In Tune with Mary Poppins

By Michael Lassell
14 May 2007

Ashley Brown as <i>Mary Poppins</i>.
Ashley Brown as Mary Poppins.
Joan Marcus

Two generations of songwriters collaborate on the stage musical of Mary Poppins.

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Walt Disney loved music, as anyone who has ever seen "Fantasia" knows. Music was instrumental to his "Steamboat Willie" (1928), the world's first sound-synchronized cartoon, and it was the essential justification for "75 Silly Symphonies" produced between the late 1920s and '30s. The songs in his first animated feature, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937), became part of the cultural sound track.

So it is hardly surprising that when Disney first read "Mary Poppins," he could hear the melodies coming off the pages, even though the author, P. L. Travers, had not included songs of any kind. It took Disney some 20 years to secure the film rights for the "Poppins" books, and as soon as he did, he turned to a pair of musicians.

Robert B. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman had worked for the studio before. In 1958, for example, Dick and Bob, as they are called, had a top-ten hit with "Tall Paul," which Disney had bought for Mouseketeer Annette Funicello, who was being groomed for adult stardom. (Shortly thereafter, their "Let's Get Together," sung by Hayley Mills in the film "The Parent Trap" went to number one as a single.)



"One day, in 1960," remembers Dick Sherman, "Walt handed us a copy of the one-volume edition of the first two 'Mary Poppins' books. He told us to read the book and let him know what we thought. We knew he was throwing down a gauntlet and we had to pick it up."

The Shermans chose six episodes from the books and started writing songs, each of them contributing to both melody and lyrics. Two weeks later, they returned to Disney with "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," as well as early versions of "The Perfect Nanny" and "Jolly Holiday," the latter of which became the extended animated sequence for Mary, Bert, and the children. They had also written "Feed the Birds," which became Walt Disney's personal favorite until the day he died.

Over the next three years, the Sherman brothers turned out 32 songs for "Mary Poppins," of which 14 wound up in the final film. Others appeared elsewhere. A song called "Bobbing Along on the Bottom of the Beautiful Briny Sea," which was to have been part of an around-the-world adventure in which Mary and the children sail away in Admiral Boom's ship-shaped house, was subsequently featured in "Bedknobs and Broomsticks," and a song called "Land of Sand," with new lyrics, appeared in "The Jungle Book" as "Trust in Me."

The "Mary Poppins" music is so necessary to the film, in fact, that it's difficult to remember that the original stories were conceived without it. Many of the songs from the 1964 film score are now classics. "Chim-chim-cher-ee" was nominated for, and won, the Academy Award for Best Song. And the word "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" wound up in the dictionary. At the same time, in England (homeland of the film's star, Julie Andrews), a young man named Cameron Mackintosh fell in love with the Disney film. Mackintosh would go on to become one of theatre history's most legendary producers (having, among many others, the three longest-running Broadway hits of all time to his credit: Phantom of the Opera, Cats and Les Misérables).

"I'd just left school," Mackintosh recalls. "Mary's character was so extraordinary I could never forget her or the wonderful Sherman brothers' songs. Intrigued enough to read the original book, I was surprised to find that there were several of them, with many more stories, characters, and adventures than those in the film."

By the 1970s, Mackintosh had launched his personal quest for the stage rights to the "Poppins" books — an idea others had pursued and continued to pursue for decades. Mackintosh made no real headway until 1993, when he was able to meet the nonagenarian Travers and convince her to approve a stage musical "created by combining her stories with the key ingredients and songs from the film."

Thomas Schumacher, now president and producer of Disney Theatrical Productions, notes that the idea of "Mary Poppins" as a stage musical was first raised in 1965 by Dick Van Dyke during a radio interview. About 20 years later, Michael Eisner, who became Disney's CEO in 1984, toyed with the idea of a "Poppins" sequel (and even commissioned Travers herself to write a script). But after the theatrical version of "Beauty and the Beast" opened in 1994, a stage production of the original "Poppins" went to the top of the development list for Disney's new theatrical division.

With The Walt Disney Company holding some rights and Mackintosh holding others, some thought a stage musical of "Mary Poppins" might never be made. Schumacher and Mackintosh, however, both knew that their passion for the property would drive the project forward.

Mackintosh wanted to expand on the same stories from the "Poppins" books that had interested Schumacher and his creative team at Disney. And so, without backstage drama, the two parties became partners in a co-production of Mary Poppins.

"Because the film had been created in America," says Schumacher, "the estate of P. L. Travers wanted the musical to be made in England, as the books were." Happily, Mackintosh knew his fair share of musical theatre musicians and two of them, George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, had meanwhile heard that a stage version of "Poppins" might be in the offing.

In much the same way that the Sherman brothers sat down and wrote "Feed the Birds," Stiles and Drewe took the books and wrote some songs of their own completely on spec, including one called "Practically Perfect." Unknown to them, the Sherman brothers had written a song with the same title for the film, but with changed lyrics it had become Mrs. Banks' "Sister Suffragette."

As it happened, Stiles and Drewe were both lifelong fans of the Sherman brothers. The first tune that Stiles picked out on the piano at age six was their title song for "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang." Drewe's first experience with their music was "The Jungle Book." "Years later," Drewe says, "when I met Dick Sherman I told him that I knew the film so well that I knew all the sounds that Phil Harris makes when Baloo the bear is scat-singing with Louis Prima's orangutan in 'I Wanna Be Like You.' I started doing it and, in what was for me an amazing moment, Dick joined in and sang it with me!"

The vocabulary of the Sherman brothers' music for "Mary Poppins" had been drawn from the vaudeville-like tradition of the English music hall (a popular form of entertainment that was the first performance arena of a young girl named Julie Andrews). "In a sense," says Stiles, "having a pair of Brits working on this score was like bringing the music home."

With the Sherman brothers on hand, Stiles and Drewe went to work on the books, first without a script (as the Shermans had done) and later working with book writer Julian Fellowes. They wrote several songs for the new material from the books and the revised plot, among them "Being Mrs. Banks," "Brimstone and Treacle," and "Anything Can Happen." Furthermore, some of the Shermans' songs needed expanding and resetting for new dramatic contexts.

"Walt Disney did not make movie musicals for the most part," says Schumacher, "as much as he made movies with music. The 'Mary Poppins' film straddles both approaches. It begins, for example, with 'Sister Suffragette,' which has nothing to do with the plot."

For the stage musical, Schumacher and Mackintosh agreed, they would follow the dictates of modern musical theatre, wherein songs exist to carry the narrative, to reveal character, and to set mood, not just for entertainment, however entertaining they may be (like the "laughing gas" tea party in the film).

Some of the Sherman brothers' songs also needed to be expanded for other conventions of the Broadway musical. "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" for example, runs less than two minutes in the film. On stage it's a major production number. Songs were changed for aesthetic reasons, too. When "Practically Perfect" replaced "Spoonful of Sugar" as the first song Mary sings to Jane and Michael in the nursery, a new place for "Spoonful" was found and the character of that entire number was changed, if not its melody. "Supercalifragilistic," meanwhile, became a lesson for the children in the power of words. "The whole notion of spelling out the word," remembers Schumacher, "was George and Anthony's."

Ultimately, "the boys," as Cameron Mackintosh refers to Stiles and Drewe, were the perfect collaborators to work with the Shermans. "By the end of the process," Dick Sherman says with a chuckle, "it was sometimes hard to remember who wrote what and when." And Bob Sherman has said that "Temper, Temper" is now his favorite song in the score, including the songs he himself wrote.

At the time Mary Poppins opened on stage, more than 50 percent of the music was new, and a substantially greater proportion of the lyrics. "One of the great joys of this process," says Stiles, "has been our relationship with the Shermans. They are a life lesson in generosity of spirit to let two new writers come in and muck about with their greatest work."

Mackintosh has kind words for all four songwriters. "George and Anthony have treated the Shermans with total respect and have genuinely given themselves the task of raising their own writing to match the level achieved by their heroes. As for Robert and Richard, they recognized that straightaway and were the first to acknowledge it." And thus, a songwriting collaboration between two generations resulted in a brand new Broadway musical.

(This article originally appeared in Showbill, Playbill's sister magazine at Broadway's the New Amsterdam Theatre, where Mary Poppins is playing. Michael Lassell is the author of 'Elton John & Tim Rice's Aida: The Making of the Broadway Musical' and 'TARZAN: The Broadway Adventure. He is co-author, with Brian Sibley, of the forthcoming story of Mary Poppins and its journey from the page to the stage.)