She smelled like chocolate

Two early-career songwriters – brothers, in fact – were hired to write a score by a powerful studio head. Every composition had to be played for the honcho on a piano in his office, for his approval. Time and again he didn’t like what he heard and would send “The Boys” (as they were called) back to the drawing board. Eventually this process yielded one of the best scores ever written for a movie musical. One of its haunting waltzes was so good, the boss periodically called The Boys into his office to sing it for him again. It brought tears to his eyes.

It brings tears to mine.

Mary Poppins – the film – is a shining example of a particular process. One sole non-musical pooh-bah thumbing up or down. Walt Disney, rather than the writer or director, shaped the movie: the paragon of this methodology.

Flip forward 40 years: The Disney Corporation had the bright idea of adapting the now-classic cinematic work for the stage. I recently got a chance to see it on Broadway, where it’s in the fifth year of a seemingly endless run. The creators, including an Oscar-winning (and, as of last Sunday, Emmy-winning)screenwriter, faced a significant challenge where, in the original, characters stepped into a cartoon world. (This was quite innovative when it debuted.) The stage musical, using traditional stagecraft, impressively finds a fitting equivalent. A drab set turns around in bursts of color, statues come to life, and there’s effusive dancing all over the stage. It’s a knock-out, with the positive consequence of knocking out memories of the movie for a while.

The second act has the leading man dance 360 degrees around the proscenium, a coup-de-theatre so stunning, everything else pales in comparison. I love that a thrill is provided that has no filmic equivalent. We see the cords holding him up there, we know how it’s done, and it’s still heart-stopping. It hardly matters the character has no real motivation to perform this captivating stunt. 

Clearly, a lot of thought went into these highlights. It’s less clear, though, that the book writer knew what to do with the character of the uninvolved father, Mr. Banks. Much is made of the horrifying nanny he had as a child, and I suspect the creative team (which didn’t include The Boys, though they’re both alive) felt twenty-first century audiences would need an explanation of why he was so cold and distant. As a kid, Mary Poppins was one of the first films I ever experienced, and I needed no such explanation. He just was. Also, a British banker in the Edwardian period treating his family officiously seemed rooted in truth, easy to accept. The emotional arc of the film has to do with Banks learning to be a human being. Early on a big deal is made about whether his son will deposit twopence in the bank, or buy an indigent woman’s bread crumbs to feed birds. It’s a kid-sized struggle between filial duty and the sort of munificence that makes the saints smile. In the film’s finale, the father goes kite-flying with his children, having learned what’s important in life.

In the stage version, there’s no opposition between twopence for charity and twopence for savings. The father doesn’t sing the waltz about kites. As a result, the story has lost a lot of its soul.

Adapting movie musicals to the stage is a tricky business, in part because you’re fighting audience expectations. Mary Poppins is more successful than most. So many of its set-pieces work impressively well. One of the new songs, by Britain’s top team of musical-songsmiths, Stiles and Drewe, holds its own with The Boys’ old score (Practically Perfect, which bears a resemblance to the title song from Thoroughly Modern Millie, another Julie Andrews film that became a hit Broadway musical). Maybe it’s just where my head is these days, but I find the mis-handling of the key emotional element of the father’s conversion like a spoonful of medicine that doesn’t help the sugar go down.

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