Sherman brothers adapt 'Mary Poppins' story for Disney
BY JAMES D. WATTS JR. World Scene Writer
Sunday, October 07, 2012
10/07/12 at 4:31 AM
During the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Olympics, dozens of women in long black dresses, carrying large satchels and holding aloft umbrellas, descended onto the floor of London's Olympic Stadium.
It was a moment that gave Richard M. Sherman a feeling of great pride.
Sherman, collaborating with his late brother, Robert, wrote the songs that made the film version of "Mary Poppins" one of the most popular movies to come from Walt Disney studios.
Those songs are also a part of the stage musical of "Mary Poppins," which Celebrity Attractions will bring to the Tulsa PAC on Nov. 13-18.
"There was maybe a billion people around the world watching that scene, and no one had to explain who that character was," Sherman said, during a telephone interview from his Los Angeles home. "And to know that I had a little hand in making this character that well known ... well, it was a great feeling."
According to Sherman, the brothers' input into what would become "Mary Poppins" the movie went beyond crafting such well-known songs as the Academy Award-winning "Chim Chim Cher-ee," "A Spoonful of Sugar," "Stay Awake" and "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious."
"Bob and I had been working as pop songwriters for about nine years, and one of the people we wrote for was Annette Funicello," Sherman said. "When Walt Disney decided to put her in a movie, we were asked to write songs for her, and Walt liked what we did."
The brothers soon were staff songwriters for the Disney company, writing songs for such films as "The Parent Trap," "The Absent-Minded Professor" and "The Sword in the Stone."
Then, in 1960, Disney came to the brothers with something a little different.
"He handed us this book, which was 'Mary Poppins,' " Sherman said. "What was unusual was that Walt didn't say, 'Write me a song for this or that scene.' He said, 'Read this and tell me what you think about it.'"
Mary Poppins - the magical, no-nonsense nanny who swoops into families' lives on the east wind - first came to life in the books by English writer P.L. Travers, beginning with "Mary Poppins" in 1934.
Travers would ultimately write four more books about Mary Poppins, the last one being "Mary Poppins and the House Next Door" in 1989, along with other books of fiction and non-fiction.
Travers guarded her creation closely, turning down many offers to translate the stories into film. It took Disney nearly two decades of trying before Travers, who was in some financial straits, agreed to allow a film to be made.
"We both loved the book and the character," Sherman said, "but we realized right off that there really wasn't a story - it was a series of these wonderful, magical adventures, but no real story, no reason for Mary Poppins to come into this family's life.
"So we came up with some ideas about how there could be some kind of conflict that could be resolved, something that Mary Poppins needs to correct," he said. Their ideas would form the basis of the screenplay by Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi.
The brothers also began working on songs, including "Feed the Birds," inspired by a scene in Travers' second book, "Mary Poppins Comes Back."
"What Bob and I always tried to do was find new ways to say things," Sherman said. "We wanted to do a song about being charitable, how it doesn't take much to share love, without saying that so directly.
"When we first played that song for Walt he said, 'That's it. That's the key to the whole story.' And it became one of Walt's favorite songs. Sometimes, he'd come into our offices and just say, 'Play it,' and we always knew what song he meant."
The show's tongue-twisting "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," which holds the Guiness World Record for the longest single-word song title, grew out of the brothers' habit when young of making up nonsense words.
"Mary Poppins" was a huge hit upon its release in 1964, earning more money than any other film that year and winning five Academy Awards - the most any Disney film has won - including Best Actress for Julie Andrews.
One person who was not pleased with the film was P.L. Travers, who was so disturbed at the ways her characters and stories had been treated that she left the premiere showing in tears.
She so disliked the "Disney-fied" version, which softened the darker edges to the Poppins character, that she stipulated when approached by Cameron Mackintosh to agree to a stage musical version of her character that no Americans be part of the creative team.
However, the Disney film and its songs have become so iconic that they had to be incorporated into the musical.
"Travers was insistent on the musical having a darker story," Sherman said. "But Cameron wanted to use the storyline that Bob and I developed. So they brought in other elements. George Stiles and Anthony Drewe wrote new songs and expanded on some of ours, Julian Fellowes, who wrote 'Downton Abbey,' wrote the new book.
"So it's a little darker, but it's still a wonderful show," Sherman said. "I've seen the cast that is doing this tour, and they're absolutely great. They're this closely knit family of actors."
And the story of the making of the "Mary Poppins" movie will be coming to theaters in 2014, in a film called "Saving Mr. Banks."
Tom Hanks will star as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson will portray P.L. Travers. Jason Schwartzman is scheduled to play Richard M. Sherman, with B.J. Novack as Robert Sherman.
"It'll cover the whole rigamarole of that time," Sherman said, laughing. "And there was a whole lot of rig and a whole lot of marole. I can understand it because P.L. Travers was wanting to protect her work and the image she had of her characters.
"But at the same time, I'm very proud of the work we did on 'Mary Poppins,' " he said. "It was just a blessing to be involved in a project like that."
It's a simple song after all
Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman wrote more movie song scores than any other writing team in history, through their work with Walt Disney and other studios. The brothers also wrote the screenplays for some of their films, such as their adaptations of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."
But perhaps the brothers' single most performed song is "It's a Small World (After All)," originally composed for the 1964 World's Fair.
"Originally, all these animatronic dolls would be singing different national anthems, but it was just chaos," Richard Sherman said. "Walt asked us to come up with something simple, that would tell the story of that exhibit.
"We thought the song was maybe too simple, but Walt said that's the way it should be," he said. "Now, when people find out that we wrote that song, they either want to kiss us or kill us because it's one of those tunes you can't get out of your head."
Original Print Headline: Brothers adapted 'Mary Poppins' for Disney
James D. Watts Jr. 918-581-8478
Rachel Wallace as Mary Poppins DEEN VAN MEER/Courtesy
Songwriter Richard M. Sherman sits with the two Academy Awards he and his brother Robert won for their songs and score of the movie "Mary Poppins." Courtesy