For someone who writes musicals, the ultimate goal is for one of your shows to be presented in the West End or on Broadway, writes Nicky Sweetland.
As of next month, the British songwriting partnership of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe will have not one but two of their shows in town when The Wind in the Willows joins Half a Sixpence. With theatrical impresario Cameron Macintosh intent on the West End return of their stage adaptation of Mary Poppins, it looks like the revered musical coupling are on track to score a hat trick of hits over the next 12 months.
But it’s not just the big budget theatrical spectaculars where their hearts lie however and one of their first musicals Honk! is enjoying an acclaimed run at the Union Theatre. The show, which won an Olivier Award for Best Musical, beating the Lion King and Mamma Mia! when it was produced at the National Theatre in 2000, follows the story of the Ugly Duckling.
Lyricist Anthony Drewe told me of his surprise at the phenomenal success of the simple musical tale and said, “We originally wrote it in 1996 for the Watermill Theatre in Newbury.” Anthony explained, “The Watermill theatre had ducks on its pond and so it felt like the perfect match.”
The production at the trendy South London Off-West End venue has been getting rave revues and Anthony is pleased with the results that director Andy Room has achieved.
“I saw it a few nights ago and what he’s done it with it is ever so imaginative”
Honk! isn’t the duo’s only musical with creatures at its centre, with adaptations of the Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks and the Threes Bears, The Three Billy Goats Gruff and Rudyard Kipling’s Just So stories among their other works.
Anthony Drewe gained a degree in Zoology before he decided to become a wordsmith and I asked if this is perhaps the reason that so many of their shows have a distinctly animal association.
Anthony laughs and tells me, “It was never my intention to get a degree in Zoology just so I could write rhymes with every animal I could think of. It is a little by accident that there have been so many of them.”
He tells me that they were offered Babe the Pig but turned it down and decided to take on the task of turning The Wind in the Willows -which opens at the London Palladium this summer- into a musical because they were looking to do another collaboration with Julian Fellowes. Fellowes had previously written the book for their stage reworking of Mary Poppins and Anthony tells me, “The Wind in the Willows felt a perfect fit for Julian and I just knew that George and I would know what to do with it.”
Leading comedian, actor and presenter Rufus Hound stars as the amazing Mr. Toad in the new musical based on Kenneth Grahame’s much-loved children’s classic and producer Jamie Hendry has pledged to provide readers of all ages the opportunity to enjoy The Wind in the Willows by sending free copies of the novel to every school and library in London.
Stiles and Drewe’s other huge West End success has come in the shape of a somewhat unlikely remake of a show, which was originally written as a star vehicle for Tommy Steele.
The fabulous revamp of Half a Sixpence has become a real favourite with London theatregoers and has made a star of its leading man Charlie Stemp, who was recently nominated for an Olivier award for his efforts.
It wasn’t a show the pair initially jumped at the opportunity to redo however and Anthony explains, “Cameron Macintosh had been on at us to do it for about seven years and I’d seen productions of it and just thought, it’s not one of my favourites. David Heneker, who wrote the original was so sweet to us in our early years and once we got into it, we found we loved it more and more. It was a lovely job to do and we’re really proud of it.”
There are also some really exciting plans on the horizon which will further help to establish Stiles and Drewe’s West End domination, with two new musicals expected to hit the London stage over the next twelve months.
The first is based on a novel by Terry Ronald entitled Becoming Nancy, which Anthony explains is a very British story set in East Dulwich.
“It’s about a boy at a comprehensive school who wants the part of Fagin in the school production of Oliver! but actually gets cast as Nancy because of his good singing voice. It’s very funny and very rude.”
The other show in the pipeline will have musical theatre ‘fangirls’ squealing with anticipation as the songwriting duo have developed a musical based on the 1991 film Soapdish, which they hope will be led by Broadway superstar Kristin Chenoweth.
The show is in collaboration with the original screenwriter, Robert Harling, who also wrote the screenplay for Steel Magnolias.
“It’s kind of ready to go. We’ve done a couple of workshops in New York with Kristin Chenoweth and we’re hoping that’s going to happen, also potentially over here in the next 12 months.”
Anthony continues, “She [Kristin Chenoweth] wants to do an original role in a musical again because she hasn’t originated a role since Wicked. She’s got such an amazing voice and after the first workshop we literally wrote another song for her, so she can show off her vocal pyrotechnics”
It sounds like the pair’s domination of the musical theatre world in London is only set to increase over the next few years, which has come of something of a surprise to the talented team.
Anthony said, “George and I were saying, it’s as if our careers have been the wrong way round. We are both now in our mid-fifties and we are more prolific now than when we were in our twenties. I guess it’s just the way that it works. It takes an awful lot of time to establish a reputation and to establish the trust with producers to start producing your work. It’s a fluke that so many came along at the same time last year, with Half a Sixpence transferring, The Wind in the Willows at the same time and Cameron [Macintosh] bringing Mary Poppins back. It looks like we are going to have two or three shows on in the West End, which we never dreamt we’d get.”