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Breaking the "Mary Poppins" stalemate

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Breaking the "Mary Poppins" stalemate

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When musical theater fans complain about Disney Theatrical (And they do complain about Disney Theatrical. If you don't believe me, go check out the discussion boards over at Talkin' Broadway and Broadway World), their main complaint about the Mouse seems to be that " ... the shows that Disney presents on Broadway are too corporate."

Which is what's kind of ironic about "Mary Poppins," that London import that's about to open at the New Amsterdam Theatre. This new musical (Which draws its inspiration from both P.L. Travers' stories as well as from the Academy-Award winning film) wasn't the result of some deal that was hammered out by a roomful of attorneys. But -- rather -- because Sir Cameron Mackintosh and Tom Schumacher shared a real passion for this particular project.

Sir Cameron Mackintosh and Thomas Schumacher (l to r)
Photo courtesy of Google Images

"How big a passion?," you ask. So big that -- without first letting anyone in Disney management know what he was planning on doing -- Schumacher flew to the U.K. in December of 2001 specifically to meet with Mackintosh. With the hope that Tom might then be able to persuade Cameron to consider co-producing a stage musical version of "Mary Poppins" with Disney Theatrical.

This was actually a pretty gutsy move on Schumacher's part. Given that Mackintosh had previously met with Disney Company officials in the mid-1990s to discuss a possible "Poppins" co-production. But Cameron had supposedly been put off by the overly-aggressive behavior of those executives. Who -- at that time -- weren't talking about what a great stage show "Mary Poppins" could be. But -- rather -- how big a slice of the "Poppins" profit pie the Mouse was going to get.

And Mackintosh ... Well, this world renown producer had worked too long & too hard at acquiring the stage rights to "Mary Poppins" to let a bunch of suits screw this show up. Which is why -- at that time -- Cameron didn't cut a deal with Disney. He actually walked away from the negotiations, reportedly leaving an incredibly lucrative deal on the table.

All because Mackintosh reportedly felt that Disney was placing the emphasis on the wrong place with this project. What he was then hearing from company executives wasn't "Think of what a great show we'll be able to create out of this source material." But -- rather -- "Think of all the money that we're going to make off of this production."

Now don't get me wrong. As the producer of shows like "Cats," "Miss Saigon," "Les Misérables" and "Phantom of the Opera," Cameron has clearly made a few bucks over the past 30 years. But "Mary Poppins" ... That wasn't so much about making money. But -- rather -- finally making a 25-year-old dream come true. As well as honoring a promise that Mackintosh had made to "Mary Poppins" author, P.L. Travers.

You see, when I say that it took Cameron Mackintosh a very long time to acquire the stage rights to "Mary Poppins," I mean that it was a VERY long time. Mackintosh first contacted Travers' representatives back in 1978. Only to be told that P.L. was already negotiating with veteran producer Jules Fisher about possibly bringing "Mary Poppins" to Broadway.

After a protracted negotiation, Travers did eventually grant Fisher conditional rights to produce a stage musical version of "Mary Poppins." The only hitch was ... Jules had to work off of the original "Poppins" books. He didn't have the right to use any of the material (be it screenplay, songs & score) that had been created for the 1964 Disney film.

Plus P.L. wanted to have some say over who would write the stage version of "Mary Poppins." So while Fisher was trying to recruit theatrical legend Stephen Sondheim to compose a score for this show, Travers kept sending him letters listing her suggestions for an appropriate creative team for this project. Which included hiring Wally Shawn to write the show's book & Alan Jay Lerner and/or Paul McCartney to compose the show's score.

P.L. also had some very strong opinions about who should play the title role in this new musical. Which is why Travers sent Fisher notes suggesting that he get in touch with Maggie Smith & Vanessa Redgrave. To see if either of these two accomplished English actresses would be interested in playing Mary.

In the end, Jules just couldn't make this production happen. According to what I've heard, most of the theater pros that Fisher spoke with about this proposed show told him that it was just too soon after the "Mary Poppins" movie. That -- no matter how brilliant the book was, how soaring the score -- his new stage version would still wind up being compared to the 1964 film. And most likely would be found lacking.

Mind you, Fisher couldn't use the score from the Disney version of "Mary Poppins" because the studio was disinclined (at that time, anyway) to give anyone outside of the company access to that material. More to the point, Ms. Travers tended to run hot & cold when it came to the "Mary Poppins" movie. One day, she'd express genuine affection for the film. The next day, she'd attack the Disney production for taking far too many liberties with her characters & her stories.

Given that he was basically in an unwinnable situation, Jules eventually allowed his option to produce a stage musical version of "Mary Poppins" to lapse. Once that happened, Walt Disney Company officials then approached P.L. in 1984. First to see if Ms. Travers would agree to allow the studio to try & develop a a "Mary Poppins" TV series (She did). Then -- after that project fell through when studio execs decided that the "Poppins" franchise was far too valuable to waste on television -- P.L. participated in the writing of a "Mary Poppins Comes Back" screenplay. Which would have served as the basis for a sequel to the 1964 film.

But then -- when that project fell through too -- Disney gave some very serious thought to turning this Academy-Award winning movie into a musical for the stage. How serious? Check out this transcript of comments that Dick Nunis -- the then-Chairman of Walt Disney Attractions -- made back in April of 1994.

At the opening night party for "Beauty & the Beast," Nunis was approached by a reporter. Seeing how well the musical had gone over that night, this reporter then turned to Dick and said:

REPORTER: Given "Beauty and the Beast" 's reception tonight, do you think that Disney will be headed back to Broadway anytime soon?

NUNIS: Absolutely. We're already looking into other ideas for shows we can produce. Other films we can adapt to the stage.

REPORTER: Really? Adapting other Disney films to the stage? Which movies are we talking about?

NUNIS: I'm really not supposed to say. Let's just say ... Our next show will be supercalifraglisticexpialidocious.

So back in 1994, Disney was obviously already planning on bringing "Mary Poppins" to the stage. Of course, what the Mouse didn't know then was that -- a full year earlier -- Cameron Mackintosh had begun meeting with P.L. Travers. And over a two year period, Cameron slowly convinced P.L. that he was the guy who could succeed where Jules Fisher had failed. That Mackintosh wouldn't do to her what Disney executives had done. Which is dither for a decade about whether the studio should produce a "Mary Poppins" television series or a sequel film ... then do neither.

Which is why -- just months prior to her death at the ripe old age of 96 -- P.L. Travers awarded Cameron Mackintosh the rights to produce "Mary Poppins" as a stage musical. Which -- to be honest -- caught Disney flat-footed. Mouse House officials had always assumed that they had the inside track when it came to acquiring the stage rights to "Poppins." But now Cameron had claimed the prize.

Of course, these rights came with a few conditions. Mackintosh had to agree that the stage version of "Mary Poppins" would hew much closer to the style and tone of Travers' books. That the characters in this new musical would behave more like the characters in P.L.'s original "Poppin" stories did.

Cameron agreed to these conditions ... Provided that Travers agreed to one of Mackintosh's conditions. Which was: Given that the songs from the Disney film were now so closely identified with the Mary Poppins characters, that -- if Cameron could ever persuade Mickey to grant him the rights to use the music from the movie as part of his new stage show -- P.L. would not oppose that decision.

Travers agreed to Mackintosh's proposal. And -- with that -- the deal was closed.

Which brings us back to Cameron's disastrous first meeting with Disney. Where he learned that the executives who were running Disney Theatrical at that time were more interested in cutting a smart deal than they were in producing a good show. So Mackintosh walked away from the table. And -- figuring he never get access to Richard M. & Robert B. Sherman's brilliant score for "Poppins" -- he then asked George Stiles & Anthony Drewe to write a few spec songs for the project.

The London cast of "Mary Poppins" 
Photo courtesy of Google Images

Right out of the box, George & Anthony wrote a new introductory number for Mary Poppins called "Practically Perfect." Which was just what Cameron had hoped it would be. In that this song was much closer to the style & spirit of the original P.L. Travers stories. But -- at the same time -- "Practically Perfect" still had the same sort of bounce, wit & verve that the score that the Sherman Brothers had written for the "Mary Poppins" movie had had.

But -- again -- without actually having the rights to that music, there was really no point in going forward with development of a stage version of "Mary Poppins." So Mackintosh reluctantly tabled the project. While still hoping that all of the roadblocks that were stalling out this particular production might someday be removed.

In the end, all it took to get around these roadblocks was a plane. Or -- rather, to be more precise -- one man on a plane: Tom Schumacher.

For years, people in the theatre community had been pestering Schumacher about "Mary Poppins." Asking this Disney Theatrical exec why the Mouse had yet to mount a stage version of this movie. How this project was a no-brainer, almost certain to be a hit on Broadway. And then Tom would have to go through this laborious explanation about how the Walt Disney Company didn't actually own the stage rights to the P.L. Travers stories. How Cameron Mackintosh did. Which was why this particular production had been stalemated for so low.

Finally -- in December of 2001 -- Schumacher decided that it was finally time to break the stalemate. As to why he flew to the U.K. without first telling his bosses at Disney, Tom told a reporter that:

"I so wanted (the stage version of 'Mary Poppins') to happen and I didn't believe that lawyers, and agents and studio heads and executives could get it done ... So I slid in under the radar and went to go see Cameron. I asked him what was in his head. We ignored the deal and starting talking about what the show would be like."

Mackintosh was so pleased that Schumacher seemed to share his same vision for this show that -- that very first day as these two were meeting -- he pulled out "Practically Perfect," the spec song that Stiles & Drewe had written eight years earlier. To give Tom some idea of what an enhanced, expanded version of "Mary Poppins" might sound like.

Schumacher was said to be thrilled with that song. More importantly, that he & Mackintosh seemed to share the very same sensibility when it came to the stage version of "Mary Poppins." That -- in the end -- the deal wasn't important. What was important was producing the best possible show that combined P.L. Travers' original stories as well as elements from the 1964 film.

So Tom then flew home and told his bosses at the Disney about his secret meeting with Cameron. Then -- following eight months of rather intense negotiations between the Mouse & Mackintosh -- a press conference was held announcing this ambitious co-production.

So -- yes -- when you look at "Mary Poppins" and see how skillfully the Walt Disney Company has been promoting its newest Broadway production (Speaking of which: A behind-the-scenes feature on the making of the stage version of "Mary Poppins" will air on "20/20" tonight. That ABC news magazine typically airs in this network's 10 - 11 p.m. programming block), it's easy to make the mistake of thinking that this new musical is just another product that the Mouse Factory has churned out.

But -- in this case -- you'd be wrong if you thought that. For there'd be no "Mary Poppins" opening at the New Amsterdam next Thursday night if Tom Schumacher & Cameron Mackintosh hadn't pulled an end run on all of Disney's lawyers. If these two hadn't cut through all of the corporate bullsh*t and said "Hey, you wanna put on a show?"

Copyright Disney Enterprises & Cameron Mackintosh, Inc.


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  • The second it comes to Dallas/Fort Worth, I am so there for this one!  This one was from what I heard ended up being a much better production that Tarzan.
  • That's what I remember from the documentory "Dream On Silly Dreamer" - Schumacher going behind a lot of people's backs. He seems to be good at advancing himself that way. I wonder how he gets anyone to work for him.
  • "Based on the stories of PL Travers AND the Walt Disney film"--That should sum up the stylistic confusion that's reportedly coming out of the rights wrangling right there.
    PL's stories didn't -quite- have the improvements on the characters that Disney's movie had, and that's going to be a shock for people thinking that Disney threw this one together themselves.
    (In fact, the London production is reportedly already warning holiday parents the show might "not be suitable for children under 7", given how many were freaked out by the toy-room number, which may have been cut by the time it got to New York.)
  • Wow, it's like reading my Mary Poppins London Programme all over again. Not exactly a scoop. And thats not Ashley Brown, Henry Hodges and Katherine Doherty in the picture, but the original London cast.
  • Curmudgeon... it's one thing to go behind people's backs if you're trying to torpedo whatever they're doing, but it's quite another if he was trying to get Mary Poppins off the ground.

    So in this case, I am glad he bit the bullet and took it upon himself to sneak away! And didn't someone online contend that he's really more about theater than animation anyway?
  • Honestly, what does the "Broadway community" and "hardcore Broadway fans" have against Disney Theatrical? (besides the whole corporate thing)
  • ...Uh, the idea that you're generally supposed to invest money in NEW stories and songs, as opposed to upgraded theme-park pageants of movies already on the shelf at Blockbuster?  (And in Tarzan and Mermaid's case, -literally- "upgraded theme-park shows"?)

    Which, also, could theoretically be said of "Hairspray", but then, "Hairspray" at least had new songs.  And at least "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" didn't have flying-harness fetishes to pump up the ticket price.
  • i just think its funny that even in her old age, Travers put this Makintosh guy through the same ringer she put Walt through when he was trying to get the movie made. She was one tough old lady. lol
  • DerekJ said:

    "Uh, the idea that you're generally supposed to invest money in NEW stories and songs, as opposed to upgraded theme-park pageants of movies already on the shelf at Blockbuster?  

    Which, also, could theoretically be said of "Hairspray", but then, "Hairspray" at least had new songs.  And at least "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" didn't have flying-harness fetishes to pump up the ticket price."

    I've been a working Director, Musical Director and actor, composer and writer for over 20 years and the one word I can use to descibe musical theatre is....DERIVATIVE.

    Almost anytime someone stands on a stage and sings, within the context of an organized script, the chances are very good that someone has seen or read the material before (in some other medium).

    Musicals get based on short stories, poetry, world & cultural events, history, novels, other pieces of theatre/musical theatre (Musical of Musicals, the musical), and yes...even movies.

    To cite a problem with a show merely because it is derived from a motion picture, even a Disney motion picture, seems just a little short-sighted. While "Tarzan" is a really shoddy piece of work, "Beauty and the Beast" impressed the Broadway community by being more than "A theme park attraction" and took the theatre community by storm. And while "Lion King" is routinely criticized for being a little light on plot, theatre folks were amazed by the completely theatrical world, with it's own signature design language, that director Julie Taymor accomplished.

    "Aida" had a bumpy ride getting to Broadway. Once it got there (through several productions and re-writes, out-of-town), the community embraced it and it went on to win several Tony Awards, including a Best Actress award for Heather Hedley.

    Everything I have heard about "Poppins" has been positive - from friends in New York who are actors, musicians, directors and designers. The buzz is positive and derservedly so.

    Everyone has a bad day. Yes, Disney produced "Tarzan". But, let's face it, Lloyd Webber produced "By Jeeves"! What a bomb!

    I am in great anticipation to see what Disney will do in bringing "Mermaid" to the stage. I'm excited by the possibilities involving the underwater environments. And I'm sure, after "Tarzan", Disney will not be so quick as to just throw a show at the Broadway community that is not up to the standards they had previously set.

  • Obviously Derek hasn't seen the show, so his senseless rumor mongering and negativity is irrelevant.  But lucky for him (and me!) I've seen the show twice so I can give you the real scoop.

    GO SEE THIS SHOW.  It's a sensational true book musical.  It's very joyful and you will leave singing.  The audiences both nights I went were mostly adults -- but really all generations -- and they were totally entranced.  The leads were all very talented -- especially Ashley Brown who plays Mary -- she has an amazing singing voice and here she really gets to act and dance as well.  The choreography makes your heart race -- especially in the big Supercalif and Step in Time numbers -- about the best I've ever seen.  It just all makes total sense as a Broadway show.

    Derek is just making up the insinuation that critics are saying there is "stylistic confusion".  In fact, Time magazine this very week says this is Disney's best show ever -- and I agree.  The tough London critics all wrote raves -- I've rarely seen that happen before.  The Sherman brothers classic songs from the film are seamlessly woven into the show's score by the composers of the new songs.  When Mary sings "Practically Perfect" in Act one, you'd swear it was in the film, but it's new.  And in interviews with Disney legend Dick Sherman he expresses that he's thrilled with the music in the show.

    And where is the 11th commandment written than only "NEW" material is worthy of producing on Broadway?  (In this case, Derek completely contradicts himself first complaining that there is new material in Poppins and then dismisses the show as not new, so whatever).  A good character or story shows up in books, music, film and theatre -- and vice versa.  Each medium is a bit different, but the exchange of material is always happening.

    Derek is completely out of step the Time magazine says whining that Mary P is scary is "laughable."  The reason the producers advise (and have from the start of Poppins and for all the Disney Broadway shows) parents stop and think before they buy tickets for children under 6 is that the show is about 2 1/2 hours long!  There is no "pause" button in the theatre.  And neither parents nor other theatregoers want to sit next to a squirmy little one.

    But the comment that most reveals Derek knows nothing is that Mermaid is an upgraded theme park show -- ahem -- the show doesn't even start until next summer in Denver so unless you're on the design team you'd have no way of knowing what it's going to look like.

  • DerekJ said:
    ...Uh, the idea that you're generally supposed to invest money in NEW stories and songs, as opposed to upgraded theme-park pageants of movies already on the shelf at Blockbuster?  (And in Tarzan and Mermaid's case, -literally- "upgraded theme-park shows"?)

    Which, also, could theoretically be said of "Hairspray", but then, "Hairspray" at least had new songs.  And at least "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" didn't have flying-harness fetishes to pump up the ticket price.

    -Honestly, I think that is ridiculous, but hey, to each his own.
    Like the other poster said, Broadway musicals come from ALL sorts of origins- books, poetry, plays, original stories, and right now especially- movies!!!
    I don't know what is so wrong with that- what SHOULD matter in the end is if it is a good, solid, well-made musical ALL AROUND.  A great show is a great show- why are people so 'uppity snuppity' about where it comes from? (and I don't mean that directly to you DerekJ, but more so to the 'theatre world')  

    As for your comments about Theme-park pageants, I take offense to that. As someone who wants to create live entertainment work for Disney parks, it is not fair to simply put it down because it plays in a "Theme park".  Much of the work that is involved to bring park entertainment to life has the same level of hard work as the folks in the broadway/theatre world. AND, park entertainment is not ALL meant to broadway- just because something is 'Broadway' doesn't mean it is great whatsoever.  And just because something is not inherently Broadway, doesn't mean it is crap!
    I do have to point out that Anne Hamburger and Disney Creative Entertainment have been trying to bring park entertainment to a much higher level, something that is 'Broadway-caliber', and they are now bringing in lots of actual Broadway talent to create disney park shows and parades.  
    And lastly, Steve Davison has created some parades and spectacles that, in my opinion, rival any other live entertainment - Broadway, concerts, what have you- that I have seen any where else.

    again, just my opinion. =)
  • Let's clarify that "new" comment by saying that a composer can decide to rewrite "Anna and the King" or "The Von Trapp Story", but he is under a creative obligation to give the audience NEW songs, dance numbers and a new musical story interpretation to fit it--That's his job.  That's what we pay for.  That's what we all walk out humming at the end.   That's what the producer hires all the people to make look good.
    And, if so happens the songwriter/book/lyricist comes up with an idea that someone HASN'T thought of already, like a Sesame Street parody or a con man in a midwest town, well, that's not an obligation of the job, but it's pretty good too.

    But Disney promises its audience the big, big selling point that if they walk into a new show of "Mermaid" and "Poppins", they'll already know the story from beginning to end and know half the songs by heart!--Just like they always did!...Wow, two months till my ticket and I've seen half the show already!  :/
    Which makes the complaint against Disney Theatrical that it seems to be more about public corporate masturbation than actually exploring musical stage storytelling, which the locals know a lot better than the carpetbaggers do....Or, to put it simpler, imagine if they'd taken all those neat African costumes, and did a NEW African tale that -didn't- sound like a Sing-Along video from Blockbuster.

    (And money's still bet that the "Mermaid" show is going to look an awful lot like the Tokyo DisneySeas version, but time will tell.  Any takers, we'll collect later.)  :)
  • Just to continue celebrating Anti-Hyprocrisy Month here in the USA, let's point out that Derek doesn't want to see Mary Poppins, but he does have tickets for January...  Part II... notice the advertisements for Casino Royale that are supporting this very site??  That film wouldn't exist under the NEW materials only doctrine -- nor would recent Academy Award winners like Lord of the Rings (03) or Chicago (02) etc or Gone With the Wind for that matter.  And since Wicked comes from a novel from an idea from a film based on a novel -- well I've just lost track of the violations there.  Isn't the whole point that you get to see something a bit familiar in a new way?  That gets new people in to see theatre and then they are more willing to take a risk on something totally new.

    Much less theatre is very risky for producers -- something like 8 out of 10 shows fail.  So -- sometimes -- it's just responsible to moderate that risk by developing something that connects with customers.  Disney's theatre division (based here in New York and not Burbank -- so wrong again) is only about 10 years old, in that time they did do Aida which was a real success and ran for 5 years on Broadway (and is still running in Japan and somewhere else -- and available for local productions and schools like Beauty)  So what exactly has this activity done to ruin theatre?  Seems like quite the opposite -- literally millions of people are experiencing and thousands performing theatre as a result.

    Sounds like you should be developing an original theatrical piece of your own and getting it produced on Broadway, but I suppose you won't be doing that.  Time will tell :-)
  • Early word out of the Nemo show at AK just screams that we'll have a new one for Disney Theatrical to discuss soon.  We've talked about "direct-to-video" Disney... maybe it's time we add "direct-to-broadway" to our vernacular on this site!
  • ...Oh, well, -clearly- the comment about DT "upgrading its theme park shows" for Broadway, was unfair and unwarranted!  :)

    The "Broadway-ready" Nemo at AK smacks more than a little of a throwback to Jeffrey Katzenberg's 90's stage-marketing obsessions and the "Broadway-ready" Hunchback movie, which may have been the source of a lot of the movie's unpopularity--
    Lion King is a good show thanks to Julie Taymor (who could be doing good shows for anyone, but happens to be under contract to do old DIsney movies), and Aida is...well, if not good, a -new- musical, at least.

    But this whole question started when someone asked "what was the hostility" against Disney Theatrical, and the "hostility" seems to be that they've lately gotten a little too overconfident about just how you go about making one:
    Across town, another producer's hard at work on new songs for a book that's never been a show before, struggling actors are taking a day off from waiting tables to try out for a David Mamet piece on the off-Broadway circuit, and last year's Tony-winning director is reimagining some big-budget Rodgers & Hammerstein revival...
    While Disney is busy upgrading an amusement park show they already wrote two years ago, priming it with kiddie-wowing flying harnesses and ticket-inflating stage effects, and demanding all the credit, so long as they can promote the marketing logo on every taxi in town.
    ...Guys?--It's NOT.  THAT.  EASY.
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