Terry Grimley meets the award-winning partnership behind Birmingham Rep's musical version of Peter Pan.
Stiles and Drewe may sound like an upmarket firm of interior furnishers, but it's actually the trademark of one of Britain's most successful musical theatre partnerships.
Composer George Stiles and lyricist Anthony Drewe are the creators of the musical Peter Pan, which, following a concert version in London and a first theatrical outing in Copenhagen, is making its UK theatrical debut at Birmingham Rep this Christmas.
Honk!, their highly successful musical adaptation of The Ugly Duckling, beat The Lion King and Mamma Mia to win the Olivier Award for Best Musical in 2000, and they were entrusted by Disney and Cameron Mackintosh with the task of adding additional material for the stage version of Mary Poppins . That show comes to the Birmingham Hippodrome from July 10 to September 27 next year.
Their partnership started when they were both undergraduates at Exeter University, where George was studying in the now famously defunct music department.
Both had an interest in musical theatre - George ran the Gilbert & Sullivan Society - and it was a trip to Plymouth to see Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd that inspired them to try their hand at writing together.
"In the car on the way back, we said shall we try to write a musical and see if it works?" Anthony remembers. "The next thing we did was to book the Northcott Theatre, saying can we have it in nine months time, for a week?"
As George points out, he had already written incidental music for the Northcott - his first effort was an electronic score for a young director called Nicholas Hytner - so they were already well known in the building.
"We just didn't know we could write songs," Anthony continues.
But they had enough success with their first show, Tutankhamun, to put plans for teachertraining on hold.
In the late 1980s they had a run of success as a performing duo on New Faces. Recording the finals at the Hippodrome led to a weekly trip to Birmingham to perform a topical song on Central TV's daytime show Gas Street.
Their second musical, Just So, won the the Vivian Ellis prize in 1985 and opened up a long-term sequence of events when Steven Spielberg optioned it for a possible animated film version.
"Cameron Mackintosh owned that show," Anthony explains. "Cameron, George and I went out to Los Angeles. It was when Spielberg had just made Hook and he said he didn't think he had got Peter Pan out of his system. Cameron turned to us and said why don't you boys do a musical version?"
George picks up the story: "In 1995 we were approached by a panto producer who was using some of our songs in his production of Peter Pan. He said would you like to do some more songs to go with this? We started writing and it became apparent that he wasn't planning to pay us for them, so we decided to carry on with it on our own.
"Then for five or six years Disney had the rights to Peter Pan and were developing this huge 5,000-seat spectacular version of the show."
"We always thought it was too big," Anthony adds. "If it's a 5,000-seat arena, how is a five year-old going to relate to Peter?"
"That relationship culminated in a concert version with John Thaw as Captain Hook and Sheila Hancock as the Mother at the Royal Festival Hall, with the BBC Concert Orchestra."
A song from the show won an award in a competition they entered in Aarhus, Denmark, eventually leading to the first stage production at Det Ny Theatre, Copenhagen, in 1999.
This is one of two notable Danish links in their career, the other being their big success with Honk!, based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen.
It won Best Musical awards in America and South Africa as well as Britain, and is having something lie its 3,000th production at the Watermill Theatre, Newbury, this Christmas.
"It's been good to us since it won the Olivier Award against Momma Mia and The Lion King," says Anthony. "That's when Disney sat up and said 'Who are these people?'"
"By giving us that it changed our lives," adds George. "The Lion King and Mamma Mia didn't need that award."
Peter Pan has a book by the late Willis Hall, who died two years ago. The connection came about when Anthony was asked to contribute new lyrics to a 1992 reworking of The Card, the musical version of Arnold Bennett's novel which Hall originally wrote in 1971 with his long-time writing partner Keith Waterhouse, plus the composer and lyricist team of Tony Hatch and Jackie Trent.
"Willis is a much-missed friend," says George. "We had a wonderful collaboration with him. The hardest part of a musical is writing the book."
"I don't know if we would have written Honk! If I hadn't worked with Willis and Keith," says Anthony. "When it came to doing Peter Pan, it was useful to have someone of a different generation working with us."
This is a reference to the timeless themes of the book, despite its specific setting.
"Although it's still based in Edwardian London, the show moves into a Neverland that resembles a familiar world," explains George. "It's still very relevant. There are the same issues parents have with children today: it's about letting go and what you take from childhood into adulthood, the experiences you can't have any more because they are tainted with real life.
"That's what Willis understood, and why he reworked the end of the story in the way he has."
Despite its previous two outings, Stiles and Drewe think of this as the show's real theatrical premiere.
"It's s how we envisaged the show," says Anthony. "When we did it at Royal Festival Hall we couldn't have flying."
George adds: "Also, when we did it in Denmark there were two long scene changes and two interludes. You would sit there for three and a half hours, whereas when we first staged it the first act was one hour ten, the second just under an hour.
"It's certainly working the way we intended it. As artists all you can hope for is that on the first night you can say 'that's what I meant', even if no-one else likes it.
"It's bound to upset some people because new versions of wonderful, beloved stories always do. But the great thing is you can't destroy the original because it's there, just like Shakespeare. You can always go back to the original text."
* Peter Pan is at Birmingham Repertory Theatre until January 19 (Box office: 0121 236 4455).