The songwriting team of George Stiles (composer) and Anthony Drewe (lyricist), who have contributed a raft of new songs to the show, have been in on the project since near the beginning, spoke with Playbill On-Line. "We pitched for the job nine or ten years ago when we heard the rumor that there was going to be a Mary Poppins musical,” says Stiles. “The producer David Pugh was at that stage involved with the rights. He said it might go to the stage not necessarily with all the songs that were in the film and not with the same script but with a proper adaptation. We ran away in great excitement to the video and the piano.”
The pair immediately came up with a song for the moment when Mary measures herself, and the tape measure reads “practically perfect.” Their song of that title has survived all the years of rewrites and, they say with pride, is in the show today more or less exactly as they wrote it back then. They have since then written many more, finally contributing six original songs to the show.
“Pamela Travers, who wrote the books, had some issues with the film,” says Drewe, “so it was always part of the deal that British writers had to be involved with any stage show. And, much as we love the original score, we found quite a lot to change. For instance, one song in the film, Bert’s ‘Step in Time,’ had no rhyme or reason to it. Chimney sweeps just appeared on these rooftops, then disappeared again. We’ve altered numbers like that to give them more point, musically and dramatically.”
And, adds Stiles, sometimes the results have been a delightful surprise. “We decided we needed something different for the song ‘Happy Holiday.’ In the film there’s this whole 15-minute animation sequence, which we couldn’t re create onstage. None of us thought that people in furry penguin suits would play to the stage’s strengths! So we looked at the score and found that it’s marked ‘in a music-hall style.’ The Sherman brothers, who wrote those numbers, had researched British music-hall from the period; so we’ve played to the vaudevillian side of the music. We put in a counter-melody to fit across the top of the original tune, an extemporization on the theme of Bert as vaudevillian. And there’s a host of new lyrics. In fact, we’ve probably re arranged every one of the 3,000-odd bars of music in the whole evening.”
Mackintosh — who managed to secure the rights from Travers before she died, then joined forces with Disney, who held the rights to the movie’s songs — also told Playbill On-Line about changes the team have made. “We’ve brought in Miss Andrew from the books,” says Mackintosh. “She’s the horrible nanny, the opposite of Mary Poppins, who stunted George Banks as a young boy. And, there’s a crucial psychological importance to having her there — she helps you understand why Mr. Banks is who he is. It also gave us a terrific face-off between the two nannies in Act Two!” Much to his surprise, Mackintosh also found that his director, Richard Eyre, “had a nanny like Miss Andrew when he was a boy!” Asked whether he felt he had to provide a show-stopping production moment to equate with the sliding barricades in Les Misérables, the crashing chandelier in The Phantom of the Opera or the helicopter in Miss Saigon, the producer denies putting in effects for their own sake. “I’ve never done anything in my shows that the dramatist didn’t require, and sometimes you need that great theatrical moment. Sure, the barricades coming together in Les Miz was a great coup de theatre, but it made an important point about the way people’s lives were piled together as they fought for something they believed in. And, for Mary Poppins, there are certain iconic things that everyone remembers from the movie — the chimney sweeps, Mary flying, Mary sliding up the banisters. Our task was to make those moments intrinsic to the storytelling of the show.”
Also in the creative team (alongside Mackintosh, Disney’s Thomas Schumacher, Stiles, Drewe and Eyre) are book writer Julian Fellowes, best known for his Oscar-winning screenplay for “Gosford Park”; co-director and choreographer Matthew Bourne; and co-choreographer Stephen Mear.
The cast is headed by Laura Michelle Kelly, the 20-something actress who starred in the third cast of Mackintosh’s production of My Fair Lady as well as the current Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof. Gavin Lee plays Bert, with Linzi Hately as Mrs. Banks and David Haig as Mr. Banks. Rosemary Ashe is the nasty Miss Andrew.
Lighting is by Howard Harrison, set and costume designs by Bob Crowley, sound design by Andrew Bruce and orchestrations by William David Brohn. Nick Davies is the musical director, David Caddick the musical supervisor.
For more information, call (0)870 850 9191.