Interview – George Stiles and Anthony Drewe on being partners in rhyme

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Musical Theatre Review editor Lisa Martland chats to composer George Stiles and lyricist/librettist Anthony Drewe. Picture: Roy Tan

This summer has seen the opening of The 3 Little Pigs, the brand new family musical from multi award-winning British songwriting duo GEORGE STILES and ANTHONY DREWE.

Stiles (music) and Drewe (book and lyrics) have put their own musical twist on the retelling of this classic fairy tale which will play at the Palace Theatre until Sunday 6 September 2015.

The five-strong cast includes: Britain’s Got Talent semi-finalist and Olivier nominated actress Alison Jiear (as Mother Pig), Simon Webbe (Blue, Strictly Come DancingSister Act), Leanne Jones (Hairspray), Taofique Folarin (The Lion KingAvenue Q) and Dan Buckley (The Book of Mormon, Loserville.

Stiles and Drewe met at Exeter University where the former was studying music and the latter was reading Zoology – so it’s little wonder that animals feature in a number of their musicals, which include: Honk!Betty Blue Eyes, Just SoMary PoppinsPeter Pan and Soho Cinders.

The writers’ Peter Pan – A Musical Adventure will also be presented live in concert at London’s Adelphi Theatre on 25 October for a matinee and evening performance.

Musical Theatre Review editor Lisa Martland sat down for a catch-up with George and Anthony at The 3 Little Pigs launch and discovered all about the many projects they are currently involved in.

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The cast of The 3 Little Pigs plus Stiles and Drewe and the show’s choreographer Ewan Jones. Picture: Roy Tan

Would you say that your relationship, both as friends and collaborators, seems to be as strong as ever?

Anthony Drewe: We don’t write because we need to, we write because we love it. And we do seem to have written more in the last five years than in the 25 years leading up to it. We’ve also been very lucky with Mary Poppins and Honk!, those shows have been very good to us, and continue to be. The extraordinary thing is that neither of them show any signs of slowing down.

We have been chatting to Cameron [Mackintosh] about the next four productions of Poppins. He says the show is finally doing what we thought it would be doing ten years ago, travelling all around the world – in addition to the UK and Ireland tour which starts in October.

George Stiles: We’ve had this amazing season of Mary Poppins in Vienna which has just been extended by 40 weeks, literally double its original run, Cameron says it is the biggest hit they have had out there since The Phantom of the Opera.

Does some of the inspiration come from working with other writers?

GS: We do seem to have found our mojo around the time we started working with some brilliant book writers. We wrote a musical version of the film comedy Soapdish with Robert Harling, which is yet to hit the stage, but is all ready to go (he also wrote the original story). Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, who wrote the book for Betty Blue Eyes, are brilliant collaborators, and we’ve got a new one with them as well. That should be produced in the UK next year.

AD: Wind in the Willows, written with Julian Fellowes who we collaborated with on Mary Poppins, is also finished and ready to go. That is also pencilled in for next year in the UK. Sorry we can’t tell you dates and theatres yet!

GS: We have also loved working with our Soho Cinders collaborator, Elliot Davis. There was an amazing production of that in Bruges recently. I had a smile from ear to ear from the moment the curtain went up.

We have been approached by Jerry Mitchell to work on a new show called Becoming Nancy too [based on the book of the same name by Terry Ronald]. It’s set in the 1970s and is due to open in 2017. Elliot is onboard for that as well.

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George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. Picture: Vivienne Vincent

Is is true that The 3 Little Pigs began its life in Singapore?

AD: Yes, the Singapore Repertory Theatre asked us to write a show with a running time of around 50 minutes for three year olds and up. The company wanted a small musical, perhaps inspired by a fairy tale, something still popular with different generations, and I had the idea for The 3 Little Pigs. I thought it would be an easy fable to tell, but perhaps we would add a twist – that there would be a single mum bringing up her three little pigs, and maybe the Big Bad Wolf would be responsible for the demise of her husband. Then I had the idea: wouldn’t it be fun to challenge ourselves to write a trilogy [hence the creation of Goldilocks and the Three Bears and The Three Billy Goats Gruff] and potentially use the same five actors for all the shows.

GS: We were also busy with other projects, so as well as writing each of the shows in the trilogy – which worked out about one a year – we were also creating a full-scale musical as well. So you could say it’s been a show and a half for the last four years of our lives.

Tell us about some of the ‘little twists’ you have added to this very familiar story.

AD: We wanted the three pigs to be very different characters: Bar loves to exercise and is into his gym membership; the little girl pig, Bee, is obsessed with green issues; and Q is an insatiable bookworm, always with his snout in a book.

GS: Kids know how different people can be, just from their brothers and sisters, they will be able to identify with that. So we’ve made them as different as we possibly can. They bicker and get at each other sometimes, just like siblings do.

Roy Tan

Simon Webbe plays the misunderstood Big Bad Wold in The 3 Little Pigs. Picture: Roy Tan

AD: Writing for a family audience is very much part of what we do, it’s important to give families the opportunity to be sociable with each other. We so enjoy introducing children to musical theatre. Children love to sing and love a story, we hope we have captured the story but also presented it in a slightly different way.

How scary is the Big Bad Wolf?

AD: We don’t want the children to be scared as the wolf is the one character that talks to the audience.

GS: Yes, the wolf breaks the fourth wall, it’s rubble by the time he’s finished! We want to encourage the children to engage with him and get involved, to know that it’s not ‘shh shh all the time’. We want them to react.

In the Singapore cast, the actor Sebastian Tan played the Wolf and he had that charm with an audience, that twinkle, that dry sense of humour. They adored him, and Simon Webbe has got exactly the same qualities.

It’s not just in Singapore that The 3 Little Pigs has been successful though, it’s been popular in America too…

AD: We were very lucky that in 2013 we submitted the show for the National Alliance for Musical Theatre Festival of New Musicals in New York and they had never done a children’s show before.

GS: They added a ninth show to include Pigs and it was so popular that we had to move venues to the largest space.

AD: It was extraordinary, and because of that, regional theatres in the US wanted to start presenting it as a daytime show. There have now been productions all over the world: across the US, in Finland and in China.

Actress Alison Jiear, who plays Mother Pig, at the launch of the show. Picture: Roy Tan

Actress Alison Jiear, who plays Mother Pig, at the launch of the show. Picture: Roy Tan

GS: The thing is about this show is that it was conceived as a piece that would sit on top of other productions, so theatres which have got a regular eight-show-a-week play or musical can get even more people through their doors by opening up in the morning/afternoon [hence the run at The Palace Theatre where The Commitments is also playing]. People are waking up to this model all over the world, that you can get up to three or four audiences through your theatre in one day.

Can this kind of model limit you creatively?

GS: Every show gives you a certain limitation, you are given a constraint, your set can’t be enormous, you can’t have the most complicated situation. For Pigs, we’ve got Ruth Ling’s amazing orchestral tracks so you get a great sound, but it’s not physically practical to have live music – you can’t set up the musicians on the set of The Commitments – but you still get an absolutely first rate experience

Is the hope that you will follow up The 3 Little Pigs with UK productions of the two other shows in the trilogy?

GS: Yes, that’s the hope, but before that we are taking this production of The 3 Little Pigs to Sydney Opera House and Melbourne Arts Festival (although it may not necessarily be this cast).

We’re hoping to bring back Honk! as well, because it’s been 15 years, so we are planning a new production at some point!

imagesIt will be exciting to see Peter Pan back in London in October too.

AD: Our score for Peter Pan began life in a London concert performance, so we’re delighted that audiences at the beautiful Adelphi Theatre will once again have the chance to be whisked off to Neverland by a brilliant cast and thrilling orchestra.

You are one of British musical theatre’s success stories, but it is still very difficult to make your mark as a new writer in the genre. 

GS: It’s very tough. Ever since we became board members at Mercury Musical Developments, we have been pushing harder and harder for new writers. We give out our prize very year for new writing, but we also have plans to expand and develop that so it includes more feedback and mentoring.

Do you think new musical theatre is a hard sell for UK audiences?

AD: In America there seems to be a tradition with regional theatre audiences that they go and see everything a venue puts on, including new musicals. That’s partly why we have had success at certain venues – because they are prepared to take a risk with a new show, and they have a huge database of subscribers. These theatres and audiences like to seize ownership of a show, to boast that they were part of the birth of a new musical.

GS: To some extent, people are notoriously bad at taking risks with their quids, but on a positive note, there is some great stuff happening on the London Fringe, the Southwark Playhouse has really put itself on the map, the Union as well, and we have got to encourage those venues and associated producers to take those risks on a regular basis, and their audiences will hopefully go with them.

MARY POPPINS - Zizi Strallen as Mary Poppins and Matt Lee as Bert.  Photo credit Dewynters and Katrina Tepper

Zizi Strallen as Mary Poppins and Matt Lee as Bert in the forthcoming UK and Ireland tour of Mary Poppins. Picture: Dewynters and Katrina Tepper

Any advice to new writers with one foot on the ladder of musical theatre success?

AD: Don’t drop the ball, do the work and then get it on again, get it to the next level.

GS: We’re not as rigorous as we could be at our development process and that’s what we are working on. It’s taken us 15 years to learn how to do what we do; people say we were late bloomers and we were, because we were in our thirties before we really worked out how to make good music. Every show has its different challenges, but you have got to know you are in it for the long haul. You learn not to be precious – if a song’s not working, it’s gone; if a scene’s not working, a character isn’t right, if a sub plot isn’t working, let it go, and rewrite.

How important is having a partner in crime, a collaborator?

GS: There could be years when you are stuck in a rut, but that’s when being in a partnership really comes into its own. We encourage as many young writers as we can to collaborate with others, because it’s unlikely you will be as good a composer as a lyricist, and it’s very unlikely you will be as good a book writer as you are the other two. Having a collaborator also means mutual support. You’ve got each other to get through the dark days when nothing’s happening and Cameron isn’t returning your phone calls!

www.3littlepigslive.com

* Readers may also be interested in:

Zizi Strallen and Matt Lee star in Mary Poppins tour – News

Stiles and Drewe’s Peter Pan presented in London concert – News

* Check out videos from The 3 Little Pigs launch on the Musical Theatre Review YouTube channel HERE

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