Mary Poppins’ musical journey from the silver screen to the stage
- Credit: JOHAN PERSSON
From Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious to Step in Time, the music from the Mary Poppins movie is almost as iconic as the magical nanny herself. Arts correspondent Emma Knights talks to musical duo George Stiles and Anthony Drewe about what it was like adapting the much-loved songs for the stage show currently at Norwich Theatre Royal - and how they added a spoonful of new tunes for good measure.
Generations have grown up watching the Disney film of Mary Poppins, enjoying the catchy Oscar-winning songs of the Sherman Brothers that will forever conjure up the tale of the practically perfect nanny who flies into the Banks' family's lives.
So when the decision was taken to give the celebrated classic a musical makeover for the stage it was a brave one indeed.
However music maestros George Stiles and Anthony Drewe were more than up for the challenge and the result - which captures the essence of the original songs and adds a few new ones into the mix - has gone on to captivate audiences the world over.
Both George – who grew up in north Norfolk and is a former Gresham's School pupil - and Anthony admit it was a daunting idea to begin with, especially as they were huge fans of the Sherman Brothers' work.
But when they heard that Cameron Mackintosh was interested in doing the musical they couldn't resist pitching a song.
'We watched the movie and we had no idea why they wanted to add extra songs, but if they did do we thought it might be fun to move A Spoonful Of Sugar to a bit later, so we wrote a song for the moment at the beginning,' said George.
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That song, inspired by Mary Poppins herself, was Practically Perfect.
'We couldn't believe it wasn't already a song because it is alliterative and everyone knows Mary Poppins is 'practically perfect.' It sings itself. So we wrote a song and sent it fully recorded with our brilliant friend doing her best Julie Andrews impersonation, and we got a phone call the next morning.'
Despite the swift response to their song in 1994, issues with the Mary Poppins stage and film rights meant it was to be another eight years before the project moved on.
In that time the duo – who formed their musical partnership after becoming friends at Exeter University – enjoyed great success with a musical version of The Ugly Duckling called Honk! which won the Olivier Award for Best New Musical in 2000.
Julian Fellowes – of Gosford Park and Downton Abbey fame – came on board the Mary Poppins project, writing a script that drew on elements of the much loved Disney film but also took in more of the original stories by PL Travers including bringing in different characters.
For Anthony and George, their task was then to make the music fit with the new version of the story, incorporating the classic movie songs in different ways to how they are seen in the film.
'It was scary because we didn't want to upset members of the public who wanted to see those songs realised on stage [as they were in the film], but we knew we had to reinvent them in the context of the story Julian was telling,' said Anthony.
They need not have worried though as audiences around the world have embraced the stage musical since the show first opened in 2004, and their new music blends so well with the original songs that some audience members have even been convinced it was in the 1964 Disney film starring Julie Andrews.
George recalled: 'I think one of my favourite moments was when we overhead an audience member in Bristol argue that Practically Perfect was definitely in the film!'
As well as Practically Perfect, other new songs created for the stage musical include Brimstone and Treacle and Playing the Game.
While most of the classic songs from the film do feature in the show, the stage musical has 55pc new music and 69pc new lyrics.
George said: 'You cannot just put a movie on stage. In movies scenes are shorter, on stage scenes need to be longer otherwise you are forever changing the scenery.
'For example, a number like Supercalifragilitsicexpialidocious is one minute 58 seconds in the film, on stage it's six minutes because it tells a completely different story, a story about valuing language. Where in the movie it's just 'tell me how you a feeling Mary Poppins' after she jumps off a horse, in our case it's to teach children a lesson about the importance of language, then it is a massive choreography spectacle with everyone signing the word.'
The duo - who have have worked on many other acclaimed musical projects together and are currently busy with a new version of Half A Sixpence for Cameron Mackintosh - are clearly extremely passionate about their role in the Mary Poppins musical.
'To work on something that is that beloved, you do not get that opportunity very often,' said George, who added it was a 'total joy' to work with and become friends with Richard and Robert Sherman.
Anthony added: 'It's thrilling that it is a story that has been enjoyed by generations - when PL Travers first wrote the books, then with the Disney movie, and now thanks to Disney and Cameron Mackintosh there is another new audience all around the world.
'It's thrilling that a story has a resonance through class, through religion, through language, and can touch people in the same way.'
Mary Poppins - a Disney and Cameron Mackintosh production - is at Norwich Theatre Royal until July 30. Visit www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk