Having trained as a dancer, award-winning choreographer Stephen Mear’s first experience with West End musicals was as a performer. He appeared in numerous shows including Evita, 42nd Street, Anything Goes (in 1989) and Crazy for You.
After taking over as resident choreographer on the last, he also assisted director-choreographer Susan Stroman on Oklahoma! at the National Theatre and in the West End. Setting off on his own, Mear’s credits in the UK and abroad quickly started mounting up with productions including Soul Train, Singin’ in the Rain, A Little Night Music, Follies, Of Thee I Sing, Half a Sixpence, Putting It Together, Three Musketeers, Stepping Out, Honk!, Tonight’s the Night and The Witches of Eastwick (co-choreographed with Bob Avian).
In 2003, Mear returned Cole Porter’s Anything Goes in his new guise. His work on Trevor Nunn’s multi award-winning National Theatre production, which transferred for an extended run at the West End’s Theatre Royal Drury Lane, won him even wider acclaim and recognition, as well as a second Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers' Choice Award (the first being for Singin’ in the Rain).
Over the past six months, Mear has had a particularly prolific period. The spate of high-profile productions for which he provided the choreography started with the December world premiere of Mary Poppins - for which he won and co-choreographer Matthew Bourne won an Olivier Award – and was followed this year by Victoria Wood’s debut musical Acorn Antiques - the Musical and English National Opera’s epic-scale revival of Leonard Bernstein’s Broadway classic On the Town.
This month, Mear has returned to Chichester Festival, where he had a hit last year with Just So, to choreograph a revival of another Broadway classic, Frank Loesser’s How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which has just opened at the Festival Theatre.
Date & place of birth
Born in Loughborough on 19 February 1964.
Lives now in
I live now in Brighton – I’ve lived there for a year. I’ve always wanted to live there, and have a beautiful apartment that looks over the sea. And it’s fantastically handy for Chichester!
I trained at London Studio Centre – I did a three-year musical theatre course, training to become a dancer. While at college, I got into two West End shows, Evita (in 1984) and 42nd Street (in 1985), and I did all my classes still. I was a bit obsessed. I always loved choreography at college, and I was always dance captain on the shows I was in. In Crazy for You, which was the last show I did in the West End, I decided to leave. Then the lady who was looking after it as resident choreographer became pregnant, and Susan Stroman asked me to take over. So I did. And then I put the show on in Australia as well, and for its UK tour, and then assisted Susan on Oklahoma! as well when she did it at the National.
First big break
I was gradually taking a step up, doing choreography for pantos and working with rep companies, such as at Derby. I did a show called Soul Train for them, and it went into the West End (to the Victoria Palace) for eight weeks from June 1999 as part of a tour - I got nominated for an Olivier Award for it, so that was a break! Then in August of the same year, I did a show at the Bridewell, Of Thee I Sing, and it was the first big thing that I got noticed for. Trevor Nunn and Gillian Lynne saw it and both wrote to me, and Gavin Lee, who is now in Mary Poppins, was in it, too. It was a real good kick-start for me. I was also looking after Oklahoma! at the time.
Career highlights to date
One of the shows I’ve had the best time in my whole career doing was Anything Goes at the National and then Drury Lane. I had been in the previous West End production at the Prince Edward, so I was determined to make it different. In the one I’d done before, the singers and actors stood to one side swaying while the 12 dancers, that included me, danced. I wanted to see the whole stage dance. I loved working on Mary Poppins - the collaboration between Richard Eyre, Matthew Bourne and me was great, and we were able to do a year’s pre-production on it, working with our designer Bob Crowley. And Acorn Antiques - the Musical recently was the best laugh. Victoria Wood is a genius and so is Julie Walters – it was like a masterclass in comedy.
Amongst the dancers I’m working with now, I have a favourite called Alexis Owen Hobbs – she was in Anything Goes and On the Town and is now in How to Succeed.... There’s something special about her. Other actors I love are Judi Dench, Julie Walters and Julia McKenzie. Julia has helped my career as well – I was in Follies with her, and she asked me to choreograph a concert tribute that the company did for the late Martin Smith during the run. I also did a production of A Little Night Music in Japan with her that she directed and I choreographed. My favourite dancers of the past are Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, and my most inspiring tap dancer was Ann Miller. I always try to put an homage to her in my shows – the angular arm and the hand shimmy shakes with her elbows. I put it into Acorn Antiques, too – it’s quite effective with marigolds!
Favourite musical writers
I love Cole Porter, Gershwin and Sondheim. And I love George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, too – they’re exciting and clever, and it’s great working with them. What they brought to Mary Poppins is fantastic – people go out of the theatre singing their songs, and that’s an amazing achievement in a show where the songs are already so well known. I’m so lucky with what I do to have worked with the music of all of these composers.
Trevor Nunn, without a doubt, and Richard Eyre, too. I love Trevor’s detail, he doesn’t miss a thing, and Richard is very similar. Nobody is left out. I’ve worked with so many directors who tell people to stand in the back and move on this word. But there’s no reason why they’re doing anything. But here, the business is always motivated. And that makes you motivate your dance routines better. When I did Tonight's the Night, it was dance for dance sake – it didn’t move any stories forward. Although I enjoyed doing it, that’s not as inspiring. I always work very closely with the director. I’ve been lucky to work with such good directors who like to work scenes out together. They have the last say, but they’re are always interested in what I have to say too. I’ve been offered things to direct a few times, but I don’t think I should do it for the sake of it. I will do, at some point, but I love choreographing so much.
What other choreographers do you most admire?
Matthew Bourne – I like the way his mind creates things. He’s a great director of dance as well as a choreographer. I went to see Highland Fling the other night, and it was so clever. On Mary Poppins, we moulded every number together. Because I’m a tap dancer, I came up with the steps for Step in Time, for instance, and then Matthew suggested reversing it. And with “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”, I know how to sign because my partner is deaf, so we used that knowledge and then made it bigger. There’s a bit of give and take. I’m more of a steps person, and Matthew likes people to bring their ideas into the room. We both like telling stories. It worked out perfectly. Quite a lot of people would probably have liked to see us wrestling on the floor, but there was never a bad word between us.
Another choreographer I admire is Norman Maen – he directed the Royal Varieties when they had the big stars and were really classy! He also did the Morecambe and Wise shows, and I assisted him on a stage version of Some Like It Hot that we did at the Prince Edward Theatre in 1992. I was also in the show, and took over from Tommy Steele for the last 12 performances. It was a fantastic learning experience. Norman was really old school, and he loved discipline. You were having a good time, but you got on with the work, too. He would write the steps down on notepads.
Why do you think theatre is important in modern Britain?
Theatre is so important – it helps bring trade and tourism into England. It’s a big industry, and it’s so worth it. The function of musical theatre is pure escapism. There’s nothing nicer than to see people leaving the theatre trying to tap dance down the street, and I’ve seen that a lot!
If you hadn’t become involved in theatre/dance, what would you have done professionally?
I was dyslexic at school, but I wanted to become a draughtsman. Goodness knows how the buildings would have come out.
What’s the first thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you? And the last?
The first London show I saw was the revival of Pal Joey (at the Albery Theatre, with Sian Phillips and Denis Lawson, in 1980) - all I remember were the showgirls, I thought they were fantastic. I loved all the characters in it, and I love the music of it as well. It’s hit after hit. The two performances of recent years that have most stood out for me were seeing Judi Dench in A Little Night Music and Julia McKenzie in Sweeney Todd.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Fred Astaire – I just think he was a genius, and I’d love to have tapped in those old films. Tap is my forte, if I’ve got one.
I love books about old Hollywood films, especially Busby Berkeley, and about Broadway musicals. I like learning about people that aren’t with us anymore.
Favourite holiday destinations
In the last three years, I’ve not been on many holidays, but I’m not going to moan about that! I would be moaning more if I wasn’t working! I’m going to Disneyland in Florida for Christmas. I’ve been twice before and I’m going for a third time. I also love Sitges (in Spain) as well – it’s just beautiful, a lovely, relaxing destination.
Favourite after-show haunts
Soho House. I’ve been a member since it opened, when I was in Crazy for You across the street at the Prince Edward. It’s a nice relaxing place… but it can get a bit crowded at weekends.
How does your approach differ between revivals & new musicals?
With revivals, you have to do your homework but the story is there, you’re safe, so you either say yes or no to doing them. With new shows, the book and characters are still being worked on, so you don’t know what you’ve got. With The Witches of Eastwick, there was a lot of chopping and changing. I felt that we achieved a really good show by the time we took it from Drury Lane to the Prince of Wales. If we’d started off with that show all along, I’m sure it would still be on.
What did you want to choreograph this revival of How to Succeed...?
My agent wanted me to have a break after Acorn Antiques and On the Town. But I’d seen the last production of How to Succeed... on Broadway with Matthew Broderick (in 1995), and I thought this might be the only chance I’d get to do it. The music is such fun and it’s got fantastic numbers - I can’t believe it’s not been done since the original production here. Guys and Dolls (also by Frank Loesser) is done a lot because it’s a very ‘up’ show and it made a big film. The film of How to Succeed... has hardly any numbers. And the audience have to think more with this.
What’s your favourite scene in How to Succeed...? And Mary Poppins?
In How to Succeed..., there’s a scene with Annette McLaughlin where she has to swear on a Bible in a TV studio that’s just so funny. In Mary Poppins, I like it when Mary leaves the kids at the end. It’s very touching. Without them realising it, they and the family have grown closer – it’s so beautifully written. I also like the “Step in Time” scene on the rooftops.
Often the leads in musicals are employed more for their singing/acting talent than their dancing. How do you get the most out of performers who aren’t dancers?
On Anything Goes (which shared a company with Nunn’s production of Love’s Labour’s Lost), we had a lot of people who were also doing plays at the National at the time. You just have to work to give them confidence. If they can enjoy doing a dance step, they all want to have a go. You can’t keep changing things every five seconds, but the more they like you and trust you, the more you’ll get from them, believe me. You can’t beat character dancing.
How do you continue to juggle so many projects at once?
The last three shows I’ve done all overlapped by a week, but luckily I had fantastic assistants. I always insist on doing pre-production with an assistant in a studio to work out what we’re going to do before rehearsals begin. Things often change once we get into the room with the actors, and they bring their character to it as well, but I like to have an idea of what I want them to do. I’ve known a couple of choreographers who go into rehearsal not knowing what they’re going to do, but I could never do that – I want to make sure that no one can catch me out!
What are your plans for the future?
I start to do pre-production on a new show for Disney in New York in June. It’s not signed yet, so I can’t tell you what it is! But I’m thrilled. And even if it all falls through, it’s great that they’ve asked an English choreographer to work with them. Hopefully, too, Mary Poppins will go to Broadway at some point. I would love to have something on Broadway! But then I never would have dreamt that I’d be doing what I’m doing now, so I really am more than happy already – and it was great getting an Olivier Award this year.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers' Choice Awards twice for my choreography (for both Singin' in the Rain and Anything Goes), and I was thrilled about that. Winning any award is great, and especially this one – because the public vote for it, it’s nice to be recognised by them.
- Stephen Mear was speaking to Mark Shenton
As part of Chichester’s annual summer festival season, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying continues in repertoire until 10 September 2005 at Chichester Festival Theatre, where it opened on 5 May (previews from 29 April).
In London, Acorn Antiques finishes its run at the West End’s Theatre Royal Haymarket on 21 May 2005, English National Opera’s production of On the Town is in rep at the London Coliseum until 28 May 2005, and Mary Poppins continues at the West End’s Prince Edward Theatre, where it’s currently booking until 1 April 2006.