22 March 2016

The Nanny That Shouldn't Have Been Able To Fly

by Kirk Woodward

[Kirk Woodward, ROT’s most loyal (and prolific) contributor, returns once again with an interesting take on a familiar subject.  This time it’s Mary Poppins, the stage musical, the movie, and the books.  (If you didn’t know that both the beloved Disney film starring Julie Andrews as the eponymous nanny and the movical adapted from the movie are both derived from a series of stories by P. L. Travers, published between 1934 and 1988, which entertained children for generations, the subsequent Disney film, Saving Mr. Banks, starring Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as Travers, should have clued you in.)  I won’t spoil Kirk’s examination of the three versions by saying anything about his point of view or his conclusions—his title gives some hint, of course—so suffice it to say now that you’ll find some unexpected ideas when you read “The Nanny That Shouldn’t Have Been Able To Fly.”]

The stage musical version of Mary Poppins first opened in London on December 15, 2004, and ran for three years. The Broadway production of the same show opened on November 16, 2006, and ran for almost six and a half years. The show has received at least fifteen international productions, in addition to British and United States professional tours and revivals. Disney and Cameron Mackintosh, the major producers, have made a fortune on it.

It should not have been a success.

I realize that saying this puts me in the position of the man who conclusively demonstrated that the bumblebee should not be able to fly, and perhaps my statement is too strong, since the very popular movie of the same name ought to have guaranteed the stage show a number of customers, no matter what. 

There are many factors working against my opinion, including audience figures, box office receipts, and the fact that I haven’t seen any of the professional productions of the show.

I did recently see one amateur production of Mary Poppins, however, and I maintain that sometimes a play’s strengths and weaknesses are clearer when the extraordinary production values of the West End or Broadway aren’t available. So I’m going to press on and indicate why I feel the show is deeply flawed.

My opinion can be expressed succinctly in a verse from the Bible: “You can’t put new wine in old wineskins” (Matthew 9:17, paraphrased) – in other words, you have to be careful how you mix the old and the new.

In the case of Mary Poppins, we’re dealing with quite a mix of wine and wineskins, so to speak. First of all, there’s the famous and celebrated movie (1964) starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. It was directed by Robert Stevenson, with a screenplay by Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi and a score by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman – all experienced and dependable Disney veterans, and they produced a much-loved film.

It seems incredible that the movie is more than fifty years old; many people, including me, can recite whole sections of it by heart. I can’t think of anyone I know who can’t sing verses of “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” “A Spoonful of Sugar,” or, heaven help us, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”

Then, previous to the film, there are the original stories about Mary Poppins, written in eight fairly short books by P. L. Travers, the pen name for Helen Lyndon Goff, who was born in 1899 and died, it’s startling to realize, in 1996. The stories are notoriously different from the movie. They are also wonderful.

Mary Poppins, in the books, is nothing like Julie Andrews, who brings a touch of acerbity to the role but clearly is “practically perfect in every way,” whereas Mary Poppins in the book is a most unattractive character, described in Wikipedia as “stern, vain, and usually cross.” One could add “homely, critical, and demanding.”

She also has magical powers of alarming magnitude. They are never explained and she always uses them for the ultimate good of the children, but she is not in any way a person to trifle with.

It is well known – and the subject of the film Saving Mr. Banks (2013), starring Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as P. L. Travers – that Travers, a frequently cantankerous person, was particularly unhappy with the way Disney handled her stories, with an emphasis on the animation, which she abominated.

It must be said that she had a point from her perspective, not particularly about the animation but about the approach of the film as a whole. The stories have a significantly different “feel” from the movie. There is little feeling of security in the stories; anything can happen, and often does, and the overall effect cannot be described as “cheery,” while the film definitely can.

On the other hand, particularly in the earlier books, the level of imagination in the stories is astonishingly high – evidence of which we see all through the Disney movie, though, to repeat, the tone is quite different.

Travers insisted that no Americans be involved in the making of a stage musical of Mary Poppins (she had given Mackintosh the rights before she died), so the book was written by Julian Fellowes (creator of Downton Abbey) and the half dozen or so new songs by the writing team of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, perhaps best known here for Honk (first performed in 1997). So what did the creators of the stage musical of Mary Poppins do to all this material in creating their show?

What they did not do was create a new work. Briefly, they used some of the outline of the movie story (Bert, who does not play a large part in the stories, narrates the show) and many of the songs (frequently rearranged or reassigned, for the purpose, as far as I could tell, of being different). Taking from the stories, they made Mary Poppins sterner and less charming - but did not go all the way and make her frightening or unattractive.

They expanded the story of the parents – also not Travers’ focus - so that George Banks and his difficulties with his job become a major theme, and Winifred Banks, no longer a suffragette but now a former stage actress, struggles with her low rank in society (no one – no one! – will come to her party), and with her totally uncommunicative husband. (He is so remote that one wonders how they managed to have children.)

Then various new songs tell us things we can figure out for ourselves, as their titles indicate: “Precision and Order,” “Playing the Game,” “Brimstone and Treacle”, “Good for Nothing,” “Being Mrs. Banks,” “A Man Has Dreams,” “Anything Can Happen.” One can practically invent the storyline from the song titles. None of these new songs, I think it’s safe to say, rival their predecessors in interest, and all of them are melancholy.

And that’s my objection to the “new wine in old wineskins” – that where the film is cheerful, and the stories are startling, the new material is morose, a quality that reaches its nadir in a scene near the end of the first act where Mary Poppins brings all the broken and neglected toys in the nursery to life, and the toys stalk around in their deformed misery. All I could think of at that point was Night of the Living Dead. It’s true that zombies are popular these days, but in Mary Poppins?

And I’m clearly not alone in feeling this way about the scene, because in the London production, at least, children under the age of three were forbidden to see the show on the grounds that it was “too scary.” I found the scene upsetting, and it’s been a while since I’ve been a child; I can only imagine how the actual children who saw the show felt about it.

And then, to my astonishment, not only does George Banks not lose his job, as he does in the film, but, because of his wise and good-hearted decisions, he’s actually made a partner, with a quadruple raise in pay! At that point I began to wonder what I’d suspected so far was sentimentality wasn’t more specifically cynicism on the part of the writers.

All in all, I can’t think of anything the musical added to the film that didn’t undercut or diminish it. So why did the musical succeed? All I can imagine is that the memory of the film is strong, and that the stage effects – a great deal of flying, for example – were spectacular. Perhaps there were other factors involved in its success. I would love to know how much repeat business the show did.

In summary, then, my opinion – which for reasons I described earlier is highly suspect – is that the original stories are acerbic, the movie is delightful, and the new material in the stage musical is trite. It depresses me that the effort succeeded financially, because it seems to me to reflect a distressing attitude toward theater – that theater needs to spell out stories in stale ways, that it ought to be “realistic” in the sense of being drippy, and that audiences aren’t bright enough to grasp significances that aren’t, in effect, underlined, italicized, and set in bold-faced type.

When it comes down to it, however, the only real rebuttal to a poorer piece of work is a better one, so let’s get busy! And there are always the stories, and the film.

[Kirk’s most recent contribution to ROT was his 18 February article “How To Write a Play.”  Previous posts include “How America Eats: Food and Eating Habits in the Plays of Suzan-Lori Parks” (5 October 2009), “The Most Famous Thing Jean-Paul Sartre Never Said”  (9 July 2010), “Bob Dylan, Performance Artist” (8 January 2011), “Noel, Noel” (24 March 2012), “Reflections on Directing” (11, 14, 17 & 20 April 2013), and “Frank Kermode on Shakespeare’s Language” (26 January 2016).  Use the archive on the left of the screen to find more articles by Kirk Woodward.]

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