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George Stiles: ‘British musicals need all the help they can get’

The Wicker Husband writers Rhys Jennings and Darren Clark with Stiles and Drewe. Photo: MMD The Wicker Husband writers Rhys Jennings and Darren Clark (centre) with Stiles (far left) and Drewe (far right). Photo: MMD

All four works nominated for this year’s best musical Tony Awards have something in common: their writers are relatively new to Broadway. It speaks of a richness of new writing in New York that is scarcely seen in London. Yes, Tim Minchin’s Groundhog Day started life at the Old Vic, but the only other major British new musical to open in the capital last year was Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s The Girls, which is to close early.

That’s not for want of talent or interest. There are three funded organisations helping to nurture new musicals and their writers – Mercury Musical Developments, Musical Theatre Network and Perfect Pitch. Plus, there’s the Other Palace, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “home for musical theatre”, and Cameron Mackintosh’s own philanthropic foundation work.

George Stiles, half of the writing partnership with Anthony Drewe that created Mary Poppins and The Wind in the Willows, is no stranger to the difficulties of creating a new musical as a new writer.

“Working on Just So [the pair’s first professional musical] actually almost did us in. We did it first in 1985, literally just after winning the Vivian Ellis prize. Cameron Mackintosh said we were 60% or 70% there, but the truth is it was more like 20%.

“It was four years before we put it into shape enough to do it at the Watermill, which was our first-ever professional production. Then it was another year and a half before it went to the Tricycle. And then Steven Spielberg bought an option on it and we spent the next two years back and forth to LA writing different screenplay adaptations to that. So it kept us alive – literally – with advances, but eventually we got on to writing something else.”

‘Working on our first professional musical almost did us in’

And Stiles admits that the help they got along the way was invaluable, particularly the Vivian Ellis prize, which brought them to the attention of Mackintosh.

“The prize was a huge part of our career, and it was very much on our minds when we established the Stiles and Drewe Prize mentorship award. We felt it would be great to go back and look at what was great about that competition, and fuse it with other competitions we’ve been involved with – like the ASCAP prize in America that provides development through a series of readings. We attended it and were on a judging panel with Stephen Schwartz about six years ago in LA. It’s a really useful format, and it is all about the material, rather than about a production, that provides positive critiquing by practitioners.”

The Stiles and Drewe Prize recognises an outstanding song from a new musical, with the winner receiving £1,000 to put towards developing their work, while the mentorship award – given to writers of a new musical that has completed its first draft – involves a 12-month mentorship with Stiles and Drewe personally, culminating in an industry showcase.

This year, the pair tell me they had 124 entrants for the best new song award and 36 applications for the mentorship award, which suggests there’s a lot of aspiring writers out there.

Last year’s winner, The Wicker Husband, has had two stagings – a reading at Jerwood Space and then a showcase at the Other Palace, with high profile West End casts. (It has, Drewe chimes in, been a chance to “roll up our sleeves and say, ‘This might not work.'”) That musical has now had at least two offers from producers for a full production.

Despite the tough times, Stiles says the mentorship is a way to find shows “that we think have promise, so hopefully they’re not flogging a dead horse. To spend a year of a young writing life on something that may not fly can be a frustrating experience.”

He applauds the work being done by Lloyd Webber at the Other Palace. “It’s great to see Andrew at this stage of his life also really making a big effort to nurture and promote new musical writing. And its a wonderful bit of synchronicity with our prize. British musicals need all the help they can get.”

The lesson is that you have to play a long game. After working together for more than 30 years, Stiles and Drewe suddenly saw three shows come to fruition at the same time, with Chichester doing both Travels With My Aunt and Half a Sixpence, and The Wind in the Willows opening in Plymouth (and transferring to the Palladium this month).

As Stiles points out: “It’s always a very big and long slog and there are many turns in the road. For new writers, we wanted to help them, if not shortcut it, at least be able to keep their foot on the gas for long enough, knowing that someone is believing in them. That’s the thing that is most striking – even getting through to the last 12 of the song prize – and those entries are given to the students to sing – is enough for them to want to keep writing. It proves that something is happening, that there is a glimmer of light.”

Top tips for aspiring musical theatre writers

1. Collaboration tends to yield better fruit than being a single act. In our experience, you have far more success if you have a collaborator; you have two brains instead of one.
2. Get your work on – even if it’s just getting mates together in a flat in Neasden, get it sung and performed live. You will learn a lot from that.
3. You need to be absolutely passionate about your subject matter. Musicals are such a slow grind; you need to be be love with your subject matter for a long time.

The Stiles and Drew Prize takes place at the Noel Coward Theatre on June 11 at 3pm