Tonight is an important date in Olivier Award-winning choreographer STEPHEN MEAR’s diary – it’s the hotly anticipated official opening of Gypsy at the Chichester Festival Theatre, one of a line-up of shows he has collaborated on at the venue where he is an associate.
In true Billy Elliot style, Mear began dancing at the age of three, zipping in and out of the line at the Loughborough dance school where his mother was a teacher, and soon showing a talent for tap. Not only did he love very minute, but it was an important means of expression for him, as dyslexia made school a struggle.
A world opened up to Mear that was to become a way of life. His training at the London Studio Centre eventually brought him one step nearer to the West End, and it didn’t take long for his talent to be recognised. By the end of his first year of training, he was dancing in Evita; by the second, 42nd Street had been added to his credits; shortly to be followed by the London production of Cats.
More roles came and went, but Mear’s ambition to choreograph was never far away. Indeed he learnt from the best, assisting choreographers like Norman Maen and Susan Stroman, before he went out on his own. When one of his solo projects, Soul Train, ended up in the West End for a limited run after touring the UK, and he received the first of many Olivier Award nominations, he knew it was time to hang up his own dancing shoes.
Since then Mear has become hugely respected in the industry as both a choreographer and director. Chichester musicals as choreographer include: Kiss Me, Kate– transfer to the Old Vic, The Music Man, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Putting It Together, Just So, Funny Girl, and the recent production of The Pajama Game which had a run at the Shaftesbury Theatre, plus he also directed She Loves Me there.
Other credits, amongst many, include being joint choreographer with Mathew Bourne on Mary Poppins (London, Broadway, UK tour and US tour) for which he won an Olivier Award for Best Choreography and received a Tony Award nomination, Singin’ in the Rain (West Yorkshire Playhouse and National Theatre), Anything Goes (National Theatre and Theatre Royal Drury Lane), Crazy For You and Hello, Dolly! (Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, the latter winning him a second Olivier Award for Best Choreography), Sweet Charity (Menier Chocolate Factory and Theatre Royal Haymarket), On the Town (ENO and Paris Chatelet) and Betty Blue Eyes (Novello Theatre).
Across the pond, he has choreographed the Broadway musical version of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Die Fledermaus (Metropolitan Opera New York) and Ragtime (Milwaukee Repertory Theater).
After Gypsy, Mear will work with director Josie Rourke at the Donmar Warehouse where he is choreographing City of Angels.
Described by the recently retired Daily Telegraph critic as “superbly inventive”, Mear has continued to offer wonderful reinterpretations of musical theatre classics, while always showing them the utmost respect.
Musical Theatre Review editor Lisa Martland caught up with STEPHEN MEAR during rehearsals for Gypsy. Here’s PART ONE of her interview.
How have rehearsals gone for Gypsy and how did you prepare for working with the cast?
I am absolutely loving every second. I think the cast is fantastic, and I’m not just saying that, I have been seriously blown away by what I am seeing. It’s just a joy to be in the room.
If there’s somebody I’ve collaborated with before in a cast, I know how to choreograph for them. Dan Burton, who is playing Tulsa in Gypsy, was in the production of The Pajama Game that I choreographed at Chichester last season, so I know how he dances and what leg he turns on and what his strengths are. We have worked very closely together on staging his number ‘All I Need is the Girl’.
If it’s somebody new, I always wait. It’s no good me setting all the choreography in advance. I want to work with individual performers in the company and choreograph to their ability. It’s all about how they work and, more importantly, how their character develops. I do shows where so many things are character driven.
I also go to colleges, and if there’s big dance numbers, I will work out sections in advance with the students.
What are your observations of Lara Pulver who plays Louise and, of course, Imelda Staunton (as Mama Rose)?
Lara does four strips during the show, and they have to get better and better as the story progresses: from the first one, where she is just frozen, to the big Minsky’s routine at the end. I know she has been a successful actress for a while, but I think people will be surprised what an amazing dancer she is. She’s just sensational.
As for Imelda, I have never ever come across a work ethic like it in my whole career. I have never seen anybody work so hard and be such a wonderful leader of a company, it’s quite amazing.
In gaining the rights for Gypsy, you have been able to change the original choreography and that can stay in place if the show transfers. That must have been exciting.
Previous productions have had to stick to the original choreography and the original direction, but this version has been done differently. I’m so thrilled, this was one musical I was determined I wanted to do.
You have been involved in several revivals of classic musicals, what is it like following in the footsteps of some of the greatest choreographers in the genre?
When I choreographed Sweet Charity, I wanted to tip my hat to Bob Fosse, I just wanted to show my respect. I didn’t stage the number ‘Big Spender’ with the girls leaning over a bar, I used stools, but I did create a group that moved across the stage in a kind of Fosse style. Sometimes you want to acknowledge the fabulous choreographers that have been before you.
I think one of the few shows I wouldn’t want to do is West Side Story. I love it so much. I am sure there is somebody out there that would do a fantastic job, but every time I watch it, the choreography never ages.
Musical theatre is such a collaborative art-form and you seem to thrive on that…
One of the best things is working with brilliant directors. I’d never worked with Jonathan [director of Gypsy, Jonathan Kent] before and it’s just been so easy. He’s so generous, asking me about aspects of scenes, not just the dancing – it’s really collaborative.
One of my favourite early experiences was Anything Goes at the National Theatre. It was Trevor Nunn’s last show there and I was this young choreographer. Everyone was amazing to me. That was another time I couldn’t wait to get into work every day.
I get offered quite a lot of things to direct, but I don’t jump at everything because I only want to go for projects I know backwards. I am still learning all the time, when I stop learning I’ll take a back seat and leave I think, I just love the collaboration too much.
Gypsy officially opens tonight (14 October) and continues at the Chichester Festival Theatre until 8 November.
Look out for PART TWO of our interview with Stephen Mear – coming soon!