Mary Poppins on Broadway
I attended the Broadway production of “Mary Poppins” with a kind of proprietary interest: to see if it was faithful to the book and to see if P.L. Travers (who died in 1996) would have been happy with the results.
I was interested in seeing the Broadway version of “Mary Poppins” because it was touted as being “closer to the book” than was the movie. I knew Pamela Travers, the author, and knew her opinion of the Disney film. “When I left the movie premier,” she told me, “I was crying.”
For those who love the book, it is easy see the sources of her disappointment in the film. The center of Travers’ book, for example, is the chapter “Zoo Story” where Michael and Jane are told by a wise snake about the unity of all of life; it is a teaching story like one from the Panchatantra, only comically reset in turn-of-the-century London and told by a writer who was a student of Zen and of Gurdjieff and the wisest woman I ever met. On the other hand, the center of the film might be the song “Supercalifragilisticexpedialdocious” or the scene of chimney sweeps dancing on rooftops. That’s a world of difference. But Travers finally struck her peace with the film by deciding it was “another thing”–in other words, about as related to the book as “Jesus Christ, Superstar” is to its source. Nonetheless, though different, the 1964 film is a worthy and beloved production and generally regarded among the top ten film musicals of all time.
I attended the Broadway production of “Mary Poppins,” then, with a kind of proprietary interest: to see if it was more faithful to the book and to see if Travers (who died in 1996) would have been happy with the results. As it turns out, I went looking for one kind of thing but found “another thing” in its place, not quite the “Mary Poppins” I know but a wonderful play in its own right. Producers Cameron Mackintosh and the theater division of Disney have given us a play that is recognizably the story of the umbrella-flying nanny and of the Banks family. Still, the Broadway version might best be understood as a cousin to the book.
One curious refocusing in the Disney theatrical is the central role played by Mr. Banks, who spends too much time at work and wrestles with the ethics of providing loans to good people or venal moneymakers; at home, he is distant from his children and scolding with his wife. Over the course of the play, he learns that when it comes to work, “family comes first.” He also becomes more childlike and flies kites with his kids. This stiff-necked man also melts and turns loving with his wife.
If this sounds like a familiar story, it is. It is a curiosity that when Hollywood (or its Broadway franchises) takes up classic children’s stories and gives them their spin, the story becomes a familiar one about career-minded and negligent daddies. Consider just one more example, the movie “Hook,” where in a reprise to Peter Pan a yuppie businessman and father played by Robin Williams must learn the importance of family and get in touch with his “inner child.” That the Hollywood “spin” these days is the story of Negligent-and-Careerist-Daddies-in-Need-of-Reformation must make us wonder about the domestic lives of entertainment execs.
Another twist to this Broadway version is its attention to child-raising practices. My students have always found the Mary Poppins in the book to be sharp and peremptory, when compared to the cheery characterization of her in the film. Travers herself, however, preferred the book’s version of Mary Poppins as strong and authoritative in the manner of a Zen master. This controversy is presented in the play as a clash over parenting styles between Mary Poppins (who advocates “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down”) and a new character in Act II, a rival nanny, Miss Andrews (who is old-school when it comes to medicine and advocates “brimstone and treacle and cod liver oil”). Not understanding the book’s “tough love,” in the play, sugar wins out.
Nonetheless, despite being a partisan for the book and (when it comes to this kind of sugar) something of a diabetic, I still very much liked the Broadway version of “Mary Poppins.” Indeed, I liked it almost as much as the ten-year-old girl who sat on the edge of her seat in front of me, her shoes rat-tat-tatting in excitement on the seat in front of her. I have never seen better stage sets (some in a clever trompe l’oliel style) or better special effects. Bert the Chimney Sweep (Gavin Lee) is our narrator and a charming performer, and Mary Poppins (Ashley Brown) is both self-possessed and gifted, as is nearly the whole company. Though this play was something else and not what I had hoped for, the Broadway “Mary Poppins” is terrific in its own right and very much worth seeing.
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A version of this essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (February 2007). Related reading: my interview with Pamela Travers in The Paris Review (Winter 1982), my homage upon her death in the Los Angeles Times, and my reaction to Disney’s biographical film “Saving Mr. Banks.”