PLAYBILL BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Mary Poppins Songwriter Richard M. Sherman

By Robert Viagas
17 Feb 2013

Steffanie Leigh and Gavin Lee at curtain call.
Photo by Krissie Fullerton

What was it like, seeing the project's transfer to the stage, first in London, then on Broadway?
RS: That same spirit — that same storyline — that was in the movie is absolutely captured in the play version. I take no individual bow because God knows I worked with my brother Bob, and I worked with Walt Disney and Don DaGradi and Bill Walsh. Then, for Broadway, this whole new team of people came in and added to what we had done and made this wonderful musical Mary Poppins, which is just something that's a high point in my life. I'm thinking of the [stage musical] team of [librettist] Julian Fellowes, [songwriters] George Stiles and Anthony Drewe because they, also, were very, very creative and added great depth and great meaning to the play. A lot of the original [film] score stayed pretty much into the Broadway show, which is very satisfying to me. But the new writers added new songs and developed the story a little bit more, but still kept that storyline.

I think praise also has to be given to Cameron Mackintosh, a brilliant, brilliant, wonderful man, a great producer, and Tom Schumacher [president of Disney Theatrical Group]. These two guys got together and overcame all the problems of two corporate behemoths colliding. [Laughs.]

I took a look at the Mary Poppins books again last night — "Mary Poppins Comes Back," which is a great, big, thick book; "Mary Poppins Opens the Door" and "Mary Poppins in the Park," which is a kind of strange book. It seems like there is a lot of material there. Has there ever been talk of doing a sequel to Mary Poppins, just as P.L. Travers did sequels to "Mary Poppins"?
RS: Well, let's put it this way — "Mary Poppins" was almost an impossibility to produce in the first place. I'm a consultant on a movie that we just finished shooting at the studio that's coming out later this year. It's called "Saving Mr. Banks," and it's the true story of how Walt Disney convinced Pamela Travers, the authoress, to give us the permission to do the movie because she was a real strange woman, and I'm being very nice about it… [Laughs.] She was a difficult lady, and she had created in her own mind this lovely family called the Banks family, and this lovely father who just went to the bank and made money and came home again — no storyline whatsoever — and she wanted to preserve that. We said, "You can't do a movie with this wonderful, magical Mary Poppins if you don't have problems in the family so that she comes in and solves them. That's what it's all about." And, she just hated the idea that we were doing that, so she was always incredibly negative, and the picture called "Saving Mr. Banks" tells how we finally got the movie made. I think it's a great movie. I'm so excited about it. It stars Tom Hanks as Walt Disney, Emma Thompson as Mrs. Travers, and Jason Schwartzman, who plays me! [Laughs.]


Raul Esparza in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on Broadway.
photo by Joan Marcus

Who plays your brother?
RS: B.J. Novak, a wonderful actor. Brad Whitford plays Don DaGradi. All the actual people and events that took place 50 years ago are portrayed very honestly and straightforwardly, and it's really a remarkable movie, and you will see how "Mary Poppins" was born.

This movie is a Disney picture?
RS: Yes.

How did it feel to be back at Disney?
RS: Bob and I were full-time staff writers there for seven or eight years, but we have done so many things for the Disney company over the years…writing things for the theme parks, and coming back occasionally to do a movie. We did "The Tigger Movie" [in 2000] and some other things. So Bob and I never really quite left Disney. When this movie came up, I was asked to read the script and take a look at some of the incidents that I was involved with, and I helped supervise the way our voices sounded — how we spoke, how Walt spoke and everything. Because I'm the last Guy Standing in that group. Although they're all very alive to me, they're not with us anymore.

Was there any talk, by the way, when you were working with Tom Schumacher over at Disney Theatricals, of adapting any of your other films — like "Jungle Book"?
RS: In fact, in a week and a half, I think, I go to the Goodman Theatre in Chicago for a workshop on a stage version Jungle Book staged by Mary Zimmerman [Tony winner for Metamorphoses and winner of a MacArthur Fellowship.] We're adding some new songs to fatten up the score and to fatten out the storyline. The Goodman is going to have it running there in June of this year. We're going to be incorporating real Indian instruments like a sitar — things like that — along with the jazz. We're going to play American jazz, but with new sound. It's going to be pretty fascinating.

Is that going to be their production or is that going to be Disney Theatricals?
RS: I believe it'll be their production, and Disney Theatricals will have a hand in it. They might very well be wanting to bring it to Broadway or tour it, I don't know. Tom [Schumacher] hasn't committed yet; he's just listening. He's very careful. He's a very meticulous producer and a very talented one and, I must say, very dedicated.

And, the new songs — are these Sherman & Sherman songs or are these your songs alone?
RS: Sherman and Sherman songs. There was going to be a second "Jungle Book" movie, but when Walt passed on [in 1966], the studio decided they didn't want to go ahead with the sequel. So they are songs that were written for the second version. We eventually got Phil Harris and a couple of people from the first movie, including Louis Prima, to sing them on an album called "More Jungle Book." I'm updating some of the lyrics on it, actually — sort of catering them to the play because the play, of course, is a different beast than the film.