Something About Mary

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She won’t be descending from the sky via umbrella, but kids will get a chance to meet Mary Poppins – or at least, the actress who plays her – at the Newport Beach Public Library next week.

Steffanie Leigh as Mary in “Mary Poppins, the Musical.”

“Mary Poppins, the Musical” is in town through Aug. 7 at the Segrestrom Center for the Arts.  On Thursday, July 21, from 2 to 3 p.m., children will have the opportunity to meet cast members at the Newport Beach Public Library. The library, in association with the Segrestom Center is hosting a free, behind-the-scenes program of the touring production of “Mary Poppins.”  Steffanie Leigh, who portrays Mary, and other cast members will be there talking about their roles and theatre experience.

Kids will also get to listen to the actors read from the P.L. Travers book that inspired the musical, and learn how to spell “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!” There will be opportunities for questions and photos. Admission is free. Seating is on a first-come, first-served basis, limited by room capacity.

We all know of Mary Poppins magical arrival via umbrella, but the real journey of Mary Poppins from the original book in 1934 to the Segrestrom stage this summer has been anything but whimsical.

Most people associate Mary Poppins with the Disney musical movie, but it was P.L. Travers who created the character who set the standard for all future nannies.  She released her book in 1934 and went on to write seven more in the series,including “Mary Poppins Comes Back,” “Mary Poppins Opens the Door” and “Mary Poppins in the Park.”

Walt Disney began to court P.L. Travers in 1938 to buy the rights to make her book a movie. In an article in the New Yorker, “Becoming Mary Poppins,” Caitlin Flanagan writes, “Travers later recalled, ‘It was as if he were dangling a watch, hypnotically, before the eyes of a child.’ Disney’s was a fifteen-year campaign of attention, flattery, and transcontinental telegrams and visits. At long last, Travers succumbed to a deal that gave her a hundred thousand dollars, a cut of the gross, and—unheard of at the Disney studios—script approval. She also demanded that the movie not be a cartoon.”

Once Travers sold the rights to Disney, it took many more years to come to a mutually acceptable script for the movie.

The movie was released in August of 1964. Travers hated the movie, particularly the animated scenes and thought Hollywood portrayed Mary Poppins as too sweet.  In the book, Mary Poppins has a biting, no-nonsense edge to her. Although the Disney movie made Travers a very wealthy woman, the Australian born author vowed to never entrust her work to an American ever again.

It was a British producer, Cameron Mackintosh (“Les Misérables,” “The Phantom of the Opera”, “Cats”), who, 40 years after the movie, made “Mary Poppins the Musical.” On the website, Mackintosh writes that he loved the P.L. Travers books when he was a child.  As an adult, he says, “I first tried, unsuccessfully, to acquire the stage rights to ‘Mary Poppins’ over 25 years ago, as did many other producers on both sides of the Atlantic. Over the next 15 years ‘Mary Poppins’ always hovered about, but it wasn’t until 1993 that I was to finally meet her creator, Pamela Travers, who was by then 93 herself.”

It was then that she finally sold the theatrical rights to Mackintosh.

“I was able to persuade her that a stage musical could only be created by combining her stories with the key ingredients and songs from the film to invent something completely new.”   Again, there were many delays and Mackintosh used the time to immerse himself in the Mary Poppins books.

Travers did not live to see the musical. It opened in London in 2004 before coming to Broadway in 2006.

Like the original story, the show contains, “an astonishing variety of moods and is distinguished by a faithful rendering of the books’ brisk and sophisticated comic sensibility.”
For more information on the Special Cast Member Appearance, visit the library website at www.newportbeachlibrary.org or call Children’s Services at (949) 717-3830.

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