Helping ‘Mary Poppins’ in a most delightful way

Richard Sherman says of the job writing the music for the film: " 'Mary Poppins' turned my life around, really."
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

If Mary Poppins had a pied-à-terre in L.A., it would probably look something like Richard Sherman’s home in Beverly Hills. Set back from the street across an expanse of emerald lawn, Sherman’s storybook cottage has a doorbell that chimes “It’s a Small World (After All),” courtesy of the Magic Castle creator Milt Larsen.

Mary Poppins never hit the Pepsi pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair, where “Small World” -- a timeless tune composer-lyricist Sherman wrote with his brother, Robert -- made its debut. But the character and the song are part of midcentury pop culture that sprang from Walt Disney’s fantasy factory, where the Sherman Brothers spent a good part of their career writing the soundtrack to baby boomers’ childhoods. And Richard Sherman has the world’s most popular nanny to thank for his pricey digs.

“We were struggling songwriters hoping to get a break,” he said recently of the brothers’ commission to write the songs for the 1964 musical film, which earned them two Academy Awards, for song (“Chim Chim Cher-ee”) and for music score, substantially original. “This was the opportunity of a lifetime. ‘Mary Poppins’ turned my life around, really.”

And now “Mary Poppins’ ” indefatigable appeal is being reprised in the lives of boomers’ children and grandchildren, thanks to the stage version by Disney and Cameron Mackintosh that opens at the Ahmanson Theatre next Sunday and runs through Feb. 7.

The North American touring co-production about a magical nanny’s healing impact on the dysfunctional Banks family stars Ashley Brown and Gavin Lee, who originated the roles of Mary Poppins and her platonic chimney sweep pal, Bert, on Broadway three years ago.

The stage musical showcases nine classic Sherman Brothers songs, including “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and “Feed the Birds,” but it’s not simply a retread of the film, which scored a best actress Oscar for Julie Andrews in the title role and co-starred Dick Van Dyke.

The show, which debuted in London in 2004, features seven new songs in the Sherman Brothers’ vein by Olivier Award winners George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, who also augmented some of the original tunes. There’s also a new story by Julian Fellowes, best screenplay Oscar winner for 2001’s “Gosford Park,” who incorporated more material from the books that inspired the film.

Noted British director Richard Eyre heads the production with co-direction by fellow Olivier Award winner and choreographer Matthew Bourne, who won a Tony for 1999’s “Swan Lake.”

“Mary Poppins” came to the stage after several decades of attempts to win the rights from her strong-willed and idiosyncratic creator, author P.L. Travers.

Mackintosh finally secured them in 1993, 20 years after he first approached her, but he also needed the rights to Disney’s songs.

“The fact is that any audience coming to see Mary Poppins as a musical on the stage would be downright angry if it didn’t include some of the songs from the film,” Mackintosh says in Disney Edition’s behind-the-scenes account, “Mary Poppins: Anything Can Happen If You Let It.” The two behemoth theater producers tussled over the rights until 2001, when Thomas Schumacher, Disney Theatrical Group president, flew to London to broker a co-production deal with Mackintosh.

But Travers had insisted that no Americans be involved with the musical because she had strident objections about the film. The author, who died in 1996, believed her books of short stories stood on their own, and she resisted the Disney team’s attempts to create a through story. When the Sherman Brothers moved the setting from the grim ‘30s of the books to the Edwardian era, Travers said the soundtrack should include period songs rather than original music.

“Miss Travers never understood that we were inspired by her story to tell a movie story,” Sherman says, perched on a chair in his chintz-filled living room. At 81, he speaks rapidly and swats the air to illustrate a point, with the energy and sharp recall of a younger man. “I said, ‘Miss Travers, we’re never going to touch your books. We are being inspired by you. We are telling one story, not 15 stories.’ She never quite got that, and she put us down.”

At the premiere, Sherman recalls, she pulled Walt Disney aside and said she didn’t like the animation sequence. She told him it should be dropped. “That ship has sailed,” Disney told her.

“She was very difficult, and even in death she was difficult,” Sherman says, agitated at the memory even now. “I wanted very much to continue working on ‘Poppins.’ ”

In fact, the prolific Sherman Brothers, who mainly wrote family film musicals, created new music for the 2002 stage version of their 1968 film “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” which opened in London’s West End.

And Richard Sherman continues to work, most recently writing the music for recently discovered Johnny Mercer lyrics for the celebration of the songwriter’s 100th birthday. (His older brother, Robert, retired and moved to London seven years ago.)

After Disney and Mackintosh came to an agreement, Schumacher took Richard Sherman to lunch and announced that he had good news and bad news.

“I said, ‘Tell me the good news first,’ ” Sherman recalls. “He said, ‘ “Poppins” is going to be made on the stage, and a lot of your music is going to be in it.’ So I said, ‘That’s the bad news.’ I knew it was going to be.

“I said, ‘Look, I’ll be a big boy about it.’ I love the project. It’s a major magnum opus in my career, and anything I can do to help, I will. I think the show is wonderful, and I think the stars are just superb.”

Schumacher remembers the conversation as being “difficult for me, and Dick was enormously gracious about it. It’s become rather a love fest, and that’s because Dick was with us.”

Stiles and Drewe deconstructed the original score and wrote new music designed to mesh with its inspiration. When Richard Sherman met with them in London to hear the finished score, tears rolled down his cheeks. “I said, ‘Great -- some of the best songs I ever wrote,’ ” Sherman says. “And they loved that.”

If Sherman sounds as happy-go-lucky as a Disney character, that’s no accident. The brothers were the first to begin shaping the film when Walt Disney handed them the books, and that included warming up the “stiff and spooky” Poppins of Travers’ books and crafting the charming character beloved by millions.

Indeed, the exuberant Sherman, one of Walt’s pets, was one of the people who put the Disney into Disney. “I’m very positive,” he says. “If something bad happens, I’m Dr. Pangloss [from Voltaire’s ‘Candide’]. If the shark eats one leg, he goes, ‘Look, I still have a second leg.’ That’s my attitude.”

Sherman sat in on rehearsals and gave the theater creators feedback and advice. He figures he has seen the show more than 30 times in England and the U.S.

“He’s been with us all along the way,” Schumacher says. “He’s been a wonderful force in giving notes and shaping it. It’s been enormously inspiring for the cast. It could have been difficult, but his generous spirit and fair treatment on our part have made this thing work.”

Now Sherman and his wife, Elizabeth, have a ritual in which they run down to the stage during the final applause and encore of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” to show their support for the cast.

“I love the new show,” he says. “I love the new songs the boys wrote, but I’m very, very proud of the film we did, and it’s the wellspring of what the whole thing is all about. And it does teach in a very graceful, a most delightful way, a little life lesson about being together and giving love, a handshake, a wink, anything. It doesn’t take anything to do that, and it makes life much nicer. I think the whole world should learn how to give a spoonful of sugar.”