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A partnership: Stiles & Drewe

Published August 10, 2012

There are not many names that become so synonymous that it’s hard to start with one without finishing with the other, but the Olivier Award-winning writing duo Stiles and Drewe refuse to trip off the tongue solo. Over the past 29 years the pair has provided songs for hit productions including Mary Poppins, Betty Blue Eyes and Best New Musical Olivier winner Honk. But while a Stiles without a Drewe would be like having fish without the chips, their careers have taken them off on occasional separate journeys, drawing them continents apart.

As their latest work Soho Cinders makes its London premiere, the pair took time apart to explain to Charlotte Marshall how a zoology student and a music scholar met over a photocopier and became one of the great theatrical partnerships, all thanks to a certain demon barber of Fleet Street.

George Stiles

We met across the photocopier at Exeter University in an age when photocopiers were still hard to come by. I was photocopying – don’t tell anybody – the score of The Pirates Of Penzance, which I was Musical Director for and Anthony was photocopying the score of a musical his brother had written which he was directing. Most of our friends said ‘You won’t like each other because you’re too similar’, but we got on immediately; we got thrown out of the library for talking.

As a result of that conversation over the photocopier, he asked me to be in the next musical that his brother had written. During the course of that our friendship deepened and we went to see a production of Sweeney Todd in the newly opened Plymouth Theatre Royal and I’d never seen anything like it. I didn’t think I really liked musicals but I saw this and thought ‘Oh my God it’s amazing! You can be funny one minute, deadly serious the next and you can root for a character who is morally questionable and you can love a woman who puts people into pies!’ On the way home from that, we had a 40 mile drive and we said ‘We should have a go at doing this.’ Even though we’d never written anything in our lives, we just booked the theatre the next week. It was amazing, we had a go at writing and 29 years later we’re still doing it.

The old question is what comes first, the music or the lyrics? The answer is the idea comes first and it’s usually something we talk about together for a while before we actually ever write anything. With Soho Cinders [which the pair started work on in 2000] it was quite different as we deliberately decided to turn our process on its head, we wanted to shake ourselves up. We wrote a lot of it in France at my sister-in-law’s house and I took a five octave keyboard, not a piano, and I deliberately didn’t take a sustain pedal with me so I literally had to play chords and rhythmic ideas and not become my normal pianistic self. I tried to make myself uncomfortable with my writing situation and Anthony did the same.

We hole ourselves up [when working]. Ant fell in love with the place so much and as a result of the writing time there he said ‘I’ve always known I need a house in France and I’m going to buy one’ and the success around the world with Honk allowed us to do that. I helped him out in the beginning and he bought me out of it. A bit of both of our souls is in that house.

It is a mad working life. At the moment we’ve probably got eight projects in our inbox; two are red hot, two are very warm, and four are at differing stages. But that’s thrilling, if you’re not busier than you’ve ever been at 50, then something’s wrong, isn’t it?

It’s very strange when we work without each other. On Betty Blue Eyes the two book writers started to call each other the mistress and the cheap southern whore because of the jealousies of writing with different partners and it’s a little bit like that with me and Anthony. I went through a period of writing three musicals with a wonderful man called Paul Leigh and that was when Anthony and I were floundering a bit over what we were going to do next and having a few difficulties about being in synch with what we wanted to do. That was difficult, the elastic stretched a bit – you might call it a seven year itch I suppose, or a 14 year itch! – and then we came banging back together again when Honk became a big success, then we started Soho Cinders, then Mary Poppins happened and somehow the rubber band’s been wound tighter and tighter.

There’s a song in Soho Cinders called Letting Go which is very personal. Anthony wrote the lyrics and he faxed it to me – so it tells you how long ago it was! – and I knew that [a particular] lyric was very personal to him and I didn’t even go to the piano to set it because it was one of those extraordinary moments when the fact that you know each other so well, I just knew exactly how it sounded. It was very simple, very straight forward, like I hope the best things are, and I was very proud of him for writing the lyric and for how good it is. I think there’s a lot of heart in what he does and I think his writing recently has accessed that in a way that perhaps he didn’t early in his career. What I love about Soho Cinders is it’s rawer and it’s grown-up. I think both of us probably resisted growing up quite a lot but we’ve done it together, at different speeds and at different times. Sometimes, as I said, the elastic stretches quite thin and then sometimes you bang right back together again and it’s just wonderful.

You become like an old married couple. I’ve been with my life partner for 26 years – who happens to be the lighting designer [Hugh Vanstone] on this show – and I have an extraordinary relationship with Anthony which is 29 years old. In a way it’s like having two amazing relationships.

Anthony Drewe

In our final year of university I was directing another one of my brother’s shows and I asked George if he’d like to be in it and we really got on well; either he was at my flat and we’d be laughing and having coffee, or I’d be at his. Then we went to see a production of Sweeney Todd at a theatre in Plymouth, which was amazing. In the car back to Exeter we said ‘Shall we try and write a musical?’ When you’re 21, you don’t fear anything – I’ve actually referred to that in a lyric of Soho Cinders, when you think the whole world is yours – and we said ‘Let’s go and book a theatre then.’ The next year, having graduated in the summer [Stiles in Music, Drewe in Zoology], we had until March to write, produce, direct, design it, build the set, everything, and somehow we did it. It was back in the days when it was possible to live on income support and housing benefit. We lived in a little thatched cottage on the outskirts of Exeter and I was building gold face masks and statues and George was writing the music. At one point in rehearsals we said to the cast ‘We’ve run out of money, we’re going to have to go away and do some decorating work’, and we went to this farm house in Norfolk and we decorated a dining room and came back with the money. It was very hand to mouth, but it worked.

It was a year after that that we got signed up by Warner Brothers. The Managing Director of the music publishing department said ‘Here is £15,000 between you, but you have to make it last two years.’ Even that for a student was a fortune, we thought we were millionaires! During that two year patronage with Warner Brothers we wrote our next show and that won a competition in London that Cameron Mackintosh and Tim Rice judged and Cameron then started giving us bits of money towards him acquiring an option on the show. He said ‘If there’s anything I can do to help, just give me a call’ and within a couple of days I think we rang him up and said ‘Well actually…’ It’s funny, rather than being on the nose and saying ‘Cameron we need some more money’ we’d ring his Managing Director and say ‘We’ve run out of bacon sandwiches.’ He was great, he never said no.

When we’re working on a show I like to write on A2 art paper. I write all my ideas for jokes or couplets all around the edge and eventually I think ‘Right, I’ve got an idea here’ and I start putting bits together in the middle of the paper. When I’ve got a verse or a chorus I’ll give it to George and he will usually try and set it away from the piano; I see him walking around the garden trying to find out what rhythm I must have had in my head. He doesn’t like me in the room when he’s composing but he doesn’t seem to mind me being in the room next door; he thinks I can’t hear him but I can. What infuriates him is when I come and say ‘I really like what you were doing half an hour ago’ and he says ‘I can’t remember what I was doing half an hour ago!’

I think winning the Olivier was my proudest moment because it was so unbelievably unexpected. We were so thrilled to be nominated, but we were up against The Lion King and Mamma Mia! and we just didn’t think in this lifetime it was going to happen. When we saw what we were up against we thought ‘Well, let’s go anyway, it’ll be nice for a day out.’ That morning I rang my parents and said ‘Don’t come’ and they said ‘Oh no we’re going to come because you’ve never been nominated before’ and I said ‘You’re going to come from Maidstone and for that hour and a half in the car you’ll be thinking ‘they might win, they might win’ and we’re not going to.’ They did come and then we won! It can be never be that good again because it can never be that unexpected again.

Working separately is strange and it’s not something I ever sought to do. I think I was the first one to have a ‘mistress’ effectively. Cameron asked me to rewrite The Card in 1992 and so George understood that it was Cameron asking me to do it and I wasn’t going to say no. George and I were offered The Three Musketeers and I read it and said ‘George it’s not me’, I can’t write for people with plumes in their hair and swords, so I passed on it and he did it with Paul Leigh. I’m much happier when we’re working together, I feel like my best buddy’s with me.

It’s hard because I speak in a language that everyone understands so my work feels more personal. If I’m relating something in a lyric which has some personal affect in my life – which a lot of my songs do have – I’m always slightly embarrassed about giving it to him. We work to this weird little ritual when I’ve written a new lyric and I’ll say ‘I don’t know what I think of this’ and he’ll say ‘Crap dear, now show it to me.’ It’s just that moment of ‘this is a little bit out of me I’m going to put down in front of you.’

Writing in France is my favourite bit of working together on a project. I spend about six months of the year down there now and we both love cooking, we both love cycling and we both love doing the garden. He absolutely adores a strimmer, so when he’s done all day on the piano, he’s out there strimming to his heart’s content.

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