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Long Story Short

How a perky British nanny became a Broadway superstar.

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1. In 1934, a transplanted Australian feminist columnist and former actress with the stage name Pamela Lyndon Travers writes a children’s book called Mary Poppins while convalescing from pleurisy in Sussex, England. Featuring a “practically perfect” magical nanny who is by turns strict and fantastically playful, the book becomes hugely popular and is followed by three sequels over twenty years.

2. In 1948, an 18-year-old Stephen Sondheim writes three songs for a stage adaptation that he’ll never complete. A few years later, mogul Walt Disney begins pursuing film rights with Travers, who holds him off for two decades. She finally agrees to a movie version, having been granted some sway over the script, the title of “consultant,” and 5 percent of the film’s gross.

3. Relocated from the Depression to 1910 Edwardian England, Mary Poppins is released in 1964 with a score by the Sherman brothers and a mix of live action and animation that presages the wonders of CGI. It makes a star of Julie Andrews, who wins one of the movie’s five Oscars (including ones for score, visual effects, and the song “Chim Chim Cher-ee”). Dick Van Dyke’s cockney-chimney-sweep accent is less successful; 40-odd years later, Londoners still roll their eyes at it.


4. It may be a hit—but P. L. Travers, whose notes on the script have been largely ignored by Disney, cries at the opening at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. She will write, “It is as though they took a sausage, threw away the contents but kept the skin, and filled that skin with their own ideas.” At least the movie makes her rich: It’s rereleased in theaters in 1973 and 1980 and becomes, after that last run, the 23rd-highest-grossing film in history. In the late eighties, Travers works on a screenplay for a darker sequel (less sugar, more medicine), but it’s never produced.

5. Producer Cameron Mackintosh of Les Mis–Cats–Phantom fame, who’s been pursuing theatrical rights to Poppins since 1978, finally scores a meeting with Travers in 1993. Now in her nineties, she takes a year to mull it over before relenting. When she dies at 96, in 1996, a letter to her literary executors reads, “It has always been my wish that we should have a stage dramatic play or musical of Mary Poppins.

6. Disney still owns film rights, and when its theatrical division opens in 1994, CEO Michael Eisner is eager to get a stage musical going. Mackintosh starts talks with the company, but he becomes leery of ceding control to Disney’s corporate suits. Still, names like Stephen Daldry and Emma Thompson are bandied about, but nothing comes of it …


7. … until 2001, when Disney Theatrical Productions head Thomas Schumacher meets with Mackintosh and makes a plea, whereupon the two strike a deal and line up a dream team of imagineers, including Gosford Park screenwriter Julian Fellowes. Old favorites like “Chim Chim Cher-ee” are woven in with new material like “Temper, Temper,” during which toys come alive and prosecute children for mistreating their playthings. The 2004 London premiere packs the house, and some critics prefer it to the movie. Would Travers have approved? More important, will it meet success Stateside? It opens on November 16.


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