'A Spoonful of Sugar' Hits Broadway

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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.

"[Travers] wanted to get what she felt was the quirky nature of Mary Poppins into this," he said. "[Mary] is a firm rock in a very unsteady world."

But Mackintosh also knew that a successful stage production would need the musical pedigree that includes some of the most famous Disney songs ever written: "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," "Feed the Birds," "Jolly Holiday," "Spoonful of Sugar," and "Chim-Chim Cher-ee."

It was Disney's Schumacher who broke the ice by approaching Mackintosh on his own to work out a co-production agreement.

When the show opened in London in 2004, Mackintosh's commitment to Travers was apparent in some scenes that critics described as dark -- including one scene reminiscent of "The Nutcracker," in which the children lose their tempers in the nursery and are frightened by their toys.

"It's something that shocks them into realizing what their bad behavior actually is doing," Mackintosh said. "And it's a very good lesson. And that's what Mary Poppins is there to teach them."

Disney has never shied away from such moments, said Schumacher.

"We tell fairy tales like 'Beauty and the Beast' where people get turned into monsters and thrown off parapets," he said. "We tell stories like 'Lion King,' which is the crisis of a boy and what happens when his father is killed in a horrible stampede, which we watch on stage. And then we see him recover from that. And then I think of 'Mary Poppins,' which is the story of a family that's completely disjointed. What they do is, they find out that a nanny can set them all straight, and they can be a happy family at the end. I don't get what about that would be dark."

One of the Best Songs I Never Wrote

Audiences familiar with the major songs from the film will hear them all, presented in ways that are tailored for a theatrical production.

The team of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe was hired to work with the original Disney songwriters, Richard and Bob Sherman, to create new material and put some surprises into the standards.

One of the new songs, a number in which Mary Poppins introduces herself as "Practically Perfect," has been mistaken by some as having originally appeared in the movie.

Richard Sherman's reaction was also positive: "I said, 'That's one of the best songs I never wrote.'"

As one of the original writers, Sherman, too, has his Pamela Travers stories. He said she had trouble understanding why he was writing new music.

"She suggested 'Greensleeves' and 'Pop Goes the Weasel,' and 'Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay' as songs that Mary Poppins would sing. And I had to explain to her one day, 'Mrs. Travers, this is an original musical, and people already know 'Greensleeves' and we're going to try to do new material for this picture,'" he said.

The songs the Shermans produced "are part of our musical DNA," Drewe said. "We know all those songs without necessarily knowing where we were when we first heard them. You absorb them by osmosis. And our job was to write in that style."

For instance, the song "Jolly Holiday" now has a counterpoint melody written by Stiles and Drewe in which the children disdain what Mary is teaching them until the lesson unfolds and they are amazed, instead.

Arguably the most famous song from the film, "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," lasted less than two minutes. On the stage, it has been turned into an extravaganza that includes a clever, choreographed lesson in how to spell it.

"They say [Travers] didn't like the movie, and yet when you read a sequel that she wrote, it starts with the children running down the stairs, singing 'Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,' which isn't even a word from her books. So she did embrace it," Schumacher said.

The role of Mary Poppins, with all its nuances, has been thoroughly embraced by Ashley Brown. One of Brown's favorite lines as the nanny has to do with reserving judgments in order to learn unexpected lessons: "When will you learn to look past what you see?"

"It's the whole thing, 'Don't judge a book by its cover,'" she said. "And I think that's a very important message for children and humanity."

In any telling of the collection of stories, "Mary Poppins" was always about lessons learned, not only by ill-behaved children, but by inattentive parents. And then, like childhood, in an ending that never changes, she eventually catches the wind and disappears.

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