Mary Poppins was always a cultural oddity. Created by P. L. Travers in a series of books begun during the Depression, she was enchanting to generations of children for her magic powers—she could fly and talk to animals—and a little frightening because she was awfully strict and not the least bit sentimental. But the Mary Poppins kids know today is different. She's from the beloved Disney classic, and no matter how starchy and no-nonsense Julie Andrews tried to be, she was always sparkly, cheerful and had the most beautiful smile. So news that another kind of Mary Poppins was flying with her parrot-head umbrella onto Broadway this season caused a small storm, like the wind that blows the nanny to the Banks' front door. If this Mary Poppins was more like the one in the books, just how strict was she going to be? And was the show really darker—so dark in fact that in London, where it opened in 2004, someone dubbed it "Scary Poppins"? My goodness, there'll be tears before bedtime!
Yes, the "Mary Poppins" that opened on Broadway last week is not nearly as sunny and sweet as the Disney film. But it's a lot more interesting. The world's most iconic nanny turns out to be a resilient figure, one who adapts neatly to cultural expectations. Travers's original Mary Poppins—eccentric and ornery but with a deep, omnipotent goodness that her charges loved—seemed to stem from the writer's own bereft childhood. When Walt Disney repackaged her in 1964, the nanny carried a prefeminist message: once Mary Poppins straightened out the Banks family, Mrs. Banks was happy to give up her suffragette marches and stay home with the kids. That theme didn't come from Travers—Disney had moved the story back to 1910 and brought the parents to the fore—and she hated the movie so much she wept at the Hollywood premiere. Now in the new "Mary Poppins," we have contemporary pop psychology. The Banks family may live in Edwardian England, but their brand of dysfunction could land them on Dr. Phil. Mrs. Banks is a desperate housewife, Mr. Banks an emotionally stunted workaholic—and their adorable kids, Jane and Michael, only act out because they crave attention.
Toying with a classic can be dangerous, which is one reason why Mary Poppins's flight to the stage has been long and bumpy. Disney couldn't turn its own film into a show because the studio never bought the theatrical rights. Yet the man who did snap them up, legendary British producer Cameron Mackintosh, didn't want to do a musical without "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" and the rest. The two entertainment titans tried to make a deal, but tussled over creative control.
In 1993, Mackintosh had paid a call on Travers in her modest terrace house in London. "She was 93, frail but very sharp, sitting ramrod at the window," he recalls. "She was firm in her view that she didn't want to see the movie on the stage." But Mackintosh persuaded her that the Disney songs should be in the show, though Mary Poppins would be closer to Travers's original. Years later, when Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Productions, sought to revive a deal with Mackintosh, he engineered a quiet meeting. "He wanted to find out for himself what all the crazy rumors around Hollywood really were about the dark and evil version of Mary Poppins I was planning," says the veteran producer with a laugh. "And when I told him what I did want, he said, well, that's exactly the kind of show he'd like to do."
Their reimagined "Mary Poppins" goes beyond the movie in its stronger story line and its many moods. Most striking is a new number—found in neither the books nor the film—called "Temper, Temper," where the nursery turns into a courtroom and Jane and Michael are tried for naughtiness by their frighteningly oversized toys. Mary Poppins herself (Ashley Brown) is relentlessly brisk (and a little too smug). But it is Mr. Banks who is the show's surprising psychological centerpiece. Turns out he was a victim of emotional abuse by his childhood nanny—a comically horrifying figure called the Holy Terror plucked from one of the later Travers books. But he finds his own inner child and learns to express his love to his kids. That's the Dr. Phil part, but trust us, there are misty eyes in the audience when little Michael Banks finally gets his father's love, with the gift of the kite.
Mackintosh and Disney brought great talent to this show, including choreographer Matthew Bourne, who's staged such spectacular dances as "Step In Time" with the chimney sweeps, and designer Bob Crowley, whose sets—especially the amazing upstairs/downstairs house—almost steal the show. At the end, Mary Poppins makes a supercalifragilistic exit, flying into the theater's balcony. And while we didn't find the entire show quite as wondrous as that last brilliant bit, we'd richly enjoyed the splendid theatrics and getting to stay up past bedtime.