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Stage version of "Mary Poppins" draws a lot of its inspiration from ... Well, drawings

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Stage version of "Mary Poppins" draws a lot of its inspiration from ... Well, drawings

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When the North American National Tour of "Mary Poppins" opens in Chicago in March of 2009 ...


Copyright 2007 Disney / CML. All Rights Reserved

... both Disneyana & theater fans are sure to be thrilled. After all, this road company will not only feature Ashley Brown (i.e. the actress who originated the title role in the Broadway version of this Disney / Cameron Mackintosh musical) but also Gavin Lee (i.e. the Drama Desk Award-winning actor who portrayed Bert in both the New York & London productions of "Mary Poppins").


Gavin Lee and Ashley Brown enjoy a spot of tea in the original Broadway version
of "Mary Poppins." Copyright 2006 Disney / CML. Photo by Joan Marcus

That said, fans of the original 1964 film ...


Copyright 1964 Walt Disney Productions. All Rights Reserved

... might be a little confused by the stage version of "Mary Poppins." Which doesn't feature a tea party on the ceiling ...


(L to R) Julie Andrews, Karen Dotrice, Matthew Garber, Ed Wynn and Dick Van
Dyke in the Academy Award-winning movie version of "Mary Poppins."
Copyright 1964 Walt Disney Productions. All Rights Reserved

... and / or Bert & Mary "larking about" in the show's "Jolly Holiday" number.


Copyright 1964 Walt Disney Productions. All Rights Reserved

Mind you, it's not that Bob Crowley -- "Poppins" Tony Award-winning set & costume designer -- didn't want to incorporate particularly memorable elements of that movie into this stage show. Take -- for example -- the smoke staircase that you see in that film.


Copyright 1964 Walt Disney Productions. All Rights Reserved

For the London production of "Mary Poppins," Crowley actually did design a set that would have replicated that moment from the motion picture.


Copyright 2004 Disney / CML. All Rights Reserved

But in the end, this proposed setting for the stage version of "Mary Poppins" was deemed to be impractical. And given that the production team was looking to deliver a "Practically Perfect" musical here ... Well, that's why this particular element got dropped from the show.

More to the point, the creative team behind this "Mary Poppins" musical (i.e. director Richard Eyre, choreographer Matthew Bourne and librettist Julian Fellowes) weren't out to create just some stage-bound clone of the Academy Award-winning film. They had something far more ambitious in mind.

You see, the goal here was to create an entirely new entertainment experience. Something that would merge familiar elements from the "Mary Poppins" movie with scenes & characters that had been drawn from the eight books that P.L. Travers wrote.

Which is why -- if you only know Mary Poppins through the 1964 Disney film -- some of the characters that you'll see in this new stage show will be unfamiliar to you. Take -- for example -- Robertson Ay, that accident-prone footman who is featured prominently in this musical's "A Spoonful of Sugar" number.


Mark Price as "Robertson Ay" in the Broadway production
of MARY POPPINS at the New Amsterdam Theatre.
Copyright 2006 Disney / CML. Photo by Joan Marcus

Though this character doesn't appear at all in the Disney film, Ay has been a part of the "Mary Poppins" universe ever since the very first book in the series was published back in 1934. Where -- on Page 2 -- Travers lists his household duties as ...

" ... to cut the lawn and clean the knives and polish the shoes and, as Mr. Banks always said, 'to waste his time and my money.' "

Robertson's other notable skill from the "Mary Poppins" book was his ability to fall asleep practically anywhere in the middle of whatever task Ay had just been assigned.


Copyright 2006 Harcourt, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Mind you, other characters featured in the stage version of "Mary Poppins" may be somewhat familiar to fans of the film. You may recall Mrs. Corry and her daughters, Annie and Fannie ...


Copyright 1964 Walt Disney Productions. All Rights Reserved

... who make a very brief appearance in the opening moments of that movie. You may remember that Bert -- as he's busking in the park -- makes up a comical poem about this odd-looking trio.

"Ah, Mrs. Corry. A story for you.
Your daughters was shorter than you.
But they grew."

And that's pretty much all you ever see of the Corry family in that motion picture.

Which is really a shame. For in the "Mary Poppins" books, Mrs. Corry and her two "great galumphing giraffes" of daughters Annie & Fannie ...


Copyright 2006 Harcourt, Inc. All Rights Reserved

... are rather magical creatures. You see, these three not only run a bake shop which sells pieces of " ... gingerbread (that are) so studded with gilt stars that the shop itself seemed to be faintly lit by them," but then ...


Copyright 1981 P.L. Travers

... under cover of darkness, the Corrys -- with Mary Poppins' help -- paste these very same Gingerbread Stars up into the night sky.

The creative team behind the stage version of "Mary Poppins" just loved this vignette from the book. And they labored mightily to try & find a practical way to fit the Corrys-star-pasting routine into their show. Using Mary Shepard's original illustration, Crowley first worked up a concept drawing ...


Copyright 2004 Disney / CML. All Rights Reserved

... and then even had a model made of this proposed set.


Copyright 2004 Disney / CML. All Rights Reserved

But in the end, this proposed setting for the stage version of "Mary Poppins" was also deemed to be impractical. Which is why this particular sequence was eventually dropped from the show.

But as for the Corrys themselves ... At this point in the development of the show, the "Mary Poppins" production team had really grown quite fond of Annie, Fannie and their diminutive mother. Which is why it was decided that the Corrys' sweet shop would now become the setting for "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious."


The cast of the
Broadway production of MARY POPPINS at the New Amsterdam
Theatre. Copyright 2006 Disney / CML. Photo by Joan Marcus

In the stage show, Mary, Bert, Jane and Michael suddenly find that they're running out of conversation. Which is why they then drop by Mrs. Corry's "Talking shop" and pick out the letters for " ... the greatest word you ever heard."

Mind you, to reinforce the idea that Mrs. Corry's establishment is actually a bake shop, Crowley actually designed this character's dress so that it would resemble the sort of display rack that a baker might place cakes, cookies and pies on.


Copyright 2004 Disney / CML. All Rights Reserved

Please note that -- in the above drawings -- Mrs. Corry has exceptionally long fingers. That's because -- in the original P.L. Travers story -- this character's fingers were actually made of barley-sugar. Which Mrs. Corry could then snap off and hand out as treats to the children who were visiting her store.

Which -- I know -- is a kind of dark & weird idea. But if you'll actually go back and re-read the original "Mary Poppins" books, you'll find that P.L. Travers slips lots of these sorts of touches into her stories.

In fact, the creators of the stage show took one of P.L. 's darker ideas (i.e. The "Bad Wednesday" chapter from "Mary Poppins Comes Back,"  where Jane -- as she's throwing a temper tantrum in the nursery -- accidentally cracks the Royal Doulton Bowl up that's on the mantelpiece ...


Copyright 1963 P.L. Travers

... The next thing Jane knows, she's been magically sucked into the illustration that decorates the inside of this bowl. Where the characters depicted there then take Jane to task for creating that crack) ...


Copyright 1963 P.L. Travers

... as the inspiration for an entirely new number for this stage show. George Stiles & Anthony Drewe (i.e. the song-writing team that Disney & Cameron Mackintosh hired to supplement the Sherman Bros. Academy Award-winning score) used "Bad Wednesday" as their jumping-off point when they created "Temper Temper." Which shows what can happen to bad little children who mistreat their toys.


Copyright 2006 Disney / CML. Photo by Joan Marcus

Speaking of those dark moments that you'll sometimes find in the original "Mary Poppins" books ... To add a bit of conflict & tension to the second act of their show, the creative team brought to the stage perhaps the scariest character that P.L. Travers ever created: Miss Andrew, Mr. Banks' original governess.


Copyright 1963 P.L. Travers

Played in the Broadway version of "Mary Poppins" by Ruth Gottschall, Miss Andrew is a terrific comic villain. Who -- instead of following Mary Poppins' "Spoonful of Sugar" approach -- tries to keep the Banks children in line by feeding them " ... brimstone and treacle and cod liver oil."


(L to R) Henry Hodges as 'Micheal Banks' and Ruth Gottschall as 'Miss Andrew' in
the original Broadway company of MARY POPPINS at the New Amsterdam Theatre.
Copyright 2006 Disney / CML. Photo by Joan Marcus

When I recently spoke with Ruth about this role, Ms. Gottschall explained her take on the character:

"I can't play Miss Andrew as bad. She's just a nanny who's not up on these new-fangled methods. She still believes that children should be seen and not heard.

But that said, I still know how this character comes across in the show. Sometimes when I'm up on stage, I actually hear the kids out in the audience say 'Scary, Mommy.' "

Anyway ... As you might expect, these two wildly different approaches to child-rearing eventually lead to a magical showdown between Mary Poppins & Miss Andrew. And once again, the show's creative team tried to bring one of P.L. Travers' original ideas to life. In that Mary dispatches the nastiest nanny in the world by first downsizing Miss Andrew and then sticking her inside of the birdcage in which Miss Andrew used to imprison a wild lark.


Copyright 1963 P. L. Travers

And while it's obviously not possible to shrink a live performer on stage and then stuff them into a birdcage, the "Mary Poppins" creative team did come up a rather clever way to replicate this moment from "Mary Poppins Comes Back." Which is why Miss Andrew's comeuppance is one of the real highlights of this show's second act.

Speaking of the second act ... The "Mary Poppins" creative team wanted to give their title character a spectacular entrance in this part of the show. So once again borrowing an idea from one of Mary Shepard's illustrations ...


Copyright 1963 P. L. Travers

... they had this Practically Perfect nanny descend from the heavens on the end of Jane & Michael's kite string, while the cast of "Mary Poppins" sang (what else?) "Let's Go Fly a Kite."

Which -- I know -- changes the film's finale into the second act's opening number. But let's remember that the "Mary Poppins" creative team wasn't out to create an exact clone of the motion picture. But -- rather -- they wanted to make a stage show that would blend all of this source material together (i.e. Walt Disney's film, P.L. Travers' stories) to create something new that still felt familiar.

Which brings us to perhaps the most entertaining sequence in the stage version of "Mary Poppins," the "Jolly Holiday" number. Which -- just as it does in the 1964 film -- begins with Mary, Jane and Michael meeting Bert at the entrance of the park.


Copyright 2004 Disney / CML. All Rights Reserved

But instead of having this quartet jump into a chalk sidewalk painting and then having Bert cavort with some cartoon penguins ...


Copyright 1964 Walt Disney Productions. All Rights Reserved

... the "Mary Poppins" creative team opted to go an entirely different way with their stage show.  Borrowing a story idea from Travers' 1943 book, "Mary Poppins Opens the Door," this sequence now starts off with Mary taking the Banks children to the park ...


Copyright 1971 P.L. Travers

... Jane & Michael then complain (in a new contra punctual refrain that Stiles & Drewe wrote for this old Sherman Bros. tune) that Ms. Poppins is ...

"Boring, just like other nannies
Thinking parks are good for us
It’s just statues, ducks and grannies
I don’t understand all the fuss."

Of course, what the Banks children don't realize is that Neleus -- a statue that's been in the park for ages ...


Copyright 1971 P.L. Travers

-- is about to step down off of his plinth ...


Copyright 1971 P.L. Travers

... to begin cavorting with these kids.


Copyright 1971 P.L. Travers

Well, the "Mary Poppins" creative team took one look at Mary Shepard's charming illustrations for the "Marble Boy" chapter in "Mary Poppins Opens the Door" and then they wondered: What if it wasn't just one statue in the park that was effected by Mary Poppins' magic? But -- rather -- all of the statues in that park?


The original Broadway company of MARY POPPINS performs "Jolly Holiday."
Copyright 2006 Disney / CML. Photo by Joan Marcus

Choreographer Matthew Bourne even used Shepard's illustration as the inspiration for some comic relief in this production number.


Copyright 1971 P.L. Travers

In that -- during this dance sequence -- the park-keeper just can't understand why or how the statues in his park keep winding up in different positions.

And did I mention that -- as a capper to "Jolly Holiday" -- the Queen herself drops by the park and then briefly dances with Mary & Bert?


(L to R) Ashley Brown, Ruth Gottschall and Gavin Lee dance with the cast
of the original Broadway company of MARY POPPINS.
Copyright 2006 Disney / CML.
Photo by Joan Marcus

FYI: If the Queen in the above photo looks somewhat familiar... Well, there's a good reason for that. You see, that part in the Broadway version of "Mary Poppins" is played by Ruth Gottschall. The same actress who plays Miss Andrew in Act Two.

Getting back to "Jolly Holiday" ... Now I know that there are a number of die-hard "Mary Poppins" movie fans out there who may feel that Cameron Mackintosh & the folks at Disney Theatrical went too far and took far too many liberties with their favorite film. With the end result being this "Poppins" stage show that they don't quite recognize.

Well, whenever the "Mary" movie fans out there bring this issue up ... I just point to the number of times that the "Mary Poppins" creative team actually went out of their way to include elements from that movie. Take -- for example -- the Pearlies who appear in that film's "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocius" number.


Copyright 1964 Walt Disney Productions

Bob Crowley remembered those animated characters as he was designing the Starlighter costumes for the stage version of "Mary Poppins."


Copyright 2004 Disney / CML. All Rights Reserved

Though -- to be fair -- I guess I should also point out that Crowley took a lot of his inspiration for these costumes from the illustrations that Mary Shepard drew for "Mary Poppins Comes Back" 's "Evening Out" chapter. Where the constellations themselves (i.e. characters who are literally made up of stars) perform in a special circus for Ms. Poppins.


Copyright 1963 P.L. Travers

You see what I'm saying here, folks ? The "Mary Poppins" creative team was always looking for ways to mix elements of the movie in with scenes & characters from the Travers books to create an entirely new entertainment experience. That's why the show's poster actually features this line:

"Based on the stories of P.L. Travers and the Walt Disney Film"

Mind you, some of the creative compromises that the "Mary Poppins" production team made may seem -- in hindsight -- a trifle bizarre. Take -- for example -- that Mary-and-the-Corrys-paste-Gingerbread-Stars-up-into-the-night-sky sequence that I mentioned toward the top of this article. Because the ladder concept was eventually deemed to be unworkable for this stage show, what Crowley & his designers decided to go with instead was a giant light-up umbrella. Which Mary, Bert and the rest of the cast now dance around as they all sing a new Stiles & Drewe tune, "Anything Can Happen If You Let It."


Ashley Brown and the original Broadway cast of MARY POPPINS
at the New Amsterdam Theatre.
Copyright 2006 Disney / CML. Photo by Joan Marcus

Which -- I know -- once again seems like a departure from the "Mary Poppins" movie. But if you're a fan of the P.L. Travers books ... Well, then you already know that Travers just loved scenes like this. Where all of the characters that she'd created for her "Poppins" stories would suddenly come together and dance.

Take -- for example -- the illustration below from "Mary Poppins in the Park." Which shows Mary Poppins & Mrs. Corry dancing with the shadows of characters from various P.L. Travers books.


Copyright 1980 P.L. Travers

Which is why (I guess) if you want a full appreciation of what Richard Eyre, Julian Fellowes, George Stiles, Anthony Drewe, Bob Crowley and Matthew Bourne have done with the stage version of "Mary Poppins," you first need to revisit the 1964 Disney film as well as reread the eight P.L. Travers books.

Once you do that, you can then finally fully understand how the various elements of these earlier "Poppins" projects were woven together to create a brand new entertainment experience. Which is now being presented 8 times at a week at NYC's New Amsterdam Theatre as well as entertaining theater goers in England (The UK tour of "Mary Poppins" got underway earlier this month at the Theatre Royal Plymouth). Not to mention the show's North American National Tour, which kicks off at Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre in March 11, 2009.

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  • Being a fan of Mary Poppins since I was introduced to her when I was only five years of age (and, predating the movie by a few years), I am delightfully awaiting this touring production  to reach Los Angeles later this year.

    Now, how much more practically perfect can things get than that?

  • I mean, next year.  Darn temporal fixations just keep getting messed up!

  • Interesting article - but it's been ten days since you wrote:

    "We're here in town to cover the 2008 Licensing Show ..... You can expect to see some very interesting material to be up on this website in a day or so."

    So far, JHM revealed retailers expected Speed Racer to have bigger toy sales than Wall-E.  It that the extent of your 'very interesting material'?

  • Great article, Jim!  It was very entertaining.  I didn't realize that there are 8 "Mary Poppins" books...they sound fun- I might start reading them at some point.

  • I've seen the show on Broadway--and you're right:  it's very different from the movie.  The parents have more of a backstory, and their family problems are much more serious than just Mr. Banks simply not having time for his children.  But it was a great show, and Gavin Lee was wonderful as Bert.  Step in Time on stage has an added bonus that is not to be missed!

    And the gingerbread stars do make an appearance in the show. (possible spoiler warning!)  Mrs. Corry tells Jane and Michael in the Talking Shop that she used to make Gingerbread Stars for their father all the time--and they're stunned to learn that he was ever there--and she explains that he always saved the stars.

    Later, when it looks like Mr. Banks is about to lose his job (this happens much differently in the stage version as well), a valuble vase is broken by accident, and inside Mr. Banks finds all of his gingerbread stars inside.  He had forgotten he had hidden them there.  That leads into the "A Man Has Dreams..." song between him and Bert.

    "Anything Can Happen" is a great addition too--it shows how Jane and Michael also do their part to reunite their family.  It also had the kids give a proper goodbye to Mary Poppins, which I always thought was a little sad in the film that they didn't.

    It's very different from the movie, and it's a bit of a shock for anyone expecting a clone of the film, but it's own thing, which works really well most of the time.

  • "dark & weird" is exactly the way I would describe the whole of Travers' work.  I much prefer Disney's original version to the disturbing stuff I read in the Poppins books, and this coming from someone who likes the dark and weird...

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