Perhaps best-known in the U.S. for their contributions to the smash Disney Theatricals musical Mary Poppins (currently playing at Paper Mill Playhouse), songwriters George Stiles and Anthony Drewe are currently represented in the U.K. with their adaptation of Kenneth Grahame's beloved childrens classic iThe Wind in the Willows. Boasting a book by Academy-Award winner Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park, Downton Abbey), the show opened June 29 at the London Palladium. The cast album is available June 30.
The original London cast stars Rufus Hound as the amazing Mr. Toad, Simon Lipkin as Rat, and Craig Mather as Mole. Also in the cast are Neil McDermott as Chief Weasel; Denise Welch as Mrs Otter, and Gary Wilmot as Badger. Also included are Chris Aukett, Joel Baylis, Jenna Boyd, Abigail Brodie, Abigail Climer, Jorell Coiffic-Kamall, Nicole Deon, Emilie du Leslay, Joshua Gannon, James Gant, Evan James, Michael Larcombe, Bethany Linsdell, Ryan Pidgen, Adam Vaughan, Georgie Westall and Natalie Woods.
We asked Stiles and Drewe to provide song-by-song commentary for their new score, which they explains as "an eclectic score that celebrates all that’s great about English songwriting, from Gilbert and Sullivan to anarchic ’80s pop."
The passing of the seasons is a great feature of the Kenneth Grahame novel and it is, famously, Mole’s rejection of spring-cleaning that propels him on his adventure. There’s a pagan strand to the book, too, and we wanted to take the audience by surprise with the vigour of the opening and to introduce the audience to our visual “world” and the way in which our designer Peter McKintosh is going to depict a variety of animals.
“Messing About in a Boat”
Rat taking Mole on his maiden voyage down the river is an iconic moment in the story that clearly begged to be musicalized. In the novel, Grahame even wrote his own verse about ducks at this point, called “Up-Tails All.” Our song cements the burgeoning friendship of Rat and Mole and also introduces the Wildwood, home to the evil Stoats, Weasels, and Foxes. The lilting 6/8 feel of the main theme contrasts strongly with the unsettling music of the Wild Wood.
“Speed Is of the Essence”
Knowing that the actor playing Toad was likely to be a celebrity, we wanted to tease the audience a little by making them wait for his first proper appearance. While building this sense of anticipation we also wanted to give Mrs. Otter a bit more prominence as a sub-principal, and it is she and Rat who describe Toad’s character to the ingenuous Mole. Musically, we reference the patter songs of Gilbert and Sullivan and English music halls.
“One Swallow Does Not a Summer Make”
In keeping with our desire to mark the passing of the seasons, we had the idea of the first swallow of summer. We made this a playful game between three swallows, each thinking they are the first to have completed their migration back to England from Africa, only to find that they are not alone. Along with our wonderful orchestrators, David Shrubsole and Chris Jahnke, we’ve conjured up the early heat of summer with an affectionate nod to Vaughan William’s “Lark Ascending.”
“The Open Road”
This song underwent quite a big re-write during the show’s development. It began as an English folk-song vibe, complete with gypsy fiddle. However, we knew it had to bond the trio of friends and so the swing feel of a classic buddy-movie crept into the wordless refrain and then David Shrubsole brilliantly folded in a hint of the Beatles, along with piccolo trumpet.
“The Hedgehog’s Nightmare”
We have both always been great fans of the songs of Flanders and Swann, and an idea came up which gave us a chance to pay homage to their style of laconic comedic writing. Given Toad’s adoration of motorcars we came up with a rather less-than-enthusiastic family of Hedgehogs who are terrified of crossing the road.
“The Amazing Mr. Toad”
It was an early decision to make the arrival of the motor car a change in the musical flavor of the score. Toad is loud and brash and so are his cars. This song is a pop/rock fantasy that lets Mr. Toad bask in the glory of his imagined fans and allowed Chris Jahnke’s orchestration to really go “pedal to the metal.”
“The Wild Wooders”
They say the villains always get the best lines and we loved the Wild Wooders from the outset. Again, we wanted them to be modern, disaffected, and have a raucous pop style. With lines like “We’re the Wild Wooders / Foxes, Weasels and Stoats / The kind of furry animals / Who go for your throats,” we wanted the audience to enjoy their first appearance.
As Rat and Mole are searching through the autumn leaves to find their way to Badger’s home, a group of field mice, wrapped up against the colder weather, mark our third change of season. With a 3/4 time signature, it’s a miniature that draws on George’s love of English choral writing—ending with an a cappella four-part harmony to herald “autumn is here.”
“A Friend Is Still a Friend”
The overriding theme of our version of The Wind in the Willows is friendship. Led by the wise and reclusive Badger, this becomes a rallying call to help Toad.
Having established Toad’s adoration of speed in the third song, Toad here reprises a section of the song as well as a reprise of his mantra, “The Amazing Mr. Toad,” as he manages to outwit Mole and make his escape.
“As If In a Dream”
This was a lot of fun to write, in a more Gilbert and Sullivan style. The courtroom is effectively a theatre within a theatre with the Judge, the Spectators, the Jury, and the Accused clearly delineated. The song is thrown around between each section of the court before the long-suffering Mrs. Hedgehog—in her guise as the Clerk—is able to get her vengeance on the reckless Toad by totting up the number of years that he should be imprisoned for. The song/scene builds to the climax of the act with Toad’s last miserable “Poop, poop” as he is taken to the dungeons.
See Rufus Hound Take the Stage as Mr. Toad in London’s Wind in the Willows
“We’re Taking Over the Hall”
Perhaps the most out-and-out pop moment of the score, we begin Act 2 in uproarious style as the Wild Wooders party the night away in Toad Hall. Anthony had a bit of the rhyming section of Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana” in his head for the verses that makes for a restless energy—by the end of the song, we’re in full disco groove.
“To Be a Woman”
Most people remember Toad escaping from prison dressed as a washerwoman from the book. As Toad learns that to be a woman means “to be forever strong, forever patient,” this duet leans on a Latin groove to help him “walk with quite a wiggle” before flirting with the (mercifully short-sighted) guard!
“A Place to Come Back To”
The importance of home is the other central theme of our show. Here, Mole is finally back in his “poor, neglected little home.” It couldn’t be further away from the splendours of Toad Hall, but it means the world to him. Musically we felt the rich chords of jazz harmonies would give a warmth and sense of comfort as he rediscovers all his treasured possessions on a cold winter’s night.
“The Wassailing Mice”
George’s first-ever composition as a 6-year old was a carol, and he’s always wanted to write one as an adult. The English tradition of carolling is deep in our national psyche and we’ve drawn on influences from John Rutter, David Wilcox (the descant), and Hubert Parry. The ancient tradition of “blessing the harvest” by wassailing from door to door is here celebrated by our adorable field mice.
“The Greatest Great Escape”
This is perhaps the most ambitious sequence of the show. Not only musically but for our design and stage management team as well. A train, a kalamazoo, a barge, and a motor car are all required in this escape-from-gaol escapade. The train inspired us to use a 12/8 driving rhythm and yet we go through a host of other feels and revisit other themes from the show as Toad eludes his pursuers.
The preparation for the five friends to retake Toad Hall. Vastly out-numbered by the Wild Wooders, they need a cunning plan to surprise the sitting tenants. Again, with a strong nod to G&S, we end with a sextet of voices—the final character being the Chief Weasel trying to get a bit of hush to make his pre-dinner speech before they tuck into the hapless young otter, Portia.
Mole’s plan to make the Wild Wooders believe they’re under attack from vast numbers of Rats, Badgers and Toads is put into action as they flash huge shadows of cut-out figures on the walls of the banqueting hall. The final show-down is between Toad and the Chief Weasel, and Portia gets the last whack as she kick-boxes her way to victory.
It’s spring again and Rat and Toad finally repair their broken friendship, allowing everyone to celebrate. Once we reach the garden party, there’s only one person missing since even Badger has been persuaded to come to the party. Toad has one last surprise for his friends—he’s not quite finished with adventure just yet. Poop, poop!