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Never mind about Emma Thompson playing P.L Travers. Did you hear about the time that this "Saving Mr. Banks" star was supposed to play Mary Poppins?

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Never mind about Emma Thompson playing P.L Travers. Did you hear about the time that this "Saving Mr. Banks" star was supposed to play Mary Poppins?

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Given that one of the key scenes in "Saving Mr. Banks" is the Hollywood premiere of "Mary Poppins " (which was held on August 27, 1964 at Graumann's Chinese Theatre), I thought that all of you movie trivia buffs out there might be interested to learn that the 49th anniversary of this Walt Disney Productions' London premiere (i.e. the one that Walt had hoped Pamela Travers would attend, rather than the Hollywood premiere) is today.

Yep, according to what Valerie Lawson wrote in "Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers" ...

Copyright 2013 Simon & Schuster.
All rights reserved

The "Royal European" premiere of Mary Poppins was held at the Leicester Square Theater on December 17, 1964. Inside the Walnut Lounge, above the foyer, Pamela curtsied deeply as she was presented to Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon. She stood with Julie Andrews, David Tomlinson and Hermoine Baddeley. Walt Disney didn't make it. He sent along a couple of the directors of the company instead.

This excellent biography of P.L. Travers (which -- FYI -- Simon & Schuster just reprinted earlier this month) is chock full of fun fly-on-the-wall moments like this. Which is perhaps why Kelly Marcel & Sue Smith (i.e., the two talented women who wrote "Saving Mr. Banks" screenplay) regularly consulted "Mary Poppins, She Wrote" while they were crafting this script. Which is why the producers of this John Lee Hancock film felt compelled to include a line in the credits thanking Ms. Lawson for all the inspiration that her book had provided.

Me? What I liked about Lawson's bio is how she explored all of these weird twists & turns that Travers' career path as an author took. How -- for example -- because the "service agreement" that Pamela signed with Walt Disney Productions in June of 1960 ...

(L to R) Julie Andrews, Walt Disney and P.L. Travers at the Hollywood premiere of
"Mary Poppins." Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

... was vague about any subsequent live stage rights for Mary Poppins, but Disney did insist on his right to impose a freeze on any radio and television productions.

Well, that then left the door open for Mrs.Travers to explore the idea of developing a stage version of "Mary Poppins" without The Walt Disney Company's direct involvement. And Pamela actually got serious about this idea during the Summer of 1981, when Mrs. Travers was contacted by Jules Fisher ...

... a Broadway producer who wanted to stage a Mary Poppins musical. Fisher, who had produced the successful Broadway musical Dancin', as well as Lenny (about Lenny Bruce) and Beatlemania, met Pamela in London in January 1982. They talked of possible writers for the book of the musical, perhaps Richard Wilbur, who had adapted Tartuffe , or Jay Presson Allen, who wrote The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie . In February, Fisher spoke with Stephen Sondheim. Fisher told Pamela Sondheim had always adored the books, and as an exercise, when he was beginning in the theatre, had attempted to write a musical version of Mary Poppins. The bad news was, Sondheim now wanted to produce something very American, contemporary and hard-edged. Mary Poppins was not it.

Again, the letters worried over the question of who owned what, how much they should all get, and which writers would be subtle but not obscure. The original Disney contract with Pamela was ambiguous, but it seemed that she retained the rights to any live musical. She wanted Lord Goodman to write to Disney to assert that right. Fisher suggested more possible writers: Tim Rice, Peter Schaffer, David Storey, Tom Stoppard, Frederick Raphael, Jonathan Miller and Arthur Laurents. She in turn proposed Wally Shawn, who had written My Dinner with Andre , Alan Jay Lerner (she loved My Fair Lady ), and Paul McCartney. "Now Paul can write a lyric, 'Strawberry Fields Forever,' " she told Fisher. She wasn't sure about his orchestration. But if he liked the books she could fire him with enthusiasm. Pamela hoped Vanessa Redgrave or Maggie Smith might play Mary Poppins. By the summer of 1983, the Disney Company advised it had no objections to the musical call while Fisher was on the brink of offering Wally Shawn the job of writing the script.

Now if some of those names sound familiar, there's a reason. Tim Rice is the talented gentleman who collaborated with Alan Menken on "A Whole New World" for Disney's "Aladdin" (not to mention working with Elton John on "The Lion King " 's score). And Wallace Shawn is probably best known to Pixar fans as the diminutive playwright / actor who voices Rex for the "Toy Story" movies.

Getting back to Valerie Lawson's book ... The early 1980s turned out to be a very busy time for Poppins-related projects. Take -- for example -- the offer that Mrs. Travers got from ...

... Walt Disney Television, which wanted to produce thirteen episodes of a (Mary Poppins) TV series ... Early in 1984, the company offered her $86,000 for an initial six one-hour TV episodes. If Disney went ahead and made thirteen episodes, as planned, her share for the rights and consulting fees would be consulting fees would be close to $200,000. In February Ed Self, from Walt Disney Television in the United States, called on Pamela. She agreed (to the TV deal) and they celebrated with a couple of Jack Daniels. Next month, he told her that he wanted her to collaborate on the TV series with Max Shulman, a novelist and screenwriter who wrote Rally Round the Flags Boys! , The Tender Trap , House Calls and the Dobie Gillis TV series .

(L to R) Bob Denver and Dwayne Hickman from "The Many Loves of
Dobie Gillis." Copyright 2013 Shout! Factory. All rights reserved

I'll just let all of you baby boomers take that in for a moment. The writer of Mary Poppins and the writer of Dobie Gillis were supposed to have collaborated on a TV series for Walt Disney Television. Weird, huh?

Finally, if today's article hasn't already convinced you that you really need to go out & buy a copy of Simon & Schuster's reprint of "Mary Poppins, She Wrote," let me offer up one last bizarre little story that Valerie Lawson unearthed. Which shows how the universe can sometimes be a moebius strip.

Nicci Gerrard from the Observer met with P.L. Travers at her home on Shawfield Street in Chelsea in 1995. The author of "Mary Poppins" was in failing health at this point and had trouble answering even the simplest of questions. Among the ones that Gerrard asked her that day were "How long have you lived here?," "How old are you?" and "I hear you have many grandchildren, how many?" P.L.'s response to all of Nicci's queries was "I have no gift for numbers."

Cameron Mackintosh (center) onstage with a chorus line of chimney sweeps from
the Australian touring production of the stage musical version of "Mary Poppins."
Copyright Cameron Mackintosh Limited  / Disney. All rights reserved

So given that this interview subject was clearly not up to talking with a reporter, what was the whole point of Gerrard talking with Travers? Well, as Lawson explained in "Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P. L. Travers"

The reason for (this) interview was a last glimmer of hope for a Mary Poppins musical. In 1995, (Travers) agents had optioned the rights to the producers David Pugh and Cameron Mackintosh. There was, as yet, no script but plenty of hope; after all, Mackintosh was an impresario with some serious money behind him. Word had spread that Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson or Fiona Shaw might play Mary Poppins this time.

Isn't that bizarre? Nearly two decades before Emma Thompson wound up playing P.L. Travers in "Saving Mr. Banks" (or -- for that matter -- wound up playing a Mary Poppins-like character in the "Nanny McPhee " films), she was already on the short list to play this practically perfect character on Broadway.

(L to R) Emma Thompson and Julie Andrews at last week's premiere of
"Saving Mr. Banks" on the Disney Lot in Burbank. Copyright
Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Seriously, though. If you want to learn more about what really went on during the development of "Mary Poppins," then you honestly need to pick up a copy of Valerie Lawson's "Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers ." Which covers the parts of this fascinating woman's life story that didn't make it into "Saving Mr. Banks."

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