Mary Poppins (stage version)

Archives: Mary Poppins

13 September 2005 (Tue), London West End

Mary Poppins is a mess. This is a British version of the sunny Disney movie musical of the 1960s. That film, of course, was based on a series of English novels dealing with an English nanny in an English family living in Edwardian London, and used mainly a British cast. The movie, with its spoonfuls of sugar and jolly holidays, is said to have diverged widely from its source material to create what is essentially an American version of jolly olde England. The original novels were evidently somewhat bleaker in their treatment of the children and their family, so it would be true to say in this case that it is the Americans who distorted the material by unfairly lightening it up. (Indeed, the author of the books is said to have disapproved of the film’s misrepresentation of her work.) So I suppose the British have a right to reclaim the starker vision of the novels in the stage version. While the still-popular Disney film inevitably remained a primary source, Disney had to share producing credits with British mega-producer Cameron Mackintosh, who evidently owns the book rights and ensured that the stage show dipped generously into the novels themselves to reshape the look and feel of the musical and its characters. The creative staff was all-British, including a young composer-lyricist team who added a number of new songs to the familiar score. Yet there is still the lingering sweetness of those old sugary tunes. The question is how these two strands are reconciled. The answer is, not very well.

The story in the movie is simple enough. The father seeks a nanny in order to instill discipline in his children, who he considers frivolous for seeking trivial pleasures like outings and treats. He feels that a British home should be run, like a bank, with “precision”, and that a nanny should be a “general” who will “mould the breed”. He is not unkind but just unimaginative, so caught up in his workaday banking world that he thinks he has his children’s best interests at heart by disciplining them; for example, he truly believes that the prospect of investing their money will prove more exciting to them than giving that money to feed the birds. The nanny he hires for the children – Mary Poppins, of course – takes the rather different path of feeding rather than suppressing their “childish” imaginations, and in doing so awakens the father’s own awareness of life’s possibilities. That is, it is the father himself who is most changed by the nanny as he learns to appreciate life for its frivolities. He is an Everyman, his foibles completely understandable and human.

Other characters are vividly drawn as well, including the magical nanny Mary Poppins herself and Bert the chimney sweep/emcee. (The only real slip is the mother, whose character is somewhat confused despite Glynis John’s considerable efforts.) It is the father, though, who undergoes the greatest journey, and the success of the film stemmed largely from its deft portrayal of his transformation, helped immeasurably by the wonderful performance of David Tomlinson. The lesson is not that children must be more like adults, but that adults must not lose the sense of wonder that they had when they were children.

Whereas the movie created memorable individuals, benefiting greatly from idiosyncratic actors like Tomlinson and Dick van Dyke, the characters on stage tend to be drawn in broad brush strokes that create types rather than people. The stage show generally offers harsher characterizations: Mr Banks is cruel rather than clueless, the children are calculating rather than naughty, a horrific nanny re-emerges from Mr Banks’ past, even the constable, a minor character, is angry with the children rather than sympathetic with their plight. Mary Poppins remains her unflappable self, but the chimney sweep Bert comes off as something of a nonentity, certainly not the go-lucky character of the film.

The father in particular is portrayed with a very heavy hand, which saps all the humor out of the part. His own nasty personality is basically attributed to his own childhood nanny, a vicious disciplinarian who makes an appearance in the second act. In other words, he’s a victim of society, so let’s not blame him – the usual sellout. He’s thus manages to be a Nobody, certainly no one we can identify with. The movie approach suggested that anybody with a normal job can become like Mr Banks, so caught up in the job and making money that he/she forgets the joys of life. And that’s the point: there’s a Mr Banks in all of us. That is nowhere to be found on stage.

Jane and Michael are also disagreeable, presented as malicious rather than childish. In the movie, they do play tricks on their nannies, but they’re basically children who just want to be children. Their love for their father is palpable, and they are always trying desperately to win his approval. On the stage, they seem to be turning on their nannies for the fun of making them squirm rather than from an entirely innocent desire to be released from their cage and allowed to play freely. They practically spit at their father in their letter song, which they present as a challenge rather than a plea – a very bad piece of direction. We get no sense of their hope that the father might simply take notice of them. They are also shrill in their demands of Mary Poppins rather than being in thrall to her. It is possible to argue that children of such an unfeeling father could react by being nasty themselves, and they’re given their comeuppance in an impressive revolt by their toys. But that still dilutes the message: that the joy of childhood should be encouraged and even emulated rather than ridiculed, that adults often forget the sheer delight of life in their everyday existence.

The “Feed The Birds” scene is also an opportunity wasted. In the movie, Mary Poppins sings to the kids in their beds, inspiring their imaginations. When they actually see the bird lady, they realize that they’ve simply never noticed her before despite having passed St Paul’s many times, like most of us who walk around without really seeing. Mary’s “magic” here is awakening their senses to the wonders that are around us all the time, or maybe just ensuring that such a child-like talent never dies in the first place. In the stage show, though, Mary sings the song as they walk past St Paul’s, and the bird woman approaches them and sings along. There’s no imagination involved at all, just reality thrusting itself upon them. With two adults hovering over them, it’s no wonder that they offer to give their money. It’s less charity than intimidation. The authors either don’t understand the psychology of children or are just taking the easy route.

I could go on and on, and already have, but my biggest problem was the jettisoning of the movie’s coherent structure and theme for the superficial sake of a “dark” vision and nice stage effects. I wasn’t wild about much else either: the new songs are serviceable but bland; the choreography is downright silly, especially for a bleak “Jolly Holiday” and a dumb “Supercalif…” (though excellent for “Step in Time”, where Bert dances on the ceiling); and the dialogue was lazy. But the worst part was the lack of thought as to what the show’s supposed to be about. It’s a perfect example of the dumbing down of the entertainment world, and I never thought I’d be citing the merits of the old Mary Poppins to say that.

One thing about the flying. Mary Poppins, who has not flown throughout the show (her entry was done differently), finally pops out the umbrella in the finale, flies into the audience and disappears into the rafters, which wins a lot of applause. Aside from the fact that they’ve been doing this shtick in Kabuki for about 250 years, this makes the flying itself the point, which takes the pathos away. They would have done much better to have her enter flying, which would have started the magic off right away on a theater-wide scale as in The Lion King. The repeat could then have been a nice wrap-up. Maybe they could have had her fly within the confines of the stage for the entry, then let her loose into the audience for the finale. That would have added variety without taking away from the bittersweet moment in which, no longer needed in the Banks family, she’s leaving for good. As it is, it’s just a cheap and meaningless stunt. Sad.

The show’s a big hit in London, so somebody out there must like it (though there were plenty of empty balcony seats when I saw it). And I see in New York that they’re actually moving The Lion King, which is still selling out, to a smaller theatre to accommodate Mary Poppins next year at the New Amsterdam. They must have a lot of confidence, and who wouldn’t with a title like that? I’ll be interested to see how it’s received. In any event, I wouldn’t imagine it opening here in Tokyo anytime soon, regardless of how it does on Broadway (generally a bigger barometer for a Tokyo run than the West End). The original message was so much more relevant for Japanese audiences. Time will tell.

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