When I initially learned that Mary Poppins had been adapted from the screen to the stage, I was somewhat sceptical that the musical could be as good as the film. A lot of the magic of the film relied specifically on special effects that could not be reproduced on stage. Jumping into chalk drawings, flying, tea parties on the ceiling, snapping your fingers to clean up, and a whole host of other whimsical adventures would be next to impossible to perform in live theatre. Not to mention that the performances by the cast of the 1964 film were highly memorable and would be hard to live up to!
Doing some research before seeing the musical, I learned that they added many more songs, changed some from the Disney film, and deleted some others. This worked surprisingly well, making the play feel fresh and different from the film and also further developing the characters. Also, the staging is such that they keep the important and wondrous supernatural tricks without making them the centre of the story. In fact, having seen the musical, I realise now just how much the film really focuses on the magical effects as compared to the core elements of the story and characters.
Right away at the start, we learn that the focus of this story is not, as the title would suggest, a magical nanny, but a dysfunctional family struggling to make life work out and display their love for each other. It is that family, the Banks family, that remains the focus of the story. All of the whimsical adventures, crowd-pleasing songs, bright colours, dancing, and funny (but useful!) words are only a means to an end – namely to reunify and solidify the family.
While the story is set in the Edwardian era, the themes are universal. Dysfunctional families come in all kinds. The Banks family is an upper middleclass family, but what they have in possessions, they lack in love. The children are nasty brats who have lots of toys, but they take out their frustrations on the toys and break them. George, the father, is a disillusioned banker obsessed with money because he terrified of poverty. His wife, Winnifred, is a former actress who does not fit well into the role that her husband thinks she should play, namely that of a well-off middleclass housewife. She is trying to run the household but is terrified of making a mistake and is thus meek and mousy. George offers no affection to her or their children.
George is obsessed with control and how things are supposed to be. This was not his original disposition – he used to be inquisitive and fun-loving, but that was slowly beaten out of him by his childhood nanny. Winnifred is obsessed with pleasing George and keeping him happy, but constantly falling short. They are both narrowly surviving life and keeping up appearances. Neighbours and associates see through their charade, however – no one wants to attend Winnifred’s tea party.
The proof the family’s dysfunction is the fact that the children, Jane and Michael, are wild and mean-tempered. They go through nannies quicker than clothes. They destroy their toys. They run away from home. All they need is for a nanny who listens to them and yet who refuses to be intimidated – which they get in Mary Poppins.
It is obvious from the start that Mary Poppins is not a normal nanny. Elements of the supernatural accompany her arrival. Her confidence also startles everyone. She never gives references. She is “practically perfect in every way.” She is not intimidated by George, Winnifred, or the children. She makes them all feel naked and ridiculous, and then she builds their confidence up again. When she travels, she disappears into the sky like an angel.
What Mary Poppins does bring the Banks family – and everyone else that she comes into contact with, for that matter – is hope and faith. She teaches them to have faith that things will turn out. She teaches them respect, but she gives them a reason to respect themselves and then her. She brings chaos into the world to set it right again. Most importantly, she breaks the illusion that George (and then his family) has that life is perfectly controllable.
Mary Poppins is likely intended to be an angelic figure. She has a mysterious past that involves a jack-of-all-trades, Bert, and she has the ability to talk to animals. She flies. She has foreknowledge of events. Her story has all of the elements of being about a messenger of God, bringing faith and love to the people. She helps families love each other, share that love, and bring it to others. She encourages people to explore the world and ask questions, and to never lose their sense of wonder and whimsy.