Stewart Nicholls has not only directed and choreographed Love Birds the Musical, but also assembled the entire creative team and worked closely with writer Robbie Sherman on the final version that’s now playing at the Edinburgh Fringe. To read more about Stewart’s previous credits, visit the Love Birds creative team page.
You previously worked with Robbie Sherman on A Spoonful of Sherman. What was that like?
Initially, A Spoonful of Sherman had no director and was more of a cabaret. It was good, but needed some shaping and styling, and I was asked come on board with a brief to give the show a more theatrical look, more musical staging and to work with Robbie directing and honing the narration. The moment Robbie and I met, we got on incredibly well – we have a lot in common and laughed a lot! A strong friendship grew quickly and we knew we wanted to work together again. I had very little rehearsal time with the four singers in the show, but we worked very quickly and I was pleased that we achieved exactly what was required and I fulfilled the brief!
What did you think when he told you about his idea for Love Birds? Why did you want to get involved?
Robbie emailed me last December, just as I was finishing directing panto, and suggested we have dinner to chat over an idea for a show he had. I got back from panto in Truro and had one evening in London before heading up to Edinburgh for Christmas. That evening, he explained the strange world of parrots and penguins in a vaudeville theatre – and, although it sounded mad, I knew that it was something we could have a lot of fun working on together. As a director, it is always exciting to work on new pieces. However, although I’ve done lots of new musicals and plays, I’m better known for revivals of old British musicals, so it’s particularly good for me to work on an original piece. I knew that Robbie and I would work well together. I was thrilled he came to me and trusted me.
How do you think Love Birds builds on the legacy of the Sherman Brothers and the Sherman family music?
I always say that Robbie is “a chip off the old block”! He has the lyrical gift from his father, the melodic gift from his Uncle Richard – and he has the generational appeal in his writing from them both. On top of that, he has a retro charm, which has to be from his Grandfather, Al Sherman – a ‘Tin Pan Alley’ songsmith. As with all three, Robbie has the gift of writing a song that sticks into your brain instantaneously. His lyrics are very detailed – and although I try to find every nuance in them, I still miss things. The only downfall to all that is, when you wake up in the middle of the night, it is very hard to get back to sleep as his tunes won’t stop running through your brain!
Before rehearsals began, how many times did you read the script? And listen to the music?
Robbie and I spent a long time working through the script – mainly to try to get it to a manageable length for the hour slot we have in Edinburgh. We would sit and edit and edit, and then I’d leave Robbie a list of things to rework. I can be quite bossy! I got to know the score very quickly listening to Robbie’s demo recordings. I play piano – so I pick tunes up fairly quickly – and as I worked through the arrangements with Robbie and Richard Healey (our musical arranger), the songs found their way into my brain.
What was your approach to casting? And putting together the rest of your creative team?
Casting – get the best performers you can! You can be the world’s best director, but if you don’t have the right cast, you’re sunk. You can be a weak director and have a good cast and end up with a decent show even it lacks cohesion. With a great cast and a great director, you have a show in which everyone is working towards the same final goal. We’re fortunate to have a great cast, and I think I’m okay – so the combination has been good.
The creative team are a mix of people I have worked with before whom I bought to the project: Kat Portman (producer), Richard Healey (musical arranger), Neil MacDonald (musical director) and Rob Mills (lighting designer). We interviewed for a designer (Gabriella Slade), whom was recommended to us and a sound designer (Andy Hinton) – both of whom are brilliant, and I hope to work with again many times in the future. We’re a happy crew!
What are the special challenges of …
Directing a new musical?
The challenge of directing something new is that you have to spend a lot of time with the writer getting their show in your head, then making that come alive with the actors in the rehearsal room so that everyone is working on creating something with the same goal – and that has to come from the director who is helming the show. The writing is untested – so you do need a little more time to work on all elements to get everything to work clearly and smoothly. It’s even harder in a musical, as there’s music and dance and singing involved. But working with people you know and admire does help to speed up the process: Richard Healey (musical arranger) and I have worked together a fair amount so we have a common language.
… Directing and also choreographing a show?
Directing as well as choreographing is my preferred way of working as it’s all coming from one creative mind – and therefore also quickens up the process. I do sometimes just do one of the two jobs – which can be really enjoyable if you respect your fellow creative but agonising if you don’t!
… Helming a show for the Edinburgh Fringe?
Directing and choreographing for the Edinburgh Fringe is hard because you have to create a show that is only an hour long. So you are often editing out material that you don’t want to cut. In this case, I knew the piece was far too long when the script drafts came through, and so Robbie and I cut a lot out prior to rehearsals commencing. I then cut one song and a reprise and little sections of dialogue during rehearsals (the missing song, “On Cloudy Days” sung by Ruth Betteridge, is on the cast album though because Ruth sings it so beautifully). The other problem with the Fringe is making the choreography work for a small venue: if you over-stage, the show just looks messy and dangerous. I rather relish the challenge – and I’m pleased with the feedback about the “neat choreography”.
You only had two weeks to rehearse a brand-new musical. How do you fit everything in?
Two weeks rehearsal really isn’t long enough; however, forward planning and a rehearsal structure make it possible. I am over-organised – and although actors do giggle at me for my ‘military-like’ rehearsal schedules, it does mean everything is covered and there is no wasted time. I find actors respond to a strong rehearsal structure too – although I always try to keep a jolly atmosphere throughout. I managed two run-throughs in the rehearsal room prior to technical rehearsal. That was really important for judging the timing of the show and also gave the actors more confidence in knowing the whole structure of the piece.
Now that the show has fully opened, how do you feel? How involved do you remain?
I’m glad the show is now in the space it was designed and directed for – Pleasance Two at the Pleasance Courtyard. It’s a sweet old building, and that suits the piece. We performed an excerpt from the show at the the much bigger Pleasance Grand (750 seats) for the Pleasance Gala Launch. It was lovely to see the staging in a larger space too – and I think it proved that, if we have the opportunity to do the show again, it could work with expanding both in staging and length.
The actors are owning the show now too – which for a director is really pleasing. My job from here on is to pop in now and again and keep it slick – and take out any ‘improvements’ the actors may have made!
Tell us about the cast of Love Birds.
They’re all equally talented, but most importantly they care about their work. They are also enjoying themselves on stage – which I think shows across the footlights (yes – we do have footlights!)
What’s your previous Edinburgh Fringe experience been? What’s special about working at the festival?
Over the last nine years, I’ve undertaken a whole range of work at the Fringe – from organising and running Christine and Neil Hamilton‘s daily chat show to playing piano for David Benson‘s tribute to Noel Coward to directing and choreographing Faith Brown and Her Boys in the Buff. It’s a special festival. You are always bumping into people you know, and you make lots of friends and contacts.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m back down to London to re-stage a show called Jewish Legends, which is all about Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Sophie Tucker and other stars. Then panto at the end of the year. And early next year, I’m directing the first-ever revivial of the Jule Styne, Jack Ronsenthal, Don Black musical Bar Mitzvah Boy. I seem to be becoming an honorary Jewish citizen!
But the main thing to happen immediately after the festival is that I am getting married in early September up here in Edinburgh. That’s the most exciting thing – and far harder to organise than directing a show!