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.