Stephen Mear travels from Gypsy to the City of Angels in Part Two of our exclusive interview

Choreographer Stephen Mear

Choreographer Stephen Mear on the set of She Loves Me which he directed at Chichester Festival Theatre. Pictures: Roy Tan

Last week Gypsy opened at the Chichester Festival Theatre, and among the rave reviews were comments such as: “Stephen Mear’s choreography is a joy” (The Stage) and “Stephen Mear’s choreography has a bright-eyed wit” (London Evening Standard). 

Olivier Award-winning STEPHEN MEAR has become hugely respected in the industry as both a choreographer and director. At Chichester, where he is an associate choreographer, his musical theatre credits include: Kiss Me, Kate– transfer to the Old Vic, The Music ManHow to Succeed in Business Without Really TryingPutting It TogetherJust SoFunny 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).

After Gypsy, Mear will work with director Josie Rourke at the Donmar Warehouse where he is choreographing City of Angels.

Read below PART TWO of Musical Theatre Review editor Lisa Martland’s interview with the choreographer (PART ONE can be found at www.musicaltheatrereview.com/interview-gypsy-choreographer-stephen-mear).

You believe that dance within musical theatre is at its best when it’s moving the story forward. Can you give us an example of that?

I remember when I did ‘One Step Closer’ in The Little Mermaid on Broadway, that was very important. It was communicating the fact that the main character couldn’t speak, but the one thing Ariel and Prince Eric had in common was dance and expressing themselves through movement. It forwarded the story of their love affair, which was beautiful with Sierra Boggess and Sean Palmer.

Stephen Mear

Stephen Mear and his partner, the choreographer Mark Smith, celebrate on closing night of The Pajama Game with actor and singer Michael Xavier and his girlfriend, Jennifer Gayner

It also had an extra significance because my partner is deaf [Mark Smith is a much-respected teacher, choreographer and is the founder and artistic director of the company Deaf Man Dancing]. That’s another reason why my choreography for ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ in Mary Poppins – with all the signing – was so special. The number was totally influenced by my partner, and it’s a wonderful story because I told him there was something in the show for him, and when he watched Mary Poppins on the first night, he was just in floods. It’s not exact signing, but there were elements that were based on sign language. I wanted to put something in the show for him, he has changed my life so much.

What has it been like working in America?

Theatre is such a big thing out there. Sometimes you can’t get out of the stage door after a show, in England you’re lucky if you’ve got your mum and dad waiting! I remember being stopped in the street by someone who wanted to tell me how much he had loved auditioning for the production I was choreographing, and how well he felt everyone was treated. I actually thought someone was winding me up, it happened twice in one day!

Do you have any advice for other choreographers?

I think one very important thing is to respect your peers and for us to support each other. There have obviously been times when I’ve thought, ‘I would have loved to have got that’, but the person picked is often a choreographer whose work I love. I watched The Drowsy Chaperone and The Book of Mormon, and Casey Nicholaw is a genius. I’d like to think I could be as clever as he is.

I’ve been so lucky to have people like Gillian Lynne be so supportive of me. I also learnt a lot from the choreographer Norman Maen who I worked for on Some Like It Hot, and of course Susan Stroman who I assisted on Oklahoma!

What experiences sparked your interest in dance?

My mum helped teach at a dance school, and at the age of three I used to run in and out of the line. I wanted to join the tap class, so I started tap dancing, and then I went to perform with amateur companies etc. I was severely dyslexic so school could be tough, but I knew I could express myself through performing and people noticed me for it. That made me think I must be good, but then I travelled to London to go to stage school and realised I had a lot of work to do.

It wasn’t long before you got your first professional job though…

At the end of my first year I got in to Evita, and at the end of my second I got into 42nd Street, so it was heaven. But even on a matinee day I would go and do my two classes in the morning, and then I would still go to work and do a warm-up. I was obsessed. When I was at college I used to go and do classes on a Sunday at Pineapple too. It was a passion and I knew I had to get my ballet better. I never dreamt I would understudy Mr. Mistoffelees and get into Cats on my third job. I never thought my ballet would be that good, but I did do 14 classes a week at college doing ballet because I knew that was what I was weak at, it’s the backbone to any technique in dance.

Did you always know you wanted to go and choreograph?

I was in shows for many years and then I went into assisting, but I’d always loved choreographing, so I knew that was what I wanted to do. I would watch choreographers, the good and the bad.

0 stephen mear gypsy either 2

Kevin Whately, Imelda Staunton and Lara Pulver in Gypsy, directed by Jonathan Kent and choreographed by Stephen Mear at Chichester. Picture: Roy Tan

What’s next on the agenda?

After this I go straight to the Donmar to do City of Angels, I’ve never worked with director Josie Rourke, so I’m really looking forward to that. I make a wish list and there are shows I want to do as a choreographer, as a director, places I would like to work, people I would like to work with. One’s been Gypsy, another’s been to work at the Donmar and do City of Angels, so this year I’ve not done bad. The Donmar is such a small space, but that’s such a fabulous challenge.

I didn’t think I do Singin’ in the Rain again (I previously choreographed it at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and it went on to the National), but I have just been asked do it in 2015 at the Chatelet in Paris, and it’s hard to resist a 60-piece orchestra! So I start rehearsing in February.

Are there are more directing projects in the pipeline?

I’m going to direct and choreograph a Rodgers and Hammerstein revue for Ruthie Henshall next year when she is no longer appearing in Billy Elliot. We’re big friends and we’re hoping it will tour.

There are other things in the pipeline, but it’s just about getting the rights. There are certain directors I still want to learn from too.

You recently worked on Stephen Ward which only had a short run in the West End, how difficult do you think it is to judge what shows are going to work?

You never know, Betty Blue Eyes which I worked on at the Novello Theatre got rave reviews and I loved it, and it lasted six months. I think there’s enough room for everything – revivals and new writing. People say we don’t have enough new musicals, and then when we do, they get slated. I thought I was a good judge of what would succeed, I couldn’t tell anymore.

There have been TV and film offers in the past and you choreographed for the series So You Think You Can Dance. Would you be tempted in that direction?

I was asked back to So You Think You Could Dance, but projects clashed so it wasn’t to be. I would also love the chance do to a film – again I have had offers, but the dates haven’t worked out. But my first love is theatre. I’m so grateful to Chichester and I am also very loyal. I also love my role as an associate which gives me the opportunity to bring new choreographers in.

Gypsy continues at the Chichester Festival Theatre until 8 November.

Look out for PART ONE of our interview with Stephen Mear – just click HERE!

Gypsy – Chichester Festival Theatre – Review

www.cft.org.uk/gypsy

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