Saturday, July 11, 2009
Mary, Mary: Two Versions So Contrary
First things first: I am a Disney fan. Always have been, always will be. You can write angry letters pointing out all of Disney's flaws, but I don't care. And super fans, regardless of whether it's for movies, sports teams or celebrities, usually fall into two categories: indiscriminently loving everything or casting an overly critical eye.
I fall into the latter category. I expect a high level of excellence from Disney, and I wanted to see "Mary Poppins" on stage because it seems like such a no-brainer for the company: taking its most successful live-action film ever -- a musical, no less -- and adapting it for Broadway.
So, a few weeks ago, I bought three marked-down tickets through HotTix, and a trio of us trotted off to the gorgeous Cadillac Palace Theater in downtown Chicago (any excuse to visit this restored movie palace is worth it). While glad I saw it, let's just say "Mary Poppins" fell short of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (c'mon, you knew that was coming!).
At the end, one of our group remarked that he had never seen the film version, so I arranged a screening for comparison.
Released in 1964, "Mary Poppins" is based upon P.L. Travers' popular children's book about a magical nanny who takes the unruly Banks children on a series of adventures and wins their affections. It remains a delightful film from start to finish, and after the screening it was remarked that the movie was so much more cohesive and enjoyable than the stage show.
"Mary Poppins" remains Disney's biggest live-action film hit to date -- according to the web site Box Office Mojo, which lists all-time box office winners adjusted for inflaction, "Mary Poppins" logs in at #23 (as of July 11) with a whopping $561 million in today's dollars. Why it took the Disney company so long to create a stage musical is a mystery (and why there's no Mary Poppins attracting at one of the theme parks is also odd). But after seeing the stage production, I wish they had spent more time on the story.
It's not like I saw a second-rate show. In fact, the stars in Chicago -- Ashely Brown (right) as Mary and Gavin Lee as Bert -- originated their roles on Broadway. But the show isn't magical, not in the way Disney can make it. Only two moments took full advantage of Disney's imagination and the nature of live theater. One was the "Step in Time" number involving a high-flying dance sequence featuring Bert, which appropriately wowed the crowd, and the second was the final moments of Mary saying goodbye to the audience.
I had several people tell me that the stage version was more like the book, which they felt explained why I didn't care for it. Since I still have the first book from my childhood, I pulled it down from the shelf and thumbed through it. In short, this is what I discoverd: The Banks had four children instead of two, which made a more plausible case for the family having a nanny in the first place; the parents only appear in chapter one; and Bert only appears in a single chapter as well. Some episodes from the book are in both the movie and stage musical; some are in one or the other; and some don't appear in either. It's really a draw, so this argument doesn't hold up.
After days of thinking about it, I decided it's the story that really falters on stage. But let's compare the two.
The movie's central conflict involves the father and children: Mr. Banks lives his life with precision. Everything in its place, including his children, who are less flesh-and-blood and more cogs in the giant wheel of his day-to-day existence. This explains why young Jane and Michael are a handful, to say the least, and more than one nanny have left the Banks' employ because of them.
It's Mary Poppins who arrives as their next nanny. She takes charge of them and turns them from little monsters into adorable youngsters who win everyone over -- except for their father. And the rest of the film is spent repairing that relationship, plain and simple, with some musical numbers and magical scenes thrown in for good measure.
The stage version seems intent on throwing in more conflict than necessary, including Mr. Banks losing his job; his former nanny, a tyrant names Miss Andrew, returning to rile up household; and Mrs. Banks struggling to find her position in life. All of these are unecessary. For example, do we really need Mary Poppins going mano a mano with Miss Andrew? You know the outcome long before it occurs.
Mrs. Banks' role is a real puzzle. In the movie, she's a crusader for women's rights, which is a source of amusement, because whenever Mr. Banks barks orders at her, she becomes docile and obedient. Anyway, she is so busy with her causes that she needs a nanny. Apparently the folks at Disney decided that today's audience members big and small wouldn't know what a "suffragist" was (the term used in the movie), so they change Mrs. Banks into ... a former actress. Ouch. That seems like a step backward.
So now she sits around all day, married to a rich banker, in need of a nanny for her children, and we're asked to feel sorry for her lot in life. It doesn't quite work. The Mrs. Banks of the film (the wonderful Glynis Johns) would slap some sense in to the stage Mrs. Banks (now there's a smackdown worth seeing). Plus, a century ago, being an actress was one step up from being a prostitute. It's not like today, where D-list starlets are dated by every high-flying sports star/celebrity, and a banker would probably strut like a peacock if he married one. Yes, when Mrs. Banks throws a luncheon and no one comes, the show presents this as some sort of jealousy toward her, when it would be something else. It just doesn't work. (Thinking of prostitutes, how long will it take for Disney to stage a musical version of 1990's popular "Pretty Woman," which it released through its Touchstone banner? Hmmmm.) Mrs. Banks' struggle is unecessary, and what little time is spent on it makes it that much of an afterthought. Such a subplot, if pursued, should be done in a way that really deals with the topic.
Also, there are head-scratching moments all over the stage story. The maid, who makes it clear she detests doing more housework than necessary, has read all of the RSVPs for the above-mentioned party and knows no one will show. Yet there's a whole bit about her getting ready for it, when she most likely would have shown the RSVPs to Mrs. Banks right away so she could get out of all the prep work. It's a minor point, but these minor story hiccups occur throughout the show and add up to a major detriment.
At times, Mary Poppins goes about her work like she's Samantha Stevens on "Bewitched," snapping her fingers to turn lights on or move things about, or popping into the household and shocking everyone at her sudden appearance. The book and movie version clearly create a dividing line in terms of who sees Mary's magic at work -- the children do, and Bert does, but it's not that evident to anyone else.
As for the movie, it's still terrific. It's shocking to think this was the first film for Julie Andrews. She already earned Broadway fame in "My Fair Lady" and "Camelot," and a popular TV special called "Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall" with Carol Burnett aired in 1962.
Time magazine famously said of her in "Mary Poppins": "If she did nothing but stand there smiling for a few hours, she would cast her radiance. It would be enough." In fact, if you think about Mary Poppins as a film's title character, she doesn't have a character arc -- no romance, no struggle to overcome an obstacle, no life lesson learned. She pretty much stands there, smiling, singing and teaching life lessons. So for Andrews to make this character as memorable as she does, it's certainly an accomplishment.
To today's audiences, Andrews is the big name in the cast. But in 1964, that honor belonged to Dick Van Dyke. He was three years into the five-year run of his self-named TV sitcom and an Emmy winner for his work when "Poppins" was released. And his performance as Bert comes off as Rob Petrie, the character from his TV show, playing an English man-of-all-trades with a broad Cockney accent. Today his performance veers toward being over the top, while in 1964 it fit into who he was at the time and what audiences excpected of him.
Never underestimate the power of child stars, and in the film Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber are charming.
The other aspect of "Mary Poppins" that could not be transferred to stage is when Mary, Bert and the children jump into the sidewalk drawing and are transported into an animated world. Today it's one of the film's highlights, a sequence filled with charm and fun. Audiences may not realize that this brought Disney's career full circle, as his first successes as an animator were his Alice comedies in the 1920s, in which a live-action girl named Alice found herself in an animated world encountering a variety of adventures. (This wasn't just a Disney thing, either. MGM famously paired Gene Kelly and Jerry the cartoon mouse for a dance number in 1945's "Anchors Aweigh.")
But even with this roadblock, the stage show could have employed that ol' Disney magic in other ways. Perhaps the creative folks didn't want to mess too much with the familiar "Mary Poppins" from the movie, still a strong influence after 45 years. And, when a musical like this costs millions to stage, Disney couldn't afford not to have a hit.
People applauded wildly when the show ended. More, I think, out of a love of the film and the familiarity of the piece than as judgment of the stage show on its own terms.
My suggestion: Watch the film version again (or for the first time, if you haven't alerady done so) and save your money for the next Disney stage musical (could it be "Pretty Woman: A Spoonful of Sugar"? Let's hope not.)