Wednesday 15 April 2015

The Gypsy In Mear - Stephen Mear On Choreographing Gypsy For The West End

clockwise from left Dan Burton, Stephen Mear, Lara Pulver and Imelda Staunton


As Gypsy opens at the Savoy Theatre tonight, I caught up with its choreographer and one of the country's leading creative talents, Stephen Mear to talk about the show and in particular to understand more of his work with and respect for leading lady Imelda Staunton.

The Chichester Festival Theatre production of Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim's classic was one of the highlights of 2014 winning the Critics Circle award for Best Musical and cementing Staunton's position as quite possibly the nation's greatest musical theatre actress with her portrayal of the complex if monstrous Mamma Rose.

JB:    Stephen, thank you so much for finding the time to talk during the hectic work of Gypsy’s preview run. How's it’s going?

SM:    I don't think I've experienced anything like it before, ever, to be quite honest. We’ve already had Stephen Sondheim in to watch the show and with Imelda having got a full standing ovation after Rosie’s Turn at the first preview, it's really been quite breathtaking.

The full house just stood up instantaneously. It was quite something. I've always said with Imelda it's like watching a volcano erupt. It's all just so brilliantly acted. She's so controlled even in the bonkers section. She's just on the right side of everything. 

JB:    What is it like for you to have created something that was so sensationally acclaimed back in the summer and to then have a chance to revisit it?

SM:    I think it's always amazing to go back and revisit a show that you've done, if only because you have more time to work out different things.

We've changed Lara's strips and made them quicker and more continuous. That was wonderful to do.

JB:    And what challenges have you found in re-staging the show’s movement from Chichester’s modern thrust to the proscenium at the Savoy? 

SM:    At nearly twice the size of the Savoy, Chichester is a wonderful place. You've got three sides and you have to make sure everyone is entertained, including those to the side, otherwise there’s the risk that some of the audience might slightly miss out at some point. We’ve mastered that now, not least because I've worked there so many times.

JB:    The show very much describes a specific time and period in American history. What drove you in your vision to have the dance and movement reflect the era? 

SM:    Being true to the period is always so important. I have watched so many of Gypsy Rose Lee's strips, to try and improve Lara's strip routines

And I love that period anyway. I was brought up on MGM musicals!

 JB:    Tell me about choreographing Lara Pulver

SM:    I'm very lucky that we have got Lara who is just sensational and such a brilliant lady with her physicality. She goes from being a plain Jane, and you think, "How the hell is she going to become a fabulous stripper?" She does because, one, she's an amazing actress and two, she's so aware of her body, of how it works. She's just a dream to work with. 

It's the same with Dan Burton with All I Need is the Girl. I know how he works and I know his physicality. He's just so sensational to work on. His line and his flair and his elegance and style. He's got that period style for this piece as well.

JB:    And what does newcomer Peter Davison brings to the show. 

SM:    Peter has brought something different and it’s quite funny. His chemistry is wonderful with Imelda. They seem to be more flirtatious in the first scene which sets it up for me.  He also stands up to her a lot at the end, and it is quite interesting when he does that. 

JB:    Imelda Staunton is one of the finest actresses on both stage and screen and also one of the few who has earned an outstanding reputation that straddles both drama and musical theatre.

SM:    You see, I thought that when I was first was going to do the job, I thought, "I wonder how good her voice is?" And it is truly stunning!

She can sing, she can belt those big notes that Mama Rosie has to do at the end without going down a key or anything. She does not miss a beat. Sometimes she will go away to work on a routine and the next week, she'll come back and she's nailed it exactly to the timing, but with it all looking so natural without ever making it seem like I've said, "Look could you do a shoulder roll there."

She shows all sides of her character. She doesn't show just nice sides, she shows bonkers, sexy, everything. She's like a roller coaster and it’s that that keeps people on the edge of their seat.

JB:    She has an outstanding reputation in the industry as an excellent leading lady. Did you see that in her?

SM:    She's 100% a brilliant leader of the company like you wouldn't believe. She goes around the dressing rooms saying hello to everybody. She's a real star, beyond a star, I think.

When you hear of companies that are having troubles, it normally stems from the top. But if you've got somebody like Imelda, nobody’s ever going to mess about and everybody has to up their game. She's just got that old school mentality that not only knows how to keep everybody happy, she leads the show to what it is.

JB:    To what extent do you reference Jerome Robbins’ original Broadway choreography? 

SM:    We very much wanted to respect Jerome in the scene where the kids turn from young to old, having the old and young actors going simultaneously through each other without the audience suddenly realizing that they are all on stage. That was a challenge but it worked out great and rightly so, like many iconic moments. Jerome Robbins' era paved the way for all of us choreographers and it’s nice to tip your hat to people if you're doing one of their shows

JB:    Stephen, thanks again and I wish you and the company "broken legs" all round for a successful West End run!

Gypsy is now booking at the Savoy Theatre until 28th November 2015

Click here to read my review of the original Chichester production.

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