'Mary Poppins' long journey to the stage

Producing musical of beloved nanny's tale meant dealing with disapproving creator

Jeremy Daniel
Madeline Trumble (front) is Mary Poppins in the eponymous musical opening Tuesday at the Orpheum. The stage version differs somewhat from the movie, which itself took considerable liberties from the original stories by author P.L. Travers.

Jeremy Daniel Madeline Trumble (front) is Mary Poppins in the eponymous musical opening Tuesday at the Orpheum. The stage version differs somewhat from the movie, which itself took considerable liberties from the original stories by author P.L. Travers.

Mary Poppins wasn't always so rosy.

The nanny whom everyone now associates with "spoonfuls of sugar" and dancing with chimney sweeps on the rooftops of London was, in the eyes of her creator, originally a bit more temperamental. She liked to admire herself in the mirror, and was an intimidating disciplinarian.

For various reasons, the children's book author P.L. Travers was not at all pleased with what Walt Disney did with her beloved creation in the 1964 film that quickly became legend in the minds of children.

She objected to the music. She wanted authentic Edwardian tunes of the period. She hated the colorful animated sequences.

What, no "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious"!? That was fine with Travers.

At the film's premiere, to which she was not formally invited, Travers approached Walt Disney and told him to remove the animation. Disney famously responded by walking away, saying, "Pamela, the ship has sailed."

Travers vowed never again to work with Disney. She even stipulated it in her will.

On Tuesday, the touring company of Broadway's "Mary Poppins" arrives at the Orpheum theater. As one might surmise, the musical was not brought to the stage by the creative forces behind "The Lion King" and "Beauty and the Beast." Instead, it was a longtime pet project of the producer of "Phantom of the Opera" and "Les Miserables."

Cameron Mackintosh spent years negotiating the rights to make a stage version, with myriad stipulations.

Anthony Lyn's job description is among them.

"The creative team had to be British," said Lyn, the associate director of the Broadway production who now makes sure the touring company maintains its British-ness. "As soon as I heard they were doing 'Mary Poppins' on the stage, I knew I wanted to be part of it. I had been working for Disney's 'Lion King,' but by a happy piece of happenstance, I was British. So I got to come work for Cameron on 'Mary Poppins.'"

Travers died in 1996 at age 96, but was still able to exert her influence on Mackintosh's 2004 stage musical through her estate.

Mackintosh teamed up with Disney Theatricals to secure the use of the well-known movie songs written by the Sherman Brothers.

However, Travers didn't want the pair working on the musical, so songwriters George Stiles and Anthony Drew composed the additional songs.

The stage musical's plot includes more elements from Travers' series of "Mary Poppins" books, in which the children, Jane and Michael, are naughtier than in the movie.

"I think we've found a balance between the books and the film," Lyn said. "You get a story about a family in a crisis. It's certainly not just a children's show. There are a lot of themes about dealing with family problems, such as when the father loses his job."

Lyn, who was born the year the movie came out, says that Mary Poppins is now as much a part of world culture as it is British culture.

"It's become part of our global DNA," he said. "One forgets sometimes that there was a time when these songs weren't around. We just assume they've been around forever."

He says a version of "Mary Poppins" is now playing in Mexico City, sung in Spanish. Future productions will open in China, France, Japan and the Philippines.

Mackintosh's first stage adaptation opened in 2004 in London; it moved to Broadway in 2006, where it will close in March to make room for Disney's "Aladdin."

For Madeline Trumble, originally from California, playing the nanny who is "practically perfect in every way" is a dream role.

"I came from a theater family, and my dad watched movie musicals on a loop," Trumble said. "I never thought ("Mary Poppins") was something I would eventually do."

Out of costume, Trumble looks and speaks nothing like the character she plays. She's blonde, perky and just 23 — five years younger than Julie Andrews when she won the Academy Award for her role the Disney film.

Trumble says that Andrews — far more than the illustrated character in the books — is who people remember when they hear the name "Mary Poppins."

"Julie Andrews is never out of my mind," she says. "The way she moves, talks and sings. She influenced my audition."

Travers, likely, would not be amused.

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Comments » 1

Evelyn writes:

What a fun show. We enjoyed it thoroughly!

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