|Photo by Joan Marcus|
Composer George Stiles and lyricist Anthony Drewe, the Brits who sweeten Broadway's Mary Poppins with new numbers and reinvent the famous film's songs, admit they had a favorite movie when they were children in the 1960s.
Can you guess what it is?
The 1960s picture starred a winsome British soprano, a lanky Dick Van Dyke, and boasted flying sequences, fantastic adventures in foreign landscapes, and songs by brothers Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman.
"It was 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' for me," Stiles told Playbill.com.
Drewe admitted in the joint interview, "The film I've seen more than any other in my life is 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.'"
The 1968 movie musical about the flying car? With Sally Ann Howes, and such infectious songs as "Hushabye Mountain," "Me Ol' Bamboo," "Toot Sweets" and "Truly Scrumptious"?
What about the 1964 Disney picture, "Mary Poppins," with Julie Andrews — the one for which she won the Academy Award playing a flying nanny with a parrot-head umbrella handle?
"'Chitty' was [a favorite] because, for boys, a flying car is always a great thing rather than a girl with an umbrella," composer Stiles said. "I remember I was obsessed with it. Indeed, it was the first song I ever picked out on a piano — 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.'"
Since the Cubby Broccoli-produced "Chitty" seemed to be a by-the-numbers follow-up (from another studio) to the enormously successful "Mary Poppins," it's forgivable that the imaginations of the cowlicked Stiles & Drewe boys were captured by "Chitty." It is, after all, in the same family as "Mary Poppins" —it's not like "Midnight Cowboy" is their fondest cinema memory from childhood.
A live adaptation of "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" played London and Broadway in recent years, but it was the sparkling new Disney/Cameron Mackintosh stage show Mary Poppins that the boys — now grown men, in their 40s — were invited to enhance.
Did they read the series of "Poppins" books, by P.L. Travers, when they were kids?
"Not at all," Stiles said.
"Didn't even know there were books," Drewe offered.
But they knew the Disney motion picture, and its songs. Is it a beloved film in England?
"It's enormous in England," Drewe said.
"It's not as big as here," Stiles countered. "I get the sense that here it is literally a national treasure. But it was huge in England. We slightly missed it, didn't we, as kids?"
Drewe said, "We were about three when it came out, which was a little bit too young. We then started to see clips of it over our youth on TV. I think because of Julie Andrews, it was taken to the hearts of the Brits as well. I've never seen it in a cinema."
"Nor have I," said Stiles. "I'd love to, actually, it would be really good to see a restored print in a big house."
The charge from Mackintosh was for Drewe & Stiles to (along with librettist Julian Fellowes) flesh out the story beyond the flat (though brilliant) film. The bones of the Disney screenplay are still here, but now so are new tensions, villains and adventures, all drawn from the books.
New songs were needed to illustrate the freshly-minted moments, and expansions of beloved tunes ("A Spoonful of Sugar," "Jolly Holiday," the Oscar-winning "Chim Chim Cheree," among others) were created to underline the notion that this wasn't a revival of some dusty, existing property. The team — including director Richard Eyre and choreographer Matthew Bourne — attacked Mary Poppins as if they were creating a brand new musical, from the ground up.
(Indeed, Stiles said that more than 50 percent of the score is brand new, including their original songs and their new words and music that freshen the Sherman classics. "Jolly Holiday," for example, has a fetching Drewe & Stiles counterpoint sung by the Banks children, the naughty kids whose lives are changed by Mary Poppins.)
The songwriting process (and the stage project) began in earnest with a 64-page synopsis created by Mackintosh (and Disney's Thomas Schumacher), which was a cobbling-together of chunks of the screenplay, pieces from the books, song titles from the film, dummy titles for new numbers, song-placement ideas and more.
A listen to the score (currently only available on a London cast recording — or at Broadway's New Amsterdam Theatre) proves that you can't tell where the Sherman brothers end and Drewe & Stiles begin — except, perhaps, in two fantastical sequences in which an evil nanny and menacing dolls threaten Jane and Michael Banks.
In these supernatural, menacing moments, a Drewe & Stiles style emerges — prompted by the story rather than by any indulgent whim to be "heard" as writers.
The punishment-hungry toys put the kids on trial, and sing:
Caught you at last.
Your quick temper went a bit fast.
This is a place of woe.
This is a place where all wicked children go.
In this sequence, and in the creepy "Brimstone and Treacle," in which the witchy nanny Miss Andrew spoons out bitter medicine (and has a Harry Potter-worthy showdown with Mary Poppins), the younger songwriters give themselves permission (or Mackintosh did) to open a door that leads to cloudier musical territory — a world that Orff and Stravinsky might visit.
Is it fair to say the score is not all Sherman sunshine?
"I think it was very conscious," Stiles said. "We did say that we wanted to go somewhere — to take the audience somewhere. Having got their trust and made them realize that we weren't going to screw around with their favorite things too much, we could then take them somewhere they didn't expect to go. I love watching what the audience do during 'Temper, Temper,' particularly the children. They absolutely — despite what anyone may have written — come forward on their seats, they're grasping their mums' and dads' arms in excitement, not in terror."
Stiles is reacting, in part, to a New York tabloid report that children have been terrified by the show during "Temper, Temper," in which adult-sized dolls and animals in the Banks nursery become somewhat — how shall we say? — bloodthirsty.
But rather than denying there's some terror in the show, as if it's going to prevent ticket sales, lyricist Drewe embraces it and sees the fright as part of a tradition.
"[Terror] is part of life — life isn't all just 'A Spoonful of Sugar,'" he said. "In all children's literature, from the Grimm Brothers onward, it's part of it…"
"Temper, Temper" has been "re-focused" since the London run, the writers said, and the Broadway version of the song has now been incorporated into the London staging (as have other elements).
"We currently have the same script playing on both sides of the Atlantic, which is good," Stiles said.
Drewe offered, "When the show first opened in London 'Temper, Temper,' was a bit screamed for my taste. And here, it's become much more sotto voce and more menacing as a result of that. And yet the imagery is less threatening because there's a rabbit, a teddy bear — they're not Tim Burton toys that have come to life. They're real toys that have come to life. I think, in a way, that's more potent."
A listen to the sunnier Drewe & Stiles show tunes of Mary Poppins — "Practically Perfect" and "Anything Can Happen (If You Let It)" — suggests the writers learned their craft at the foot of the Shermans, the siblings who share music and lyric credit and whose catalog includes "It's a Small World," "You're Sixteen," songs from Disney's "The Aristocats" and "The Jungle Book" and more.
If Mary Poppins can be summed up in one song title, it's "Anything Can Happen" — about boundless possibilities.
"[Cameron] gave us the most impossible [task] in the world," Stiles explained. "He said, 'You've got the biggest challenge of the entire show to write. You've got to write one of the songs they're gonna play when they bury you.' It's an awful challenge to tell a writer that."
There were three different songs written as the show's centerpiece, and at one point in the development the song was intended for Act One, rather than Act Two, where it now rests.
"When we had this [assignment] that it was going to be a very important song for us, personally, it sort of froze me to the extent that I couldn't actually commit to one thing because Cameron had given it a big buildup," Drewe said.
The writers penned the basic outline of three songs and took them to Mackintosh, so he could choose between them.
The titles were: "If You Can't Be True to Yourself, Then Who Can You Be True To?," "Give Yourself a Chance" and "Anything Can Happen (If You Let It)."
Drewe said, "Cameron immediately dismissed 'If You Can't Be True to Yourself,' and he said, 'I like both of the other two — you choose.'"
"Give Yourself a Chance," they thought, was slightly more of "a pop power ballad." So "Anything Can Happen" was the victor.
Stiles observed, "It's the most Sherman-esque, both in title and in musical style."
The optimistic lyric goes:
Anything can happen if you let it.
Sometimes things are difficult
But you can bet it
Doesn't have to be so
Changes can be made
You can move a mountain
If you use a larger spade.
For more about the writers, visit www.stilesanddrewe.com.