Yes, she flies.
But that was hardly an obstacle in moving Mary Poppins from the big screen to the Broadway stage. Musical theater heroines have, after all, been aloft since Mary Martin chased after Peter Pan’s shadow.
The bigger question: How to capture in some way, shape or form the animation and Technicolor that are so integral to the iconic 1964 feature film.
The answer, according to director Cameron Mackintosh: choreography.
In writing about the stage adaptation, Mackintosh says, it “was never going to be either possible or desirable to put on stage the film’s brilliant and innovative mix of live action and animation.” The goal, then, became “a show both familiar and surprising that would merge the best of the books and the film into something new.”
For inspiration, Mackintosh looked to P.L. Travers’ five Mary Poppins novels for children, which the Australian author began publishing in 1934. “Peppered through her stories and conversation were references to dance, which is the perfect theatrical form to deliver all the magical journeys outside Cherry Tree Lane,” Mackintosh explains.
The solution seems to have gone down like, well, a spoonful of sugar. Broadway’s Mary Poppins is more than three years into its run. This tour is well into its fifth month, with more than a dozen cities yet to come.
Tour dance captain Troy Edward Bowles says there are other important elements that bring the vibrancy of the movie to the stage: the dozens of hand-painted costumes and myriad quick changes that keep the large ensemble hopping. (Watch especially, he says, for the chalk-pavement-picture scene in which Mary, Bert, Michael and Jane pop into a new world. Watch, too, he advises, for a quick nod to the movie’s penguin waiters.)
It takes a lot of people to get — and keep — all that action spit-spot. It began with the Broadway creative team, which featured a choreographic quintet led by noted contemporary dance maker Matthew Bourne (also credited as co-director), and included a co-choreographer, an associate choreographer, a resident choreographer and, traveling with each company, a dance captain — in this case, Bowles.
He’s responsible for maintaining the look and integrity of the choreography, for training and rehearsing new company members, for holding understudy rehearsals and for the day-to-day upkeep of everything choreographic. Bowles, a Utah native who came up in ballet and made his Broadway debut in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in 2005, is also a swing player. That means he goes on when another company member is sick, injured or on vacation. He can be offstage for a month, go on once in a while or, as has happened more recently, perform for weeks at a time.
Bowles describes Mary Poppins as “highly choreographed.” Not only does it have six major dance numbers but also smaller choreographed moments from beginning to end. In the prologue, for example, with the entire company onstage, Bert talks about the changing winds. Each ensemble member sways subtly, “dancing” the words that Bert speaks. There is, Bowles says, a sense of movement in every scene.
And even more movement behind the scenes. “It’s amazing to think about what happens [backstage],” Bowles says. “People don’t see the rush of clothes being thrown everywhere and makeup being tossed on in a matter of seconds.”
In the “Jolly Holiday” scene that follows the sidewalk chalk picture-popping, ensemble members change costumes constantly to replicate as closely as possible what we’ve all seen in the movie. “It took many rehearsals to get those costume changes down,” Bowles says. “It’s the first rehearsal we do in every city we go to.”
The focus on movement isn’t the only departure from the movie. The play sounds different, too. The movie featured 17 songs; the stage musical has 30. Gone are such favorites as “Sister Suffragette” and “I Love to Laugh.” New, by the team of Anthony Drewes and George Stiles, are “Cherry Tree Lane,” “Practically Perfect” and “Being Mrs. Banks,” among others.
Kathy Janich is an Atlanta theater artist and freelance writer. After years in daily newspapers, she’s found a joyous second career as an artistic associate at both Synchronicity Theatre and 7 Stages.