Saturday Matinee #113: "Goodbye, Mary Poppins. Don't Stay Away Too Long!" (October 14, 2006 to March 3, 2013)
Published March 2, 2013
by Albert Gutierrez
A couple weeks ago, the official Facebook page for Mary Poppins asked fans to share their favorite memory of the practically perfect nanny, be it on the stage, in film, or reading the original Travers books. I jumped at the chance to share my story*, as the film has been an integral part of my life ever since I first saw it at four years old. It helped me to cope, so to speak, with the bittersweet news from earlier this year. Mary Poppins would be ending its Broadway run, in order to prepare the New Amsterdam Theatre for the Spring 2014 premiere of Disney's stage musical version of Aladdin. Two of my favorite films were now forever connected in a very unique way. One was saying goodbye to the stage in order for the other to say hello. I can't help but shed a happy tear.
Mary Poppins has been such a mainstay in my life, and tomorrow, I know I'll have to say goodbye to one version of this timeless tale. Tomorrow night is the final performance for the Broadway musical. Its final performance will include Steffanie Leigh as Mary Poppins (whom I saw in the role last fall), and Nicholas Dromard as Bert (of the original U.S. Tour). A part of me wishes I could be there, if only to see the magic of the stage once more, but fortunately, there is some element of this wonderful production preserved on home media. In 2009, Disney released a "45th Anniversary Edition" DVD of the classic 1964 film, which included a full performance of "Step in Time" from the Broadway musical. This week, we'll be saying goodbye to Mary Poppins on Broadway by celebrating one of its signature dance numbers.
George Stiles is on hand to provide our introduction to this performance. As he sits at his grand piano, he explains how they expanded the film's "Step in Time" number for the stage, choreographed by Matthew Bourne and Stephen Mear.
The stage then transforms into the rooftops of London, as Bert and his chimney sweeps serenade to Mary Poppins and the Banks children. They take over the entire rooftop, literally stepping in time to the rhythm of their feet. Bert and Mary take centre stage as Jane and Michael look on in amazement before joining in themselves. Bert pounds out a beat on the chimneys as if they were drums, then playfully orders, "Your turn!" to Mary and the children.
Soon, it is the chimney sweeps' turn to strut their stuff across the rooftop. They dance and serenade, as Bert shows us what "over the rooftops" really means. For the sake of those who have yet to see this particular bit o' magic, I'll refrain from spoiling it for you.
"Step in Time" was always my favorite number in the 1964 film, and was the number I looked forward to in the stage musical. Needless to say, it delivered in spades, presenting a dance sequence that provides the same whimsy and jubilant energy as the original. However, it still provides a sense of originality to its choreography, knowing both the limitations and opportunities that the stage offers. Choreographers Bourne and Mear manage to capture the urgency of the film's dancing, while providing a more literal treatment to the lyrics, itself slightly modified for the stage. We get moments that are unique to the stage, replacing steps in the film that the stage was not made for. Likewise, we get stage moments that they likely could not do on film in a believable way.
Disney does not often provide such extensive footage of their filmed Broadway performances, but thankfully "Step in Time" is the exception to this rule. YouTube, for example, offers a short version of the "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" number, but also provides the full "Step in Time" video that's on the DVD. That's not just a testament to how powerful the number is, but also how marketable it is. This number contains a lot of "money shots," to use an entertainment term, which are meant to grab the audience. It's essentially serving as a unique trailer to the show: rather than provide clips edited together with a narrator making hyperbolic statements like "The greatest performance on the Great White Way!," Disney instead gives us an entire number (still slickly edited) and allows us to make the judgment for ourselves. (Incidentally, Disney took a chance doing that 19 years ago when the first trailer for The Lion King was simply the entire "Circle of Life" opening.)
As mentioned in Saturday Matinee #79, Mary Poppins has been available in virtually every home media format since 1980. Its immense popularity has kept it in "evergreen" status, always available and never out of print. The 2009 DVD is the most recent release and expectedly the only one to contain any footage of the Broadway musical, notably the filmed performance of "Step in Time" that we've looked at today. Whether this material will still be present on the film's Blu-Ray release (long-rumored for next year, supported by plenty of unofficial talk about the film's extensive restoration) remains to be seen. Until then, you're still apt to find 2009's two-disc set on store shelves, although most readers likely will have already picked up Mary Poppins on some other format in the past thirty-odd years. Or, if you're like me, you simply collect as many releases as possible, even if it's the same film. And I'm still on the search for more; I'm keen to pick up 1997's "Fully Restored Limited Edition" CAV LaserDisc, as it's the only version to offer an isolated music-and-effects track.
Even though I go a little crazy when buying Mary Poppins on home media, none of these tapes, laserdiscs, or DVDs ever can fully replicate the joy I felt in watching Mary Poppins for the first time as a child. Likewise, if I ever see the stage musical again (on tour or if Disney revives it in the future), it will never have the full and sheer wonderment I had the first time I saw the beloved story translated on the stage last fall. However, like all good things, they must come to an end. The proverbial wind has changed, and we know that one day our perfect nanny shall return. Besides, I still have to look forward to Aladdin! He's the perfect spoonful of sugar to help our "no more Mary" medicine go down.
*If you'll indulge me for a moment, I'd like to share that written-on-Facebook memory here once more:
Mary Poppins was one of the earliest Disney movies I saw as a child. We would rent the VHS time and again; whenever the family went to Acme for groceries, I'd always gravitate towards the video rental area, where I'd find that white clamshell box sitting on a shelf waiting for me. I needed only to grab it and wave it in the air to signal, "They have it! Can we borrow it again?". Ninety-nine percent of the time, the parents relented. Occasionally, I'd see the retail VHS sitting on the shelf, the one that we could actually buy, and I'd take a chance and wave that around. That one was usually met with a stern "No," since renting was easier. Eventually I wore my parents down. One day in the late summer of 1990, we had gone to Super Fresh for groceries rather than our usual Acme. Their store did not have a rental section, only a section for buying videos. I managed to steer my parents' cart towards that area, where I promptly held up that colorful clamshell VHS. To my complete surprise, they nodded their heads. "Okay, we'll get it." I was so excited that we were finally buying Mary Poppins that I did not let go of it during the rest of our grocery shopping. As we walked through each aisle, I had one hand on the cart and the other clutching Mary Poppins close to me. It wasn't enough knowing that we would be owning this tape, I had to physically hold on to it to ensure that we were definitely keeping it. Needless to say, that was one of my favorite trips to the grocery store as a child.
Albert and Mary