We had a real ball going through that period. That’s something else that inspired me. We’ve never done anything set in ’69 before, and musically it was an absolute feast because pop music was well and truly established, but things were breaking out all over, and different sub-genres were happening.

Stevie Wonder was having hits, the Elvis period was still in full swing, and the idea of Motown and black music was beginning to really sweep the pop world. It was a very exciting time. Plus, of course, we don’t just stay in London: we go to Paris, we go to Istanbul, we end up in Paraguay, so we even get a bit of South American polka! We really get to do the whole gamut. It’s probably the biggest musical selection I’ve ever worked with in any one score.

Show_StudentPerformerOfTheYearDid you feel particularly constrained musically by the periods and locations?

George: In a way, it’s nice to have those constraints. I used to say that of Mary Poppins: our constraint, if you could call it that, was that we had to write in the style of the Sherman brothers. In some ways, it’s a constraint and in some way it’s quite liberating because it means there’s one less thing to think about.

Travels With My Aunt is an inspired idea for a show but do you think it will be commercially viable?

George: I don’t know, but what’s very heartening is that down here in Chichester, the combination of the title and the British style means that it pretty much sold out in ten days. It suggests that there is an audience for a title like this with a star like Patricia in it, so I think that’s very, very promising. And Steven Pacey is just the most fantastic counterpoint. It’s an amazing double act of a show with two older performers. And when do you see that? You don’t see that very often, and I think that makes it very timely.

Anthony: Graham Greene is regarded as one of the greatest British writers of the 20th century, and like [Terence] Rattigan there will be a renaissance, because he did write some cracking books: Brighton Rock, Our Man in Havana, Travels With My Aunt, The Quiet American. There’s a lot of them and he’s the sort of writer who could potentially come back into vogue.

And you’ll be ready and waiting to write the musical!

George: You bet!

Our Man in Havana would be quite fun as a musical… 

George: Oh, great fun! I’ve just finished reading it again and chuckled myself silly. It’s great.

Anthony: It has that very specific sort of British, dry-wit humour.

You must have lots of things at different stages on the back burner. How many shows are you developing at any one time?

Anthony Drewe, George Stiles and Julian Fellowes will reunite for a fresh adaptation of Half a Sixpence at Chichester Festival Theatre

Anthony Drewe, George Stiles and Julian Fellowes will reunite for a fresh adaptation of Half a Sixpence at Chichester Festival Theatre

George: This is the crazy thing! We’ve got three back to back this year, and of course we’ve been writing them over the last five years. With Wind in the Willows, which opens in October, we actually finished our first draft in 2013. We completed the first draft of Travels With My Aunt 14 to 18 months ago. We wrote it quite quickly – within 18 months – but then getting it into production and working with your director and rewriting, that all takes time. We’ve got a show in the works with Jerry Mitchell, which we’re a little over halfway through writing – it needs another workshop soon.

Anthony: And we’ve done an adaptation of the movie Soapdish with Robert Harling, who wrote the screenplay.

George: He’s a wonderful author; he also wrote the screenplay for Steel Magnolias. He’s a brilliant man we got to know as a writing collaborator. Then we’ve got a potential new project with our great friend Kenny Wax, who produced our Three Little Pigs, which is in very early stages but it does look like a very exciting prospect. So we’ve got more to do than we know what to do with!

Just as well we’re all living longer! What’s the Jerry Mitchell show? 

George: It’s an adaptation of a novel called Becoming Nancy by Terry Ronald. The wonderful thing is that it’s set ten years later than Travels, in 1979 – the year I left school!

Anthony: Me too! It’s when the pop charts were full of Blondie and Kate Bush and Abba, The Police… It’s another great ‘era’ story.

George: It’s the end of disco and the birth of electronic dance music and it’s just brilliantly funny stories set in a secondary modern school in London.

Anthony: Jerry Mitchell bought a copy of the book and read it on one of his flights back to America. He got out of JFK and ran to see if he could acquire the rights. Then he came to see us and asked if we would we write it. So we’re working on that with Elliot Davis, who we also collaborated with on Soho Cinders and who has just done a new pass on our Peter Pan. We’ve done Act I, and because we’ve been so busy, Elliot has got ahead of us and is working on the book for Act II. As soon as we finish in Chichester, we’re back on to writing songs for that.

MARY-POPPINS-Chim-Chim-Cher-ee-Matt-Lee-as-Bert-and-Zizi-Strallen-as-Mary-Poppins-Photo-credit-Johan-Persson-300x300.jpg

Matt Lee and Zizi Strallen the current touring production of Mary Poppins.Picture: Johan Persson

Well, it’s good to be busy, right?

George: Absolutely. But what’s great is that they’re all so different as well. We know we don’t want to tread the same path twice. Travels With My Aunt, particularly, has such a different feel for us. It’s more in the Betty Blue Eyes world but it’s particularly lovely being able to feature slightly older performers, and that makes it feel really interesting for us.

Anthony: What I loved about first turning up to rehearsals for Travels was walking into the room and thinking: “You’d never believe that this group of people were putting on a musical.” They just don’t look like your normal musical theatre ensemble. It’s a wonderful mixture of types and really, really good actors who, when they break into some very extravagant dance routines, you think: “Oh my god, how can they do that as well!?” It’s been a real privilege to work with these people.

George: And particularly in the Minerva. It’s a wonderful space and it’s got a reasonable degree of size to it. But the audience are treated to an extraordinary array of physical movement and musical styles within a very small space. So it’s quite an intense experience and they really seem to love it, so that’s great.

Would you say you have a distinct musical style? Each show you do seems very different to the others, and each has a very different sound… 

George: The joy of tackling work is that you do try to make your voice specific. I suppose that we’re very much about text and story, but I think music has to play its part in all of that. Whereas you might say that with a Lloyd Webber score the songs are right out in front, in a slightly more operatic way. I hope we try to bed our stuff in so it’s all part of the whole drama of the storytelling.

Anthony: What I like about working with a book writer who’s not myself – or with a novel – is trying to use the same vocabulary. I literally find myself suddenly using a word in a lyric that I’ve never used in my life. I just know it belongs to this character or to this style of dialogue. Whether it’s The Card or Travels With My Aunt or Mary Poppins, you have to imbue your work with the same style of work as the subject matter, even if that’s at the expense of having a recognisable style.

We do a lot of work with younger writers and we’ve been supporting new musical theatre writing for a long time. We’re just launching a new mentorship award whereby we’re going to mentor writers and a specific project across 12 months every year to try to bring a new musical forward. We judge this Best New Song contest each year, and I always say to young writers: “If you become aware of the lyricist instead of the character, you’re showing off. You need to let the characters still use the same vocabulary that the character would use!”

Stiles-Drewe-colour-300x300I was guilty of this in my earlier days, when I was trying to be showy-offy-rhymy! Nowadays, I realise that the audience has to get it. Stephen Sondheim says: “The difference between poetry and a lyric is that lyrics exist in time.” You’ve got three minutes. You can’t just sit there and read it like a poem and think: “What does that line mean?” The audience has to get it as they hear it and understand where it’s coming from. You can’t be too florid, and you can’t have too much contortion to get to a clever rhyme because the audience won’t get the immediacy of the line.

George: It has to come from the drama. I only write music because I like writing music to accompany situation and drama. That’s my job – to evoke and make you feel a time and a place and a character and that’s why I like doing my job.

Tell us more about this new mentorship prize with MTI…

Anthony: We’re really excited about that. They’ve been so generous and have basically funded it for three years, so we know we can make it happen at least every year for the next three years. We’ve had 57 entries this year – of full first-draught musicals – and we’re going to select one with the help of some other judges. Then, through the course of the year, we’re going to do some public workshops, we’re going to do a retreat to my place in France for weekends with the writers, and we’re we going to end with a showcase in London.

What was the standard of entries like?

Anthony: The subjects were really varied, from the sort of thing you might expect, such as adaptations of classics, to completely off-the-wall original ideas.

George: There were some really exciting things but we’re getting right under the bonnet of the scripts. Hopefully, we’ll get another writing team a few more steps up the ladder.

Travels With My Aunt continues at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester until 4 June 2016 (www.cft.org.uk).

The Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year competition and Stiles + Drewe Prize is being staged at the Novello Theatre on Sunday 15 May 2016 at 3pm (bit.ly/1T7YKax).

Readers may also be interested in:

New Stiles and Drewe award will support original musical theatre writing in the UK – News

The Wind in the Willows musical set for world premiere in October 2016 – News

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