BWW Exclusive: MARY POPPINS Creative Team Shares Broadway Memories- George Stiles, Anthony Drewe, Stephen Mear & Richard Eyre!
As the Broadway production of Mary Poppins comes to a close, BroadwayWorld has been in touch with the award-winning creative team that put together the hit musical years ago. In the interview below, composer George Stiles, lyricist Anthony Drewe, choreographer Stephen Mear and director Richard Eyre chat about how they got involved with the show, reveal some of thier favorite Poppins memories, and share what being a part of the magic has meant to them.
How and when did you all become a part of the MARY POPPINS team?
STILES: I became involved a very long time ago when we heard that Cameron [Mackintosh] was working on it. We heard this rumor that they might be adding new songs, though we couldn't work out why, because we thought that the ones from the film were perfectly fabulous. So we had a look at the film and we thought that we could write a new song when Mary measures herself. I went ahead and wrote a number there. We left the song on Cameron's desk- it was recorded by a good friend of ours that does a great Julie Andrews impersonation, and we made it sound as much like The Sherman Brothers as we could. We realized that whatever the new songs were that they would have to blend.
Then he emailed us the next morning something to the effect of 'Where the hell did that come from? Will you write me some more?' And then it was just waiting eight years for him and Disney to figure out how to do a show together.
EYRE: It would be about eight or nine years ago, when I was working in New York doing a play called VINCENT IN BRIXTON. I had a call from Cameron Mackintosh and he said, "I want you to do MARY POPPINS." He sent me the script and the books, and I was very, very taken by the books. I knew the movie- I had seen it when I was a student, but because I was a student at the time and not a child, it didn't make a very strong impression on me. So I read it and I fell in love with it. And then I was involved from the very beginning in developing it.
MEAR: I remember Cameron [Mackintosh] approaching me about it; I think it was when I was doing ANYTHING GOES in town. He wanted two choreographers to give different qualities to the show. I think it was about a year before we actually went into production. At the time we were both apprehensive about it, but it worked out brilliantly in the end actually. We both brought such different things to the show. I think that the show wouldn't have been as good if either of us had done it on our own.
The show will have been open on Broadway for 6.5 years- quite a remarkable run. Did you expect it to be around this many years later?
EYRE: I hoped it would be. But I don't think I did. I didn't go into thinking 'This is going to be around for 20 years! This is gonna be like THE LION KING!' I thought that it was a great show and that it ought to run. It deserved to run.
DREWE: I hoped that it would, but you never know! In the theatre you never really know. The fact that it's on Broadway is something of a miracle. That it lasted a week is a miracle. That it lasted over six years is extraordinary. The fact that it has lasted twice as long on Broadway as it did in the UK shows how much love there is from American audiences. Even though it's set in London at the turn of the century, it's because of the film that brought that nanny into so many homes, that it's so embraced as an American story. When I was growing up, shows just didn't run that long. I think that MY FAIR LADY ran for a couple of years, but when I started working, prior to CATS and LES MISERABLES, and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, that didn't happen.
STILES: The whole thing has been the most unexpected amazing experience. Six years on Broadway is an extraordinary thing. I hoped that it would if we did our job right. The original is so fantastic, the movie, the books are full of wit and character... but of course musicals are like alchemy. It's mixing together base metals and hoping to come up with something that doesn't just glitter but really is gold.
It's the hardest thing because it's all about personalities as well as the talents of those involved. If you can get that recipe right and give it that spoonful of sugar then you can do it. I've done enough of them now to know that you can have all the best ingredients right and the alchemy still doesn't work. But we seem to have been alchemists.
What was your songwriting process like?
STILES: Well we started with 'Practically Perfect,' and we decided that because Mary is so particular that she should pronounce the word fully with one more syllable than anyone would actually ever say. From the beginning we analyzed how the Sherman's worked and then we adjusted our process to be very much title-led.
We tried to place titles on the nub of every song that we wrote for it because it seemed so much a part of their writing. And also rejoicing in language, which is what they do in everything. They have that rare, rare gift of finding the extraordinary in the ordinary whether it's 'Supercal', a made up word, or the supposed simplicity of 'Feed the Birds.'
It's unforgettable stuff, and it was a great lesson to us as songwriters to go back to their material and study it.
What came first, the music or lyrics?
DREWE: I would say that for 80% of it, the lyrics came first. It really depends on the project though. With MARY POPPINS, because we knew that we were writing in the style of The Sherman Brothers, I did study a lot of their lyrics. I know that George, with the song 'Practically Perfect' tried to write like the Shermans as much as he could.
What was the trickiest song for you to write?
DREWE: It was definitely 'Supercal' because it's one of the most popular songs. Before we opened in London, we opened out of town in Bristol, and I remember standing outside of the Bristol Hippodrome one night and people were singing 'Supercal' with the words from the former version. Well that can just ruin your evening, because you hope they sing along to yours.
The way that it's sung in the stage version it's in a different scenario than the song in the film. And so it required new lyrics because they didn't make sense in this context. Plus we knew it would be a big dance number- in the film it lasts just under 2 minutes and in the stage show its about six minutes long. It was the hardest one.
'Supercal' is such an iconic number choreographically in the show. How did it come to be?
MEAR: My partner is deaf and I so wanted to put something in the show that was to do with signing. We were trying all different things... and me and Matthew [Bourne] just went through the numbers and said 'Well how about 'Supercal'?', because it's all about letters.
We tried doing the proper exact signing, but it's too small. The Americans do it with one hand and we do it with two. So what we did was make what we call our 'Mary Poppins' version of signing. We used some of the letters, but we made it more of a visual game. We thought it would be very interesting for the kids to learn. It was great- we thought that the kids in the show would be the slowest to learn it, but actually they were the quickest. It was like a game for them and they grasped it quicker than most of the adults!
I'm a big believer that through dance you can communicate. Even when I did 'One Step Closer' in THE LITTLE MERMAID, she couldn't speak. So 'Supercal' and that number were very dear to me because of my partner. I didn't tell him that I put it in the show, and then on press night I told him that there was something there for him. And at the end of the number the audience went mad and he was absolutely in tears.
Were there a lot of changes made to the show between the West End and Broadway productions?
EYRE: Not any substantial changes, but every scene or moment had a change. So it was cumulatively quite a lot different. But if you asked me to point a finger I probably couldn't differentiate.
What have you been working on since?
STILES: We did a new show last summer called SOHO CINDERS, which was an original musical very loosely based on a Cinderella story. It is nominated for three Whatsonstage Awards! We've just completed a reading of a new adaptation of THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS, which was written with Julian Fellowes. We've been wanting to collaborate with him again ever since POPPINS, and this is the first project that our stars have aligned for. We're also working on a musical adaptation of Bobby Harling's wonderful film 'Soapdish', which we are very much hoping will get to see the light of day in 2014 in the United States. And I'm about to start writing an adaptation of TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT with the guys whom we wrote BETTY BLUE EYES with. We've got wonderfully full plates at the moment.
DREWE: I'm about to fly to Singapore to direct GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE BEARS, which we've written for younger audiences. George and I were invited last year to write a trilogy- last year we did THE THREE LITTLE PIGS, and next we're doing THE THREE BILLY GOATS GRUFF.
MEAR: I've got KISS ME KATE going on in the West End. That finishes in March at the Old Vic. And I'm just about to work with Richard Eyre again doing THE PAJAMA GAME at Chichester Festival Theatre. Then I'm coming to New York at the end of the year to work on DIE FLEDERMAUS at the Met. I'm very pleased to be coming back to New York!
Why do you think the public's reception has been so positive?
EYRE: It's a great show and it has a great heart. Every element of the show is musical theatre at its best. As well as being very warm-hearted and charming, where else to you see a guy dancing upside-down?
MEAR: I think that it has to do with children and teaching them a lesson. In the show she says that you can't teach children that don't want to learn. And of course she doesn't leave until they don't need her anymore. I think it's a learning curve- even the father changes his ways. Children really relate to it.
What has the whole POPPINS experience meant to you?
STILES: Just like MARY POPPINS, she flew in on the East winds and is definitely flying out on the west. She changed our lives just like she did Jane and Michael's. My friendship with the Sherman's in particular has meant the world. It was a great joy to meet them both. And it's fulfilled a life-long dream of having a show on Broadway. What could possibly top that?
MEAR: The whole experience was such a joyous collaboration. It was so wonderful to work with so many talented, creative people. And also to work with these people who have embraced the show so much, which is so wonderful for me. I could tell watching that last show that they loved doing it. There's a big difference. You can tell when a company really loves doing something. I find that very touching.
DREWE: Oh it has meant the world to me because it put us on the map. It's wonderful to work with such creative people. I had known Matthew Bourne for a long time but had never worked with him. Stephen Mear is one of my best friends, so I did know him. I had never met Richard Eyre or Bob Crowley. Working with those people and being able to create an original production with both Cameron and Disney was extraordinary. I'll never forget in Bristol when we were in technical rehearsals- in the back of the auditorium was just a sea of laptop screens. It was filled with all of the different departments: props, lighting, everyone working on the project- it was extraordinary that that many people were all working on the same thing. It was very humbling to think that you were right in the middle of this huge network that was coming together to make magic in the theatre.
EYRE: It has meant a great deal of joy for me. It isn't always the case that the joy that comes to the makers is shared with the audience, but I think that in this case, we had as much fun doing it as the audience did watching it!
Mary Poppins will conclude Broadway run at The New Amsterdam Theatre Sunday, March 3, 2013 after 2619 performances and more than six years. With attendance totaling nearly four million guests, the show has been seen by more people in the last six years than any Broadway show except Wicked and The Lion King. Mary Poppins opened on Broadway in 2006, just two years after debuting in London's West End, where it had received nine Olivier Award nominations and won Olivier, Evening Standard and WhatsOnStage Awards. The Broadway production received 25 major theatrical award nominations, winning Tony and Drama Desk Awards.
Mary Poppins will rank as the 22nd longest-running show in Broadway history by the time its run is complete, ranking between Best Musical winners Hairspray and Avenue Q on the list of long runs. For tickets, visit: http://www.marypoppins.com/tickets.