'A Spoonful of Sugar' Hits Broadway


The wind is bringing in a new Mary Poppins, and the story involves a precocious girl from the Deep South, an eccentric writer from Australia and a group of composers who immortalized the perfect British nanny in music.

The musical "Mary Poppins" has run for two years in London. It will open on Broadway on Nov. 16. It is co-produced by the Walt Disney Company, the parent company of ABC News.

Twenty-four-year-old Ashley Brown takes on the iconic role that won an Academy Award for Julie Andrews when she was in her late 20s.

"I watched that movie 1 million times," Brown said.

Brown's everyday conversation may be tinged with a Southern accent -- she's from Gulf Breeze, Fla., near Pensacola -- but her director, Sir Richard Eyre, who also directed the London production, said Brown's diction onstage is flawless.

"She has remarkable poise and grace and something you can't fake -- a sort of precocious authority," Eyre said.

At first, Brown wasn't a candidate for the stage role. But her star qualities emerged during auditions.

"She's got such a presence about her," said Thomas Schumacher, producer for Disney Theatrical Productions. "And that's a sort of X-factor thing -- that when you look at a bunch of people, one just pops."

Like the character of Mary Poppins, Ashley Brown is wise beyond her years and talented in surprising ways.

She's had vocal training since childhood and has already played the role of Belle in "Beauty and the Beast" on Broadway. It was in her dressing room during "Beauty and the Beast" that Schumacher told her she had won the role of a lifetime.

"He came in, and he asked, 'You know why I'm here, right?'" Brown said, remembering her nervousness during the visit. "And I was like, 'No, but I'm feeling sick, so you better tell me.'"

"And then there was much screaming from her," Schumacher said. "When I left, I said, 'Now, keep this a secret.' But by the time I got down to 46th Street, I think everyone on Broadway had already heard."

Mary Poppins Timeline

Eighty years ago, in November 1926, Mary Poppins made her first appearance in the story "Mary Poppins and the Match Man." The first Mary Poppins book was published in 1934. She was the creation of a writer named P.L. Travers, whose own strange story was uncovered in a recent biography, "Mary Poppins, She Wrote," by Valerie Lawson.

Travers wasn't the writer's real name, nor was she a native of England. She was born Helen Lyndon Goff, and she spent an unsettled childhood in Australia. Her father, who worked in banking, drank too much and left the family destitute, according to Lawson's book.

Word was there were things that Travers didn't like about the Disney film that featured her character and won five Academy Awards in 1964. They may have been related to her own childhood experiences.

"Children growing up have to deal with some dark things," said Cameron Mackintosh, co-producer of the "Mary Poppins" musical. "And I think that that, in itself, was the reason that Pamela Travers was never completely satisfied with the movie, which managed to remove that."

Mackintosh, one of the most successful theatrical producers in the world, with hits that include "Cats," "Phantom of the Opera," "Miss Saigon" and "Les Miserables," had obtained the stage rights after personally approaching Travers before she died and assuring her that her character would translate well to the stage.

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