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'Mary Poppins' Musical Adds to the Songbook

Mary Poppins, the star of the P.L. Travers books and Walt Disney movie, has followed the east wind from London and landed on Broadway, where her stories have been turned into a lavish $20 million musical.

The show opens Thursday night, but audience members should not expect a live-action replica of the 1964 Julie Andrews film. The stage show draws from the movie and the books, but features new characters, new plot points and new songs.

The show is co-produced by Disney and Cameron Mackintosh, the mega-successful producer of Cats and Phantom of the Opera. Mackintosh had the stage rights to the Travers books; Disney held the rights to songs that many people associate with the character, such as "Spoonful of Sugar."

In 2001, Disney executive Thomas Schumacher flew to London to meet with Mackintosh, who suggested combining new, more theatrical songs with the film favorites written by the brothers Richard and Robert Sherman.

At the meeting, Mackintosh pulled out a demo recording of "Practically Perfect," a song his colleagues George Stiles and Anthony Drewe had written to introduce the character of Mary Poppins.

Schumacher says, "In that moment, the whole idea that we could create a comprehensive theatrical score, using the beautiful songs from the movie, new stuff and weaving it together... it was not only possible, but could be fantastic."

Some of the Sherman Brothers' songs, such as "Feed the Birds," remain intact, but many have been altered, with new lyrics or additional melodies.

Though it was daunting to combine their own work with the beloved Disney film songs, the new composers "were always of the opinion that it would be a mistake to simply put the movie on the stage," Stiles says. "You have to make things work in a theatrical setting."

Mary Poppins opens at the New Amsterdam Theatre on Broadway Thursday night.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.