'Mary Poppins' Musical Adds to the Songbook Mary Poppins, the star of the P.L. Travers books and Walt Disney movie, has followed the east wind from London and landed on Broadway, where her stories have been turned into a lavish $20 million musical. The show opens Thursday night — but if you're expecting a live-action replica of the Julie Andrews film, you're in for a big surprise.
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'Mary Poppins' Musical Adds to the Songbook

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'Mary Poppins' Musical Adds to the Songbook

'Mary Poppins' Musical Adds to the Songbook

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"Mary Poppins" has followed the east wind from London and landed on Broadway. The star of a book and movie has become the center of a lavish $20 million musical. The show opens Thursday night but if you are expecting a live-action replica of the Julie Andrews film, you will be in for a big surprise. Here's reporter Jeff Lunden.

JEFF LUNDEN: If you see "Mary Poppins" on Broadway, you'll hear this song:

(Soundbite of music, "Spoonful of Sugar")

Ms. JULIE ANDREWS (Actress) (as Mary Poppins): (Singing) A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

LUNDEN: But you won't hear this one:

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ASHLEY BROWN (Actress): (as Mary Poppins) (Singing) Stay awake, don't rest your head...

LUNDEN: And where did this song come from?

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. DANIEL JENKINS (Actor): (As Mr. Banks) (Singing) A nanny should govern, a nanny should rule...

LUNDEN: The new stage version of "Mary Poppins" has been a hit in London for the last two years. It's a hybrid of the much-loved Walt Disney film and the somewhat tougher-minded P.L. Travers stories about a magical English nanny and the troubled family she comes to save.

There are new characters, new plot points, and new songs. The show is co-produced by Disney and Cameron Mackintosh, the mega-successful producer of Cats and Phantom of the Opera.

Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney theatrical productions, says they each had something the other needed.

Mr. THOMAS SCHUMACHER (President, Disney Theatrical Productions): We at the Disney Company never had the stage rights. Cameron acquired the stage rights from Pamela Travers. But of course, she did not have the right to grant him the rights to use the music.

LUNDEN: So in 2001, Schumacher flew to London to meet with Mackintosh, who suggested combining new, more theatrical songs with the classics by the Sherman Brothers from the film. He pulled out a demo recording of Practically Perfect, a song his colleagues George Stiles and Anthony Drewe had written to introduce the character of Mary Poppins.

The songwriters played it for NPR last week.

Mr. GEORGE STILES (Songwriter): (Singing) I'm practically perfect, so in every way. Practically, perfect so people say.

LUNDEN: Disney's Thomas Schumacher says when he heard that song, he was immediately sold. Stiles and Drewe got the job.

Mr. SCHUMACHER: In that moment, the whole idea that we could now create a comprehensive theatrical score using the beautiful songs from the movie, new stuff, and weaving it together - that it was not only possible, but it could be fantastic.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. BROWN: (Singing) I'm so practically perfect in every way...

LUNDEN: But composer George Stiles says the assignment was intimidating.

Mr. STILES: The brief was to produce something that felt like it was the work of a singular intelligence. And we realized that there were going to be these totally worldwide-known songs like "Supercalifragilistic," like "Feed the Birds," and it was going to be very hard to put other stuff in there that was in any way, we felt, as significant as those big songs.

(Soundbite of music, "Feed the Birds")

Ms. CASS MORGAN (Actress): (as Bird Woman) (Singing) Feed the birds, tuppence a bag...

LUNDEN: Some of the Sherman Brothers' songs like "Feed the Birds" remain intact, but many have been altered, with new lyrics or additional melodies.

Mr. STILES: We're always of the opinion that it would be a mistake to simply put the movie on the stage. You have to make things work in a theatrical setting.

LUNDEN: One of the show's biggest and splashiest set pieces is Jolly Holiday, which has a completely new countermelody by Stiles, with lyrics by Drewe. And, it serves the show's plot.

In this version of "Mary Poppins", the children are much more difficult than in the movie, and they complain about being taken to the park.

Mr. STILES: Burt lays out the idea of the park and says, oh, we're going to have a great time, kids, because (singing) it's a jolly holiday with Mary. No wonder that it's Mary that we love.

And the kids are left...

(Singing) Boring, just like other nannies thinking. Thinking parks are good for us. It's just statues, ducks and grannies. I don't understand all the fuss. Is she doing it to spite us? We could lose her for a lark. Perhaps it's all a plot, I'll tell you what, she seems so different but I bet she's not. There is nothing to excite us in the park.

At which point the statue of Neleus breaks into life above them. And of course, there's much to excite them in the park.

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: In the movie of "Mary Poppins", "Jolly Holiday" is a memorable sequence, which combines live action with animation. Producer Cameron Mackintosh says the stage version substitutes pastel-colored sets and dancing statues.

Mr. CAMERON MACKINTOSH (Producer, "Mary Poppins" on Broadway): We've replaced animation with dance. You can do things in dance and ballet, which, you know, you can't do in other ways of dramatization. And that's what allows the flights of fancy to take wind.

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: This being "Mary Poppins," taking wing can be flight literally. It gives nothing away to say that the production team has found some breathtaking methods of levitating not only the central character, but others in the show.

Composer George Stiles says "Mary Poppins" brings that sense of possibility to the dysfunctional Banks family.

Mr. STILES: Literally, anything can happen in the story. And I think what we wanted to do is anything can happen in real life, in your own life. She uses magic to demonstrate that, but the real magic that she brings is to cure this family of its lack of love.

(Singing) Anything can happen, it's a marvel. You can be a butterfly or just stay larval. Stretch your mind...

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) ...beyond fantastic. Dreams are made of strong elastic...

LUNDEN: Matthew Bourne has co-directed and choreographed "Mary Poppins". He says the new song makes the show soar.

Mr. MATTHEW BOURNE (Co-Director, Choreographer, "Mary Poppins" on Broadway): It's a very emotional piece. It's not just, oh isn't it nice when she flies away at the end? You actually feel really touched and moved by the story of the family.

"Mary Poppins" opens at the New Amsterdam Theatre on Broadway on Thursday night.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

INSKEEP: To hear more of the new and rewritten songs from "Mary Poppins", including a modern-day twist on Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, go to NPR.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

(Soundbite of song "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious")

Ms. BROWN: (Singing) When stone-aged men were chatting, simply grunting would suffice.

Mr. GAVIN LEE (Actor): (as Burt) (singing) Now if they's heard this word they might have used it once or twice.

Ms. BROWN: (Singing) I'm sure Egyptian Pharaohs would have grasped it in a jiff. Then every single pyramid would bear its hieroglyph.

Oh, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious say it and wild animals will not seem so ferocious...

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