Mary Poppins

Musical
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Editorial Review

A new version of 'Mary Poppins' arrives at the Kennedy Center

By Lavanya Ramanathan
Friday, June 25, 2010

Before Dr. Spock and Supernanny moved in on her turf, there was only one person who could mold unruly rugrats into perfect little angels and do it with a smile.

Mary Poppins.

Come Thursday, the world's most chipper nanny is back, landing -- via umbrella, naturally -- at the Kennedy Center for an eight-week run of the Broadway musical "Mary Poppins."

But this Mary isn't quite how you might remember her.

To create the show, Disney and uberproducer Cameron Mackintosh ("Cats," "The Phantom of the Opera") gathered the most memorable moments of the 1964 movie but incorporated more storylines from the original "Poppins" stories by P.L. Travers. The result is a Mary Poppins with a good bit more dramatic heft.

You're probably wondering: Why on Earth does the perfect nanny -- or the perfect movie, for that matter, with five Academy Awards -- need more heft? Why mess with "Mary Poppins" at all?

For Richard M. Sherman, who with his brother, Robert, wrote the movie's classic songs (including "Feed the Birds (Tuppence a Bag)" and "A Spoonful of Sugar"), that reaction isn't all that different from the response he received in reworking the book for the screen. The movie, as beloved as it was, had a major detractor -- the creator of "Mary Poppins."

"Mrs. Travers was very upset. We were doing things with her book, and she was very defensive about it," Sherman says by phone from California. "I remember at one point, I said, 'Mrs. Travers, we are never, ever going to even think of touching your books. Your books will always be there.' "

Travers never came to accept the Disney film and refused for years to grant stage rights to Disney. It was only after she was approached by Mackintosh -- who agreed to revisit her stories -- that she relented. (Travers died before the show opened in 2004.)

"I know what she was feeling, about authorship, possession," Sherman says.

He also knew that a stage version would mean his own work would be tweaked. Although "Mary Poppins" the musical retains many of movie's favorite tunes, there are four new songs and modifications to the old ones by two new songwriters, George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.

"If we'd stopped to think about it for a minute, I don't think either of us would have taken the job or the challenge," Stiles says from London, where he is working on two new productions. "Our big question was . . . 'What's wrong with what's there?' "

But, Stiles says, "it seemed to us immediately that at best, we aim our bar as high as the Sherman brothers."

They wrote songs to help develop Mary's back story, as well as that of the Banks family. Mary's magical powers are on display, but so are her idiosyncrasies. She's a smidge vain, it turns out; that much you learn from Stiles and Drewe's song "Practically Perfect." And "she's quite stern," Drewe adds in an interview from his home in France.

"We know that she's not really being mean to the kids," he says. It's just that the kids in the show -- and in Travers's stories -- are brattier.

The show debuted in London and moved to Broadway in 2006 with minor tweaks for American audiences; among them, the drab London of the 1964 "Poppins" instead looks as vibrant as the Kenya of "Lion King," full of razzle dazzle and more Broadway-appropriate hues. The show has been so successful that it is still running in New York, even as the touring production ventures across the United States, Europe and even Australia.

Sherman couldn't be happier. "The new songs are wonderful," he says. "It's a very, very well-hewn development of the movie.

"When they do 'Step in Time,' the dance, it's breathtaking. . . . It's just flabbergasting. It was great in the movie, and it's just fantastic on stage, because it's real."