Broadway Features and Reviews
The Other Side Of Mary Poppins
By Mary Bowers, Broadway Magazine
One storm-torn night, Pamela Travers, the original author of the Mary Poppins books, was left with her two younger siblings as her mother - her only living parent - walked into the rain, informing her that she was going to drown herself in the river. Travers, gathering her sisters around her, told a story about a magical flying horse as the younger ones asked, "Could he carry us to the shiny land, all three on his back?" Her mother returned that night, but Travers stories were to grow darker and sparkle less.
Travers, born Helen Lyndon Goth in 1899, was no loveable English matron. Moving to London from her native Australia at the age of 25, she became drinking buddies with British hacks in the pubs of Fleet Street, made friends with the poet Yeats, published under the gender-ambiguous PL Travers, and participated in a string of relationships with men that, it has been strongly suspected, were more than platonic.
So it is thoroughly unsurprising that she created the character of Mary Poppins as a no-nonsense, dark and disciplined character who uses more self-discipline than magic. She thoroughly disagreed with Walt Disney's film production, and after attempting numerous interferences with the script, ended up inviting herself to its premiere, where she wept in her seat while an enraptured audience leant the movie a standing ovation. She hated the saccharine, she hated the animation. The movie made her a fortune, but ruined her book. She promised never to give permission for another adaptation.
Perhaps it was her belief in the power of theatre that caused Travers to break her resolution over thirty years later. She sold the rights to Cameron Mackintosh in 1994, two years before her death at the age of 96. In any case, the stage production of the musical adaptation injects a darkness that Disney glosses, with an emotionally distant father, an overlooked and underappreciated mother, and toys that chide their untidy owners. When it opened in London in 2004, one tabloid called it "Scary Poppins" and there was a ban on children under 3 years old. From London, the production came to Broadway with Mackintosh's vision in place.
It is not a flying horse that stuns audiences night after night in the Broadway show at the New Amsterdam Theatre, but a flying nanny, dressed primly in red, and hoisted above astonished heads and into the rafters. Before Mary Poppins leaves, she admonishes Jane and Michael that she will not, and should not return. Unlike the horse, she carries no one on her back. Perhaps Travers would be proud.
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