Note: I realize Mary Poppins is not a fairy tale, but it is Disney (sort of) so it fits with my “Behind the Fairy Tale” series. For more Disney-fied tales, see the Disney tab up top.
Mary Poppins. I know I saw the movie when I was a kid, but before all this anniversary stuff, the only thing I really remembered were the songs that never leave your brain (SPOON FULL OF SUGAR SING ITTTTT!!!!) and, of course, those animated penguins. They were the first things I mentioned when my Things informed me that their high school would be doing a production of the Mary Poppins Broadway musical. I asked if they would be playing penguins. I continued to ask this long after they repeatedly informed me that there were no penguins in the musical.
And that’s in spite of this being based on the Disney movie, which was based on the book by P.L. Travers. If you didn’t realize Mary Poppins was a book, you aren’t alone. I didn’t either, and I am an English major and worked in libraries for years. Once I figured this out, though, it led to a rabbit hole of research since before the musical there was a movie and before that there was a book and before that there was a grumpy old lady that Walt Disney pestered for, I’m not kidding, twenty years before finally allowing him to make a movie. I used to get paid for this sort of research, but then they told me what to research and I didn’t even get to choose what my exhibits were called. Or take credit. So get ready cause this is gonna be a doozy.
The original book was based upon the early 1900s and written in 1934, the Disney movie was released in 1964, and the Disney theatrical musical created in 2006. In honor of the anniversary of Mary Poppins, Disney has released a bunch of merchandise as well as a sequel, Mary Poppins Returns, due for release on December 19th. Believe it or not, Disney didn’t just pull this sequel out of their . . . mouse hats, there is actually a series of these books. I’m a bit confused as to what anniversary we’re celebrating here, though, since neither the book or movie has an even-numbered anniversary, according to the dates I’ve found. No matter – nothing dampers Disney’s spirit. I mean NOTHING.
I figured I would start with the musical, as it was the latest one released. My beautiful daughters naturally got starring roles. Thing One was a doll, and Thing Two a table. Well, to be technical, Thing Two worked as crew, and got to animate the table as she was the only one small enough to fit inside of it. She sat under that table on stage for thirteen minutes while waiting for her chance to make it collapse, then magically straighten on cue. I heard this took a few tries since according to Thing Two, actors are really clueless about how to do their jobs. Like not get seen until they are supposed to be seen (if you can see the audience, they can see you). As for crew, they are never supposed to be seen, yet accomplish so much detail. The special effects were very impressive, and included that table repairing itself and dishes flipping back to their spots (usually) on Mary’s command, a flying kite, music and lights on cue, smoke that sort of worked, and much more.
So I got a look at both backstage and on stage this time, as Thing One performed her swan song performance as a high school senior (I have no idea how this happened, or how her sister got to be a freshman. I guess I slept a lot.) Unlike the years she played a part in the chorus (you probably remember her as the famous spoon in Beauty and the Beast), she didn’t have to rehearse nearly as much, and yet got her name in the main cast as a china doll that Mary Poppins brings to life, along with some other toys, in order to scare the living crap out of the children who don’t treat their toys well. Between this musical and Toy Story, I’m starting to wonder if I should keep my doll collection.
Anyway, she got a lot more noticed this time (her doll zombie act was unparalleled, unless you count that incredible table), and she got to play another small role as a banker. The father in the story is a banker named, wait for it, Mr. Banks and he sings a lot about order and precision as well as constipation, judging from his attitude for much of the play. He also has a wife with the awesome responsibility of finding a nanny so she can host dinner parties, and two fairly awful children. They can’t seem to keep a nanny long, so Mary Poppins flies in on her umbrella to help them straighten up their crap.
I realize I am biased here, but all the students did an amazing job of carrying out this production. The many musical numbers have unbelievably complicated choreography, including a ton of lyric memorization, hand motions, tap dancing, singing, jumping around, and generally encouraging heart attacks in the very young (and old just watching them). You probably remember these songs (“Spoon Full of Sugar”, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”, “Chim Chiminy Bang Bang”, etc.) but did you remember “Step in Time”? Cause that one went on for like fifteen minutes of Chimney Sweep frantic tap dancing and singing. A few times the audience thought it was the end and tried to do an ovation, since surely these kids were going to drop right on the stage, but nope, it just kept going. This is especially impressive when you consider that chimney sweeps had a high rate of lung disease.
Yet the songs never seemed pointless, and all flowed seamlessly along with the story. A spoonful of sugar helps unpleasant stuff like medicine, cleaning, and national news go down easier. Supercali- you get the idea – means you can do anything in Scrabble and win, cause creativity man. Mary Poppins and her pal Bert use these moments to teach the children how to be more human in imaginative ways. I joke about “Chim Chim Cher-ee”, but it’s actually a very moving song, sung throughout the musical both as a happy tune and a somber melody about making the most of your lot in life, even as someone stuck cleaning out chimneys, and seeing beauty through the smoke and ashes. It is also a reminder that these people exist in the shadows, helping the rest of us with what we take for granted.
My favorite song, “Feed the Birds”, is the most real, though, and sung by the old, homeless Bird Woman who comes to the steps of the cathedral everyday to sell bread crumbs to feed the birds. Don’t just walk by her! Give the woman some tuppence, you jerks! Yet we do walk by, don’t we? Mary Poppins encourages the children to see the dirty old woman and chimney sweep as real people, deserving of our attention. It was reportedly Walt’s favorite song as well, and even the original author liked it. The soft, pleading melody makes me cry every freaking time.
Mary Poppins brings the children into an imaginative world that exists right inside our own, whether they are jumping into a painting or flying up a chimney or just watching her drag coat racks and more out of her purse, just like a real mom. She teaches them kindness and morality, but not in a didactic, sickly sweet way. She is still proper and firm, and knows how to get the kids, and adults, in order. She does things just as she wants them, always in control of every situation. When the mother asks for references, she says “I make it a point never to leave references” (a line used in both the movie and the book) and her confidence just stuns the mother into silence. I’d love trying that at an interview. When the kids continue to act bratty, she even leaves for a while, letting them try it out with the father’s former nanny, whose references included gulags. The kid actors did a great job of showing absolute terror and begging for forgiveness. Mary returns, of course, and banishes the old nanny in a singing contest, as one does.
It isn’t only the kids she’s trying to reform, though, but the father. This story is rather old hat by now (think “Cats in the Cradle”), but was newer back when the movie was first produced. Even the book, while wildly different in areas I will later show, points out that time is fleeting. Children grow, imagination dwindles, life sets in, and cynicism grows. The usual work ethic encouraged in adults, especially fathers, keeps them from the joy of knowing their own families and home lives. Mr. Banks figures this out when he stands by his principals, nearly loses his job, but finds his family in the process. He even sings and dances at work, proving that Mary Poppins’s songs can warp anyone’s brain cells.
The ending is bittersweet, as Mary Poppins has to leave, having accomplished what was needed. Also, she promised to leave when the wind changed direction. As she travels by umbrella and wind, she probably has to catch it at the right time to get where she’s going next. It’s cheaper than airline fare at least.
The musical ends with one last song, “Anything Can Happen if you Let It”, and then a rousing chorus in which every kid gets a chance to come back on stage (including my doll), take a bow and once again dance like wild maniacs. Crew does not get acknowledged on stage, something that may change by senior year if my Thing Two, who is a star of Debate, has any say, though that might be difficult as they are supposed to also control the lights, etc. It was a great time for all, though, and prompted me to see what was behind this musical tale. Since I’ve gone on a long time already, stay tuned for more “Behind Mary Poppins”.