A guest post from Anthony Drewe, lyricist and librettist for this year’s show Soho Cinders, written with George Stiles and Elliot Davis. This is Anthony and George’s third time returning to the Festival, previously being featured with their shows Honk! (Fest ’99) and The Three Little Pigs (Fest ’13). George also had a second show featured in the 1999 Festival, The Three Musketeers
My first experience of NAMT was in 1993 when I attended the Festival of New Musicals as a delegate. I was impressed that such an organization existed for new writers and that so many regional theatres shared such a strong interest in new musical theatre. At the time, I wished that such an organisation existed in the UK and, as a Brit, never dreamt that we would one day have a show of our own in the NAMT Festival.

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An interview with George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, writers of the upcoming Festival show The Three Little Pigs, about the ups and downs of writing for children, the insights gained from international productions and their upcoming performance in the Festival of New Musicals. Interview conducted by NAMT’s Program Intern Audra LaBrosse.  

NAMT: Three Little Pigs is a familiar story to most people. During your writing, how did you go about updating the tale and adding original touches?
George Stiles: Well, we did a similar thing with Honk!, our re-take of The Ugly Duckling. We enjoy making the characters as “human” as possible, and updating the dialogue so it feels contemporary and classic all at the same time! Family dynamics always interest us, how brothers and sisters manage to get along with each other, even though they’re often very different characters. So with the Pigs, we liked the idea that the father of the family had been “taken” by the Big Bad Wolf, so there’s a tension from the outset and makes the Mother a strong but put-upon figure who’s had to raise her piglets single-handed. We also thought a Wolf who reckoned he was “misunderstood” was fun… after all, he’s just doing what wolves do!

NAMT: This show is part of a “trio of trilogies.” Tell us a bit more about that concept.
GS: That’s all [Anthony’s] fault. He’s greedy. One’s never enough. But what’s great about it is that a theatre can choose to “mix and match” the shows. The second is Goldilocks and the Three Bears, which we premiered earlier this year – and the final part will be The Three Billy Goats Gruff. Each is 45-50 minutes long, so you can do 1, 2 or 3 of them with the same 5 actors, and design a simple set that works for all three. That way, theatres can program the shows for daytime or evening presentations. 

NAMT: Can you tell us briefly how you went about updating the other stories in the trilogy?
Anthony Drewe: Well we haven’t written The Three Billy Goats Gruff yet, but Goldilocks And The Three Bears is ready to go and played very successfully in Singapore earlier this year. Our self-imposed conundrum in writing the trilogy was that we wanted it to be possible to perform all three shows with the same five actors. In the story of Goldilocks there are traditionally only 4 characters, but this limitation actually gave us our way into retelling the story. We first meet Goldi as she
accompanies her father, Mr. Locks, a lumberjack, to the woods. Our new character, Mr. Locks, is felling trees to make way for a new road that is going to pass through the wood. It is when the tomboyish Goldi wanders off that she encounters the Bear’s cabin and her adventures begin. Despite the fact that Goldi has eaten Baby Bears’ porridge, broken his chair, and even had the temerity to sleep in his bed, the Bear Family see her as an ally who can help save their woodland from the bulldozers. So, as well as telling the much-loved fairytale, we have given it a modern day, ecological twist.

NAMT: The Three Little Pigs and your shows are directed towards family and younger audiences. What do you like about writing for this audience?
GS: You can’t fool younger children. They let you know immediately if they’re engaged and entertained. Often it’s their first time in a theatre, and that’s also a thrill and a responsibility for us. I also don’t think there’s a more heart-warming sound than the giggles of a kid when the show has made them laugh. 

NAMT: Since young children always come with a chaperone, do you add anything to make it more enjoyable for the adults involved too?
AD: When devising shows for younger audiences, we have always tried to write in a way which will appeal to the target audience as well as to their older brothers and sisters, who are usually reluctantly “dragged” along, and to their parents and even grandparents. There is something very moving about seeing three generations going to the theatre together and all getting something slightly different from the experience. We try to throw in a few gags for the older members of the audience, which go over the heads of the kids hopefully without detracting from the story. With Honk!Just SoPeter Pan and Mary Poppins the target audience is a bit older than that for The Three Little Pigs, but the same principle applies: tell the story clearly, with humor and hummable songs, add a few surprises and hopefully everyone goes home smiling.

NAMT: The Three Little Pigs was commissioned by Singapore Repertory Theatre (and has already been translated into Mandarin!). What was the experience like mounting the production there?
GS: We’ve a long history with Singapore Repertory Theatre. They have been fantastic at commissioning new work across the years and deserve to be recognized for that. English is the first language of Singapore—but of course there are many local idiosyncrasies and it’s part of the reason we named our three little pigs Cha, Siu and Bao, after our favorite dim sum of barbecued pork dumplings! #tasty. Gaurav Kripilani is the artistic and producing director and he loves getting new work premiered at his theatre and is very nurturing in the process—so the show has now had two successful runs there, one in English and one in Mandarin. We read both shows in London before mounting them. The other great discovery was our orchestrator, Ruth Ling—she’s a fantastically talented musician who has created our backing tracks—and she lives and works in Singapore. She’s trained in London and the USA—and I predict a glittering future for her. 

NAMT: Because of your shows’ great successes, you tend to encounter international audiences often, and have been translated into many other languages. Have you learned or discovered anything about your shows, including Three Little Pigs, through a response from a non-British (and non-American) audience?
AD: We have been unbelievably fortunate that our shows, particularly Honk!, have been translated into so many languages—Hebrew, Icelandic, Danish, Filipino, Dutch, Japanese, Finnish, German, Belgian, Portuguese, Swedish and Mandarin. Translations bring many challenges, particularly for the poor translators. We advise them to try keep “the essence” of the meaning without doing a slavish translation—in some languages it is very hard to find an exact equivalent and, in the case of Danish, for example, the vocabulary is only a quarter of that of the English language. I actually directed Honk! in Tokyo and I had to have a translator and interpreter on hand all the time so that I could at least understand what the actors were saying. The other challenge is that sometimes a simple monosyllabic word in the English language requires a multi-syllabic word in the local language, which has a knock on effect in a song where one syllable is usually allocated to one note—so occasionally a few extra notes have to be added to the melody!

When we watch productions overseas it is interesting to note the way in which different audiences react. Generally the key moments, be they comical, moving or scary, elicit a similar reaction. I remember in Japan that the audiences were very respectful, clapping at the first appearance of the star performers, and generally only clapping 7 claps (I counted) after each song. There was little laughing out loud, which seemed to be a cultural thing, but at the end of the show the audience went wild! I guess a good story is a good story, no matter what the language and, in the case of Honk!, Hans Christian Andersen did the hard work for us!

NAMT: You were previously at the NAMT Festival with Honk!. What part of the Festival process are you excited to revisit again?
GS: Pretty much every part! Working with insanely talented Broadway performers for a start. The chance to showcase our piece to so many great regional theatres, as well as New Yorkers—it was hugely beneficial to the life that Honk!has enjoyed since 1999 when it was at the Festival. The chance to meet other writers, to work with the brilliant Vicky Bussert and Ryan Garrett—and just to be in NYC for another week always puts a spring in our steps! 

NAMT: Have there been any recent edits to The Three Little Pigs that you are excited to try out in New York?
AD: With The Three Little Pigs, we held a semi-staged reading in London before the show opened in Singapore in 2012. A few changes were made between the reading and the production, and some further edits and additions were made in rehearsal. For the NAMT Festival we have made a few little edits to get the running time down so that we are “in and out” in 45 minutes—so you pretty much get the whole show for this presentation. As I think Michael Price of Goodspeed Opera House once said to me, “No-one ever complained about a show being too short!”

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A guest blog entry from George Stiles, writer of The Three Little Pigs to be presented at this year’s Festival of New Musicals.  
The Three Little Pigs was written in response to a specific brief from the Singapore Repertory Theatre. Over the past few years, they have built up their younger audiences – from 3 years and over – with their dedicated “The Little Company.” Singapore has a huge number of school-age children, for whom English is their first language, with Malay, Mandarin or Hokkien as their second. SRT realised that this audience was barely catered for with live entertainment and that, aside from large, highly-visible branded tours, there was a lack of high quality musical theatre material.

Since we already had considerable experience writing for a truly “family” audience (Honk!, Mary Poppins, Just So, Peter Pan) we were intrigued to see how we could adapt our style to cater for an audience of 3 years and upwards. We were encouraged to find a story that “sold itself” by having title recognition, and that had a small cast to make the numbers work. We briefly thought of Snow White, before realizing it inherently demanded at least 8 in the cast! So we soon settled on The Three Little Pigs – immediately wondering if we could write a “trilogy of trios” – and move on to Goldilocks and the Three Bears and The Three Billy Goats Gruff. Well, we figured the “rule of three” works even better as the rule of three threes!

We quickly found a sense of liberation knowing that we wanted the show to run at 45-50 minutes, have just 5 in the cast and be understood by very young children as well as be enjoyed by their older brothers, sisters, parents and grandparents. As kids, we both remember loving
watching shows with our parents and sometimes not getting everything that was said or sung, but knowing our folks were having as great a time as we were – all laughing at the same jokes and singing along to the same catchy tunes. So we set about trying to do the same ourselves. Shorter song structures, repeated lyrical ideas, fairly straightforward messages but also a wide range of musical references and lots of “suddenly”s (our old friend the playwright David Wood’s phrase for making sure that on every page of script there is at least one metaphorical “when, suddenly…”) as a device to keep the children engaged and focused. 

We loved writing the show. It flew by and we clocked up the key songs “A real Pig-sty”, “A Bit Misunderstood” and “A Little House” over a couple of months while working on other projects. We then sat down to assemble the show over a few weeks at Ant’s house in the South-West of France. 

The show was a very considerable success in Singapore – the run was extended and played for over 70 sold-out performances – on the set of another show that played the regular 8-show-week. It’s since been translated into Mandarin and played a further 4 sold-out weeks in the same 350-seat theatre. 

We believe that there is a huge opportunity here for theatres to program more creatively – reaching out to locals schools and pre-schools and building an audience for this kind of educative, fun and accessible musical theatre. And of course the show also works for the whole-family weekend and holiday schedules. Down the line, our idea is that you could also choose to perform two of these short shows as a double-bill to make a full evening’s entertainment – thus giving the shows the ability to be programmed in many different ways.

We’ve already written and premiered Goldilocks, to even greater success and will start work on the Billy Goats later this year for a 2015 premiere. We already have movie and TV interest in them – there’s no doubt that children’s entertainment across the world is massively in the ascendant. Don’t be left behind – there’s a whole new audience for theatre to be won over here, and a whole new chance to make your theatres full, vibrant and earning at times you didn’t think could be profitable.

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FESTIVAL COUNTDOWN: Returning to the Festival

A guest blog entry from Anthony Drewe, writer of The Three Little Pigs to be presented at this year’s Festival of New Musicals.  

2013 actually marks my third return to the NAMT Festival. My first visit was in 1993 when I came purely as an invited visitor to sit in on some of the conference sessions, as well as seeing several of the Festival presentations of new musicals. I was blown away by the standard of the new writing, the quality of the presentations, the fact that actors of such caliber were happy to participate in such readings and the phenomenon that an organization existed purely to discover and nurture new musicals. The fact that NAMT was made up of professional theatres from all across America was inspiring, and the approach of those theatres to sharing and co-funding productions was something that I knew was sorely lacking in the UK at that time. Back in 1993 I wasn’t sure that the NAMT Festival was something that Brits could apply for, but I knew it was something that I would love to be a part of. Even the names of some of your theatres like Goodspeed Opera House, Walnut Street Theatre, Papermill Playhouse, Seaside Repertory Theatre, Bay Street Festival Theatre sounded somehow more romantic and exciting than British theatres. So, you can imagine how thrilled I was in 1999 when a little musical I had written with my long time collaborator, George Stiles, called HONK! was accepted for the Festival.

Actually, two amazing things happened for HONK! in 1999. As well as being given a reading at the Festival, in December of the same year it was produced at the Royal National Theatre in London. The NAMT Festival preceded the RNT production by three months, and we were delighted with both the reaction the show received and the interest shown in it by so many theatres. Tony Stimac at the Helen Hayes Performing Arts Centre in Nyack was the first to produce the show in the Spring of 2000 and
it was during its run there that the RNT production back in London won the ‘Best New Musical’ category in the Laurence Olivier Awards, beating THE LION KING and MAMMA MIA. Suddenly it seemed everyone wanted our little show about an Ugly Duckling. Jon Kimbell at North Shore Music Theatre mounted its second US production and now, to date, there have been over 8,000 productions of the show around the world – most of them in the USA, and a very large proportion of those being in NAMT member theatres.

Now, George and I are returning to the NAMT Festival with THE THREE LITTLE PIGS – a musical unashamedly aimed at the next generation of theatre-goers. In advertising for submissions for the 2013 Festival, NAMT expressed a wish to encompass as wide a range of musicals as possible for different audiences. We wrote THE THREE LITTLE PIGS as part of a musical trilogy for children (along with companion shows GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE BEARS and THE THREE BILLY GOATS GRUFF). The show is aimed at children from the age of 3 and up with the hope that it will introduce them to

the wonders of theatre by taking a well-known fairy tale and musicalizing it. The kids arrive with title recognition and certain expectations, and hopefully leave singing. In the UK we have seen a proliferation of child-friendly productions whereby theatres, including some in the West End, stage two daytime performances to busloads of children, on an easily storable/touring set and then, in the evening, resume performances of the resident “adult” production. We very much hope that our three little pigs may set out on a similar journey to our ugly duckling across America as a result of being presented at New World Stages in October.

We are delighted to be coming back to New York for the Festival, and to share in the celebrations for the NAMT’s 25th Anniversary. To misquote Oscar Wilde, to be included once in the Festival may be regarded as fortunate, to be included twice is little short of miraculous.

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