It's the same magical umbrella with the parrot-head handle that first transported Julie Andrews into movies and, forevermore, into the minds of generations of fans who can not only spell but also sing "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious."
Roy E. Disney, nephew of the late, great Walt who produced the spectacularly tuneful (God bless you, Sherman Brothers!) film version of Travers' tales of an eccentric nanny, led the celebs into the theatre that Ziegfeld built and Disney restored. "Forty years ago we said, 'This would be a great play,' and finally it has happened," he remarked. "I saw this musical in London a year ago, and I like it better here. I just think it's a better show."
Chairman of The Walt Disney Studios, Richard Cook, also came to see Mary Poppins the new musical, join The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and Tarzan on The Great White Way. He said the next Disney movie musical to take the Broadway dip would be Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's The Little Mermaid. "We're doing tryouts this summer in Denver."
Fittingly, following the lead of Andrews, who won an Academy Award for the role, a next-to-unknown has been selected to play the high-flying Miss Fix It, Mary Poppins. Ashley Brown has come to the part directly from her only previous Broadway experience — the first half of the title role in Disney's Beauty and the Beast four blocks away — so, for all practical purposes, this qualifies as her high-profile Broadway debut.
"It's a whole different level, being the first instead of the 15th," she admitted. "It's just been an amazing experience. I'll never forget it. I mean, I'm 24 years old. I would never, in my wildest dreams have imagined this. If I were to sit down and write down what I wanted my life to be, this is better. I tried to make tonight as much as not an out-of-body experience as I possibly could and just have a good time. We've worked so hard. I think the toughest part for me was making it my own and putting the whole thing together. I've never sung as much, danced as much, been in a show as much in my life!" There's a Cinderella backstory in the irony that she and Julie Andrews arrived at stardom in the same role: "When I was little, I started singing in an English accent. My mother was, like, 'Okay, who is this child?' because I'm a Southern girl. It came from the 'Mary Poppins' video I saw so much. I'd memorized all the songs. I was a real Disney baby."
There are other reasons she loves playing Mary Poppins: "She couldn't be a more fun character to play. I mean, she's everything. She's mysterious. She's fun. She's funny. She's magical. She knows all the people in the world. Who else can say that? And I don't make a bad entrance or exit — although I guess I can't take a lot of credit for that."
No, that credit goes to Illusions Designer Jim Steinmeyer, but you'll be hard-pressed to find him in your Playbill. He didn't make the title page (and should, in caps), sneaking into the listings between Wig Creator and Technical Director. Presumably, he's kept under wraps so no one'll know there's Magic Tonite! and be all the more surprised. He's a first-class illusionist who created effects for Beauty and the Beast and Siegfried and Roy. Here, when Mary arrives in the place of her employment — the Banks home — glitter is sprinkled before your eyes and she…appears. When she exits, she sails out of the theatre via the cheap seats (heads up, gladies!). Once she arrives by kite, I kid you not.
Gavin Lee is also defying gravity in his Broadway debut, reprising the Dick Van Dyke role of Bert the chimney sweep. He dances up one side of the stage, across the top and down the other side, much like what Fred Astaire did in the "You're All the World to Me" number from "Royal Wedding" — but achieved here very differently. (The song is called "Step in Time," possibly a deliberate bow to Astaire's autobiography, "Steps in Time.")
Midway through the number, the apex of the proscenium arch, Lee breaks into an upside down tap-dance — a sight to behold! — and the taps aren't dubbed. "What they do is put mikes down my trousers so I have an extra mike-pack for just that number," he explained.
Frightening? He nodded an unqualified yes. "When I first started, it was the scariest thing in the world to be up that high and upside down and just having two little wires on your hips, but they assured me it was always safe — there are so many safety checks in the show — so now, it's just part of my show. The trick is about lighting. It's about wires. It's about how the music is dramatic at that point. I always say: I'm not doing it alone. There are a lot of different elements, and I'm just the lucky guy who gets to do it."
The movie provided a little glimpse of Bert's past as a busker, but this didn't get very far into the stage musical, according to Lee. "In the original script, there was a short scene — almost like a crossover — where I did have the one-man band. It would have been fun to learn how to do the mouth organ, the drum, the cymbals between the knees and all that — but, along the way, as it always does with brand-new shows, that scene got cut.
"And also, coming to New York, the creative team didn't just pick up the London show and plunk it down here. They said to us all on Day One, 'We're starting again. Don't feel you're filling someone's shoes. You do it how you want.' So a lot of the blocking is new. Two of the numbers are very different because they've improved on them. They never say, 'We're done with that,' and wash their hands of it. They keep on evolving with it, and that's great for me because what I really didn't want was anyone to ever go, 'You can see he's been doing it a year.' I always want to be fresh, and the fact that we went back to the beginning in the rehearsals for Broadway meant that I could do different things."
Big River brought Daniel Jenkins to Broadway originally (1985) and most recently (2003) — first as Huckleberry Finn and second as Mark Twain, quintessential Americans both — so he's an unexpected choice to play the buttoned-down, business-obsessed Brit who heads the household Mary Poppins tends, but, psychologically, said the actor, it fits fine.
"This role feels very close to me, maybe because I'm a dad," he explained. "I've been a father for a while, but now I'm playing one —so I can use it. All that kind of 'Oh, I've gone too far,' 'Oh, I've done something irreparable,' 'Oh, I can't go back and fix that.' Anyone who's a parent has done something like that, and it's devastating. It's so easy to access, and, when you're trying to shove all that stuff away in pursuit of the material life or just doing what you think other people would approve of — it's awfully accessible, all this stuff. Really is. It's not about being somebody else for me. It's about, 'Oh, it's me.'
"That wonderful, technical, physical stuff is lovely. That's the face he gets to put on to keep all this other really important stuff at bay. It's like I'm in a tiny little Chekhov play in the middle of this big musical. It's just a riot. I don't have to do any heavy-lifting, and, yet, I get to have a journey. I'm very touched and honored that I get to do this role."
Rebecca Luker, who does a lovely job of his wife, Mrs. Banks, didn't gain any extra songs (which she could handily dispatch) in the show's trip across the pond — and her character has been stripped of the suffragette status Glynis Johns enjoyed in the movie.
"We just all felt that you can't get a laugh out of the fact that women want the vote anymore," offered the musical book-writer, Julian Fellowes, an Oscar winner for "Gosford Park." "We've all kinda moved on from that. And we also felt we didn't really need her to be a comedic character — that we wanted her to be a real woman in trouble with her family. Essentially, her journey is one of the key journeys of the show, I think."
Fellowes returns to Travers for other conflicts and characters —notably, a nasty nanny named Miss Andrew (played by Ruth Gottschall with Wicked Witch of the West over- and undertones). She's given a comparable "whattaworld" exit ("that's the director's choice more than mine," asided the adapter). "We all felt that, if we were going to say this family was dysfunctional because the father had had this terrible childhood that his dysfunctionality was almost hereditary by this stage, you needed this visualization of the horrible nanny who had wrecked it. That's in Pamela Travers' original conception."
The work put in bringing Mary Poppins to Broadway is now showing in London. "To be quite honest," he said, "all we did was really improve the show because all the changes that we put in at this stage are now in the London production. It's not like they're different productions. Productions grow. You have this incredible luxury, when it's been running a while, to go in and 'We can tighten that up' or 'We can make that a bit clearer,' so it's kinda like a work-in-progress in a way. The only things that won't go into London from this production are the things that we actually can't technically do. There are certain things that we can do here in this theatre in New York that we can't do in London."
At one point — and for several years — there were dueling 'Mary Poppins'-es afoot. Disney was plotting the stage treatment of its original film musical of 1964, and Cameron Mackintosh purchased the stage musical rights to the series of Travers' books. After some time of circling, the two parties came harmoniously together in December of 2001.
Thomas Schumacher, who produced this eye-popping Poppins for Disney Theatrical Productions, ducked the question of budget. "It's reasonable to ask that, but the lucky thing is that there are only two investors, Disney and Cameron Mackintosh, so we don't have to talk about it. It's a good question, though. I would have asked it.
"You see it up there on the stage," Schumacher said, "and, in fairness, you're seeing the second production. We did the development of it and the out-of-town tryouts for the London production. It's the same size show. It's mechanically different in London, and some of the effects are different, but fundamentally it is the London production."
Director Richard Eyre (pronounced "air" and, thus, well-named for this assignment) and Swan Lake choreographer Matthew Bourne are not names previously associated together in the same universe — let alone the universe of musical comedy — but it was Mackintosh's brainstorm to bring them together to get Travers' nanny off the runway and into the air.
"Cameron said to both of us, 'I'm not doing this without the other one,' and he said to me, 'That's what it needs. It needs the two of you,'" relayed Bourne. "I had admired Richard's work for years, but we had never really met until we did this, so we gave it some thought. And it turned out to be a match made in heaven. We all got on so well.
"What I love about this show is that it doesn't rely on special effects and fantasy and big numbers and spectacle — it has them all, but it doesn't rely on them. For me, it's the heart of the show. If it didn't have all that, it would be less than it is. It's the combination of this heartfelt story about this family and all the other things you expect in a big musical." A self-confessed fan of the film from childhood, Bourne readily admitted, "The Sherman Brothers are such heroes of mine my whole life. I saw the film when it first came out when I was four or five. I've just never not known about it. It's been there all my life."
He sees no division between Broadway and ballet. "I deal with classic material people love. The way to approach it is with love for the material — the book and the film — to think 'This is a piece of theatre. It's a new musical. It's not the film on stage. It's something else.' I think because it came through — this love of the material — it ended up being true to the material but very, very different — a piece of theatre rather than just a re-creation."
Eyre is hardly Mr. Music Man, although he hastily reminds you he directed Guys and Dolls at the National and wrote a stage version of "High Society." The attack, he contended, doesn't change: "Not really. People say, 'Discriminate between musicals and straight theatre.' I've always thought you should apply the same criteria to both — i.e., you should try and be truthful. Of course, musicals are a heightened form of experience, but, at the same time, you have to represent the emotions truthfully. So I approach it the same."
He does manage to juggle parallel universes — human-size dramas, punctuated with Broadway razzle-dazzle. "That's what I love. You go between very, very detailed, quite intimate scenes about family life, and then you explode into fantasy — and it's not arbitrary. It's to do with the meaning of the show. They're going from fantasy into reality to fantasy, and, as they go, they're receiving an education in how to look at the world."
It was smooth Eyre-Bourne teamwork. "We worked together very, very closely. There was no division between his protected area and my protected area. We covered the whole thing together, and he worked with Stephen Mear [credited as co-choreographer] too, so we had two choreographers, and it was just a great collaboration between artists."
Another Mackintosh touch was bringing in a new pair of songwriters — composer George Stiles and lyricist Anthony Drewe to augment the original score by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman. Stiles remembered how heavy of foot he was in going to meet the brothers. "To have a bar set that high — those songs are in everybody's musical DNA — it was an impossible challenge to meet, but luckily they are the sweetest people in the world," he said, "and that helps when you meet them so you don't feel so overwrought."
They entered the picture because Mackintosh did not want to just put the film on stage. Everybody involved wanted it to be a way to bring some of what was in the books with the best of the film with "let's make this thing really work on stage on its own terms."
The good news is that their pitch song — "Practically Perfect," written on spec and as Shermanesque as possible — won them the assignment, and it was practically perfect, changing only two lines since submission. The bad news is that that was 14 years ago.
Recalled Drewe: "They took us on board and said, 'You're going to be the musical dramatists for the show. You're going to have carte blanche use of any of the Sherman Brothers' songs from the film, any of the Sherman Brothers' catalog that was written for the film but maybe didn't make it to the film —and, if necessary, to write some new songs.
"We've written about seven new songs, and we've pulled apart and put back together some of the old ones. I know we've written about 55-60 percent of it. It was a much bigger job than we actually thought it was going to be, partly because we didn't think we were going to be rewriting much of their stuff. We just thought we were going to be putting a few new songs in, tailoring the musical story toward what Julian Fellowes was telling. But the more the process continued, the more it became necessary to change the other stuff."
Bob Crowley has thrown some dazzling Broadway backdrops up for Disney — from Aida to Tarzan, without blinking an eye — so he makes himself right at home in Edwardian England, doubling as scenic and costume designer. "Following the film," he said, "was the hardest thing to do. It's such a beautiful icon of childhood that my responsibility to the film was utmost, really. Within that, trying to get the Banks house worked out was very complicated. The mechanics of the house was the singularly most difficult thing."
Mary Poppins is the second new-to-New York Sherman Brothers musical of the week. Busker Alley, which was stopped in its tracks on its way here in 1995 by Tommy Tune's broken foot, got a belated one-night-only unveiling Nov. 13 to benefit the York Theatre Company, starring Jim Dale and directed by the man who originally designed the show, Tony Walton. "Luckily, there were a few Broadway backers there who liked it so you never know," Dale said in the lobby. "It's a wonderful score, better than most. I've been dying to do this ever since I heard the title. I was born to play this part. It's a great role."
Mary Poppins' opening night audience included Angela Lansbury, Roger Rees (who delivers the very civil cellphone warning before the show), Rex Reed, Joe Mantello, Donny Osmond, Harvey Fierstein, Max Von Essen, Joel Grey, Sam Cohen, Jack Noseworthy, Kelli O'Hara (bound for L.A. to do Sunday in the Park With George for Jason Alexander, the director), Cynthia McFadden, John Lasseter, Marin Mazzie, David Zippel, Rick Elice, Jacob Young, Heather Headley, Stephen Schwartz and director-son Scott, Sh-K-Boom Records chief Kurt Deutsch (who just released the uptown edition of The Fantasticks, and is recording Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me Nov. 20 and will next wax The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin), Adam Pascal, Sara Gettelfinger, Calvin Klein, choreographer Sergio Trujillo, Marian Seldes, Donald Corren (who's accompanying Judy Kaye's Tony-nominated Florence Foster Jenkins on tour in Souvenir — next stop, and Flo would have loved it: Tucson's Temple of Music and Art Jan. 13-Feb. 3, 2007), Sherie Rene Scott, Wayne Cilento, Dee Hoty, Natalie Morales, Audra McDonald, songwriter Andrew Lippa (who's making a Disney stage musical out of the Jules Feiffer novel, "The Man in the Ceiling"), Richard Kind, Josh Strickland, Disney president and CEO Robert A. Iger and Rosie O'Donnell.
Rosie's Broadway Kids, along with Grand Street Settlement and Kips Bay Boys & Girls Club, received the $200,000 Disney would ordinarily spend on an opening night party.
The first-night vets left the New Amsterdam exhilarated and disoriented, with nowhere to go but home. Quelle bizarre! A spoonful of medicine helps the sugar go down, perhaps.