I have a confession to make — especially as a published Disney historian — I never saw the Disney film Mary Poppins as a kid. When it became available for VHS purchase, as a re-release, in the 90s, I couldn’t discern, from the promotional trailers, if this movie would be scary nightmare fuel or just-plain nonsense — what I would have called “a baby movie” that maybe my little brother would have enjoyed more than I would.
As it turns out, much of the legacy of this story, this film, and now this stage musical is the tension between the darkness and the whimsical. How does the story reconcile the seeming contradictions between nightmare and nonsense, between discipline and fun, between preparing children for the cruelties of the world and teaching them to dream of a better one that they can create? I wonder now if Mary Poppins is more for adults than children.
I’m not the first to argue this, of course. One of the most high-profile cases for this theory is the film Saving Mr. Banks. By exploring the backstory of the books and author P.L. Travers’ life and juxtaposing it to the creative process of making the Disney film, this 2013 movie argues that Mary Poppins, as a character, comes to save the father, Mr. Banks, more so than saving the children. Despite claims of historical inaccuracies, Saving Mr. Banks makes a poignant case that Mary Poppins is a sophisticated treatment of how parenting and teaching of children can be informed by childhood trauma.
Even as an adult, I could never sit through the entire Mary Poppins film — but Saving Mr. Banks was a movie about creative collaboration processes. As a budding theatre historian, who had just completed one semester of my theatre master's program, a film about collective authorship of a Disney classic was a compelling topic for me, even if I wasn’t a die-hard Mary Poppins fan. More importantly, I was sitting next to my dad in the movie theater, just a few weeks after he survived a dangerous blood clot. He was still in a wheelchair, and I couldn’t help but receive the film through the lens of a daughter who needed to take care of a parent.
“Maybe I’ll go back and watch Mary Poppins,” I said to my parents, who agreed that we should rent it and give it another chance. Sorry to the real fans, but I still couldn’t make my way through the whole thing. It still read like “a baby movie” that happens to have a darker color pallet and more serious undertones.
I wanted to like it. Even as a kid, listening to the VHS trailer brag about how it is “the most acclaimed Disney movie of all time” and “filled with the songs that everyone loves” I couldn’t help but think “meh.” What is wrong with me that I don’t like something that “everyone loves”?
“I think I just missed my window to be a Mary Poppins fan,” I surmised with my friends, who really enjoy it. “I didn’t watch it on VHS when I was young enough to enjoy it, and now, even knowing the backstory, I can’t find my way in.” They nod understandingly.
“Is the backstory just better than the story?” I ask myself.
And this was the case I was ready to make when I was contacted by the Director of Education at Quintessence Theatre in Philadelphia to do a post-show talkback after their production of the stage version. Unsurprisingly, I had never seen the stage version, thinking that I would have the same response to the film. But as a Disney historian, now with a PhD, who had completed a dissertation on Disney, I could talk about the creative process of the studio and the collective authorship of the film and stage versions for hours if needed.
I drove to the theatre on the day of the talk-back, bought a popcorn, went to my seat, read through the program notes, and prepared to sit through what the marketing promised to be a darker production concept on an already-dark story that both children and adults could enjoy together.
Without giving the magic away, I want to say that I was captivated by the staging. Quintessence operates in a theatre that has a small stage, so part of the “magic” of the production is about how they are able to accomplish some of the special effects in such a limiting space. The concept was unified, coherent, consistent, and dramaturgically grounded. (If only the Disney VHS trailer were this balanced, maybe I would have watched the film sooner in life.) I was already pleasantly surprised and then, midway through the first act, something unexpected happened.
I found myself tearing up. Then as soon as the music started for the song “Feed the Birds” I was full-on crying. I was in the back row, so I wasn’t worried about anyone seeing me, but after all of these years, I had never felt that kind of emotion over Mary Poppins before. Why did it get me this time?
It could have been a lot of things. A new understanding of the song that comes with age, empathy and compassion for the bird lady character, the amazing performance that actress Marcia Saunders gave while singing, or the changes that were made between the film and stage versions, where the bird lady is a real person on the street, who the children want to help.
“Am I a Mary Poppins fan now?” I asked myself as I cried more in the second act. I think I am. For a musical about how people can change, I suppose “changes can be made” as the characters sing.
Ultimately the story seems to be about teaching and learning empathy and reasoned compassion — and that these things are not in opposition to practicality, discipline, personal and collective responsibility. It’s about learning how to heal and break trauma cycles. It’s about a lot of things and nothing — because we deserve a spoonful of nonsense and fun for the sake of fun just as much as children do.