Mary Poppins may have just triumphantly taken to the skies over the West End’s Prince Edward Theatre, but the journey that took the world’s most famous flying nanny to make her stage debut there was a very long time in the making.
Years in the making
The Australian-born Pamela Travers wrote the first of six books about Mary Poppins while renting a cottage in Sussex in the early 1930s, and it was originally published in 1934. Exactly 30 years later, Disney turned some of the stories into a legendary hit musical film, starring Julie Andrews in the title role. Another 30 years on from that, Mackintosh first met Travers, when another London theatre producer, David Pugh, introduced them to each other and Mackintosh eventually secured the rights from her to develop it for the stage. It would be a decade more before his dream was finally realised.
“Like everyone one else in the theatre profession, I first tried to get the rights in the late Seventies,” Mackintosh says. “So I have been wanting to do this for 25 years. But I only started to work with Pamela after I met her in the last three years of her life, persuading her that it was not only impossible but also the wrong thing to do it without the songs from the film, which is one of the crown jewels of Disney.
”They created something extraordinary, one of the most successful screen musicals of all time, that propelled Pamela’s creation into being an icon across the world in a way that the books could never have done alone. As I got to know Pamela, I persuaded her that, however much one wanted to do an original musical based on her books, it wasn’t feasible and I wouldn’t have been interested in doing it unless one could draw whatever material one needed from the film, too.”
But to do that, of course, required Disney’s co-operation, and what has turned into a close collaboration in bringing it to the stage. “The situation was that Disney had the rights to their fantastic movie and marvellous songs, but Pamela had entrusted me with the rights to her marvellous books. About two-and-a-half years ago, Tom Schumacher (who runs Disney Theatrical Productions) came to see me to find out what was the show I had in my head and what was the art that I was searching for. We discovered that we were searching for the same show, and our collaboration began.”
It’s been, Mackintosh says, “the happiest and most unremarkable relationship, though everyone in the theatre wondered how the building would stand two 800-pound gorillas!” Mackintosh, who is now credited with co-creating the show, wrote the original treatment himself, “to see if I could find a structure to the show. The film was based on only three or four of the stories from the first book, but I’ve drawn them now from the gamut of her work.
“I had to work out in my mind how you could dramatise these stories and also incorporate parts of the film, such as the fantastic Sherman Brothers songs that should be at the heart of a musical dramatisation. One of the reasons they fit so well and are so timeless is that they are drawn very much from Pamela’s book but also the tradition of British music hall.”
It was clear, however, that a stage version also needed to be very different to the film, though familiar to those who know and love it as such. “The film is a brilliant and very audacious mixture of human performers and animation, and most of the songs in it are background to the animation – you can’t do that on stage, and we wouldn’t want to. The way the story develops in the film is also very cinematic – it’s a human cartoon, on purpose, and wonderfully entertaining – but it’s not desirable to recreate that on stage.”
Mackintosh brought on board new collaborators to effect the changes required. Julian Fellowes, an actor and Oscar-winning screenplay writer of Gosford Park, was hired to pen it. “He has exactly the right style, wit, class and mind – Gosford Park was wonderfully plotted, full of brilliantly and subtly interwoven subplots, and that’s exactly the skill we needed.”
George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, a composer/lyricist team whom Mackintosh has worked with for 18 years, have written “six terrific new songs”, and restructured the rest of the score with a huge amount of additions. The creative team - which includes former National Theatre artistic director Richard Eyre and choreographer Matthew Bourne as co-directors, Stephen Mear as co-choreographer, and Bob Crowley as designer - have “all brought fantastic levels of questions and answers to the creation, too.”
As a producer, Mackintosh is responsible for bringing them all together, but for this show, he acknowledges a far more personal stake. “I meddle in every show,” he admits, “but this one has been lying in my brains for years, and as I wrote the treatment, I felt Pamela sitting on my shoulders.” He also feels Mary Poppins herself close by: “There is something about her that’s firm and true. She doesn’t tell you what to do – she gives you choices. She comes when she’s needed and leaves when she thinks you’re ready to run on your own. As a role model, that’s pretty damn good.”
Could that be a metaphor for being a theatre producer? “I do try to make my shows practically perfect in every way, and have driven people mad for 30 years doing so, so she entirely has my ethos as a producer,” he quips.
In order to make it as perfect as possible en route to London, Mackintosh tried Mary Poppins out first with a run in Bristol in September. “It’s jolly convenient for where I live in Somerset,” he says, referring to the location of his stately country home, “and I was brought up in the area, going to school at Prior Park. However well rehearsals are going, you don’t know what you’ve got until you get the show in front of an audience. You never do – anyone who thinks they do know all the answers before an audience sees it is a bit naïve.”
Now that the musical has arrived in London, it seems to have been the answer to most critics’ prayers: an eye-popping spectacle that also has heart and art.