Brief Encounter With ... Stephen Mear
With two major projects about to hit the West End, Mear returns to directing song and dance revue Shoes, written by Jerry Springer: The Opera creator Richard Thomas, which opens at the Peacock Theatre following its successful try-out run at Sadler's Wells last year. The show opens on 15 February (previews from 8 Februry) at the Peacock Theatre where it plays until 3 April 2011 prior to touring.
Mear is also in pre-production for Betty Blue Eyes, the Stiles and Drew musical directed by Richard Eyre, which sees Alan Bennett’s comic film A Private Function, brought to the West End as Cameron Mackintosh's first original musical in over a decade. That production plays the Novello Theatre from 13 April (previews from 19 March 2011).
I forgot how big Shoes was, luckily my assistant on this show has been fantastic and is teaching most of the dances. It suddenly all came back into place. The company are fantastic, there are only two from the original cast, which is only because the others were fantastic soloists and I knew would get other work, and they did!
I am very busy at the moment, this is the worst I've ever had to juggle, but I shouldn't moan — never look a gift horse in the mouth. I always do a lot of pre-production work on whichever show I'm working on. Even if I have to work Sundays and go into a studio I will do that. I always do pre-production, I never like to go into a show cold. I have to have a set picture and some patterns - a vocabulary. I then build it around that through the people that I work with.
We've cut a couple of numbers from Shoes and added one back in, it was cut during previews of the previous run and is now back in the show. I just wanted to re-look at it. When you're first doing a show you're kind of thrown into it. It was nice to be able to sit back and look at it and what will make the show run more smoothly. Although it ran very well, it is about refining it, making it slicker and tidier, sometimes changing the running order.
The audience reaction to Shoes was fantastic. Because it is a song and dance revue - and there hasn't been one for a long long time - it was a question of what people are expecting. Revues might be thought of as old fashioned, but everything goes through phases. It all comes back round again - like 1960's clothes. The revue can come back and Shoes is a modern take on it.
People were probably wondering what to expect. Would the show be a musical because I was involved or would it be more "Sadler's Wells" and be more contemporary? It's more of a mishmash really, but that's why I chose different choreographers, to make sure that it had so many different styles. Because Richard Thomas' style is so diverse, I think it needed it. I would have had a go at all of it, but I think it brings something different to the show.
We came out with standing ovations every night, which was really nice for something new. Really, we only had a week on stage. In real life that would be your previews. I would have loved another two weeks, but having said that the company were amazing. We've not got the chance to have a look at it again, we've got an eight-week run, so I'm thrilled about that.
Betty Blue Eyes is also working with brand new score written by George Stiles and Anthony Drew. I've worked on Honk, Just So and Mary Poppins with them now and I think they're geniuses. I really think this is their best work, the music on the show is fabulous. One of the main reasons for taking the job was how much I love their music.
Betty Blue Eyes is Alan Bennett, so I mean that is already a good start for any script. It's based on Private Function which is already very funny, but because it's been turned into a musical, we've tried to make it very stylised and give it a different look.
It's very witty, but trying to bring some of the wit of the show into the choreography is one of my main things about the show. I think it's Stiles and Drew's best music and that is actually such a bonus for the show. It's not like someone has just put songs together for an old show, it really has given it an extra lift.
Working on a completely new musical you make up the story of the routines, how they build. In the show there is a number called "Nobody" which Sarah Lancashire will sing. It's about her saying that nobody calls her a nobody and about her being a big star at the Palladium, so she transforms during the number from this housewife to someone performing at the Palladium, it's great because you get to work out how the story goes.
I'm a great believer in not just choreographing numbers for the sake of it. I think if they forward the storytelling then I find it far more interesting. Nowadays that's the case, more choreographers are being used to forward the story. So it's great to be able to do that. Nothing beats character actors moving and we get that in Betty Blue Eyes because it is more actor driven. I find that funny, because then members of the audience feel like they can do it too!
The musical is 1940s style, which is a great period to work in, with the Jitterbug and the Lindy. I do have a couple of "triple-threats" in the show, thank the Lord, that help me get through the big numbers. I push them to the extreme. There is a number called "Lion Heart" that takes you back in time to a big dance hall, which is great.
I worked with Richard Eyre on Mary Poppins so I am very lucky to be working with him again. He is just a brilliant director. I've worked with so many directors, he's definitely up there on my list of favourites to work with. He is fabulous, and so interesting to listen to, his knowledge is fantastic.
Stephen Mear is nominated for the 2011 Whatsonstage.com Award for Best Choreographer for Shoes at Sadler’s Wells and Sweet Charity at the Menier Chocolate Factory and Theatre Royal Haymarket.