By Don Leavitt
Like Mary Poppins’s iconic, magical carpet bag—seemingly bottomless and containing all manner of fantastic items—the list of writers and composers credited with bringing the stage production of Mary Poppins to life is a varied one that, at casual glance, appears endless. It’s an impressive list, with a backstory as fascinating as the central figure it all revolves around: from P.L. Travers to Walt Disney; from the Sherman brothers to Julian Fellowes (yes, Downton Abbey fans, that Julian Fellowes), the people responsible for the Mary Poppins musical represent one of the most eclectic casts of characters ever featured in a playbill.
The path of Travers’s creation from book to movie to stage musical is a long and arduous one, and can’t be fully appreciated without understanding the background of the author herself. Born Helen Lyndon Goff at Queensland, Australia in 1899, Travers has been described as possessing “a dangerous brilliance,” a compliment attributed to the poet George William Russell. However, when describing her temperament, the most used (and, frankly, most generous) adjective is “prickly.”
“She was a difficult lady,” was as far as songwriter Richard Sherman was willing to go (http://www.playbill.com/news/article/playbill-brief-encounter-with-mary-poppins-songwriter-richard-m.-sherman-329724).
The Goffs enjoyed an affluent and prominent social position—Travers’s mother was the niece of a former premier of Queensland—but lost their status when her father, Travers Robert Goff, was demoted at work from the position of bank manager for chronic alcoholism. He passed away when she was seven.
Travers began writing poetry at an early age, and was first published as a teenager. About the same time, she discovered a love of theatre and began appearing on stage under the name Pamela Lyndon Travers—she adopted the last name Travers in honor of her father. But her wealthy relatives disapproved of her acting; and Travers, who lamented Australia’s “lack of humor,” emigrated to England in 1925 (http://www.biography.com/people/pl-travers-21358293).
Travers used her journey as the source for several travel stories which appeared in Australian newspapers under the name P. L. Travers. Her first published book, Moscow Excursion, was released in 1934, but it was her next book that proved to be her first literary success. Also published in 1934, Mary Poppins was based on a series of stories Travers had told to two children she met while convalescing from an illness at a friend’s country home. Seven more books featuring the magical nanny followed over more than fifty years, with the last published in 1988. The Mary Poppins series made Travers immensely wealthy, and, in 1977, she was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for cultural and artistic contributions.
The success of Mary Poppins caught the attention of Walt Disney, who promised his daughters he would one day turn their favorite book into a movie. For nearly twenty years, Disney tried unsuccessfully to charm Travers into selling him the film rights. According to Smithsonian Magazine, Disney was only able to persuade Travers to visit Hollywood in 1961 when royalties on her book began to dwindle.
“She needed money, so she agreed to spend two weeks working with Disney’s creative team,” writes historian Amy Henderson. “She fully intended to sabotage the film, though, because she was aghast at the idea of her Mary Poppins being sentimentalized by the ‘Disney treatment’” (www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/how-did-pl-travers-the-prickly-author-of-mary-poppins-really-fare-against-walt-disney-180949052/?no-ist).
That creative team consisted of Robert and Richard Sherman, the songwriting brothers whose previous work on movies like The Parent Trap (1961) and The Sword in the Stone (1963) had made them a powerhouse duo at Disney. Born to Russian immigrants, the Shermans learned musical composition from their father, songwriter Al Sherman. In a career that spanned nearly sixty years, the Sherman brothers wrote the scores for more than thirty-one films, seven stage productions, and even theme park rides (for good or bad, we have the Sherman brothers to thank for “It’s a Small World After All”). The pair won numerous Academy, BAFTA, Golden Globe, and Grammy awards, and in 2005 were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
According to Richard Sherman, the brothers learned early on that Disney was pursuing Mary Poppins, and invested more than two years doing exactly what Travers feared—giving it the “Disney treatment.” This meant writing songs, but also creating a story arc that could tie the nanny’s adventures together in a single, cohesive story.
“If you read the original . . . books . . . you’ll see that there is no storyline whatsoever,” Richard Sherman told Playbill in 2013. “We took six chapters that we thought were really juicy and visual and exciting . . . and we actually made up a storyline to connect them” ((http://www.playbill.com/news/article/playbill-brief-encounter-with-mary-poppins-songwriter-richard-m.-sherman-329724).
Sherman told the New York Times that “Disney essentially sequestered the brothers . . . with Travers in a rehearsal space with a piano and told them to win her over” (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/08/movies/songwriter-recalls-p-l-travers-mary-poppins-author.html?_r=0). But Travers was unimpressed. She hated the songs, she hated the story, and she was so incensed at the use of animation in the film, she refused to permit any sequels based on other books in her series. Despite the film’s success, which included five Academy Awards for, among other things, best music and original score, Travers could not be converted.
At some point, Travers realized Disney had never secured the rights for a stage production, which is where Cameron Mackintosh joins the story. Mackintosh is a British theatrical producer credited with the 1981 production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats. Staging Mary Poppins had been a dream of his from childhood, and, like Disney, he pursued Travers for years before being granted an audience in 1993. Travers, aged ninety-three then, had a condition for the rights: that only English-born writers, and absolutely no American who had anything to do with the film, would be allowed any direct involvement. This, of course, precluded the Sherman brothers from contributing new songs, although Mackintosh did successfully negotiate for the use of songs that appeared in the movie.
True to his word, Mackintosh assembled a team of strictly British talent to sweeten the stage production with fresh songs and to help capture a fresh story that would differentiate the production from the film. Composer George Stiles and lyricist Anthony Drewe were commissioned to write new songs—the two have collaborated for more than thirty years and independently wrote a new introductory song for Mary Poppins, titled “Practically Perfect,” as a sort of “audition.” Mackintosh was suitably impressed.
To adapt the books and the movie into a stage production, Mackintosh turned to Julian Fellowes, precisely because of his “clear understanding of the social niceties of the English class system that prevailed in the Edwardian era” (Sibley, John; Michael Lassell, 2007, Mary Poppins: Anything Can Happen If You Let It, Disney Editions New York. pp. 348–349). Born Julian Alexander Kitchener-Fellowes, Lord Fellowes holds the title of baron in addition to roles as actor, novelist, playwright, screenwriter and film director. He is best known for his screenplay for the 2001 film, Gosford Park, for which he received the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay; and for Downton Abbey, the television series which he created, produces, and writes.
Mackintosh believes Travers would have appreciated his version of the story. According to theatre critic Richard Ouzounian, Mackintosh told Travers that “‘the redemption of the children’s father, Mr. Banks, was what really lay at the heart of the story’ . . . [Mackintosh] delivered on his promise . . . that the musical would dig deeper into the story of how the Banks family turns from a dysfunctional group . . . into a harmonious organism” (http://www.thestar.com/entertainment/stage/2013/12/13/pl_travers_might_have_liked_mary_poppins_onstage.print.html).
Unfortunately, Travers did not live to see it. She passed away in 1996 at the age of ninety-six. Ouzounian writes, “It’s a shame that [she] never got to see…[the] stage musical version . . . because it probably would have gladdened her complex, flinty heart.”