If Greg Miller said it once, he said it three times.
“It’s a big, big, big show,” Miller said when discussing the musical, “Mary Poppins,” which he is directing at Rochester Civic Theatre. “There is a lot going on. I knew it was big when we chose it. But we all tightened our belts, pulled up our boots and away it goes.”
“We were first going to pick it as a Christmas musical,” Miller said. “Then we thought it would be a main draw in the spring.”
So here it is, a musical based in part on a series of books by British author P.L. Travers and in part on a popular Disney movie from 1964. The movie about a nanny with a magic touch won five Oscars. In other words, it was big.
Not, though, in the eye of Travers. “She did not like the film version that much,” Miller said. So, when a stage musical was proposed, Travers had some stipulations. “The only way is if all the people working on it were British,” Miller said.
That, in turn, led to Julian Fellowes — yes, “Downton Abbey” fans, that same Julian Fellowes — writing the script for the stage musical, which debuted in 2004 in London’s West End. It promptly won two Olivier Awards and moved to Broadway in 2006.
The stage version adds a few characters from the books who didn’t make it into the movie, and there are some new songs.
“But still, the songs from the Disney movie are the ones you’re tapping your toes to,” Miller said. That would include “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” the Oscar winner for Best Original Song.
The play, like the movie, involves some magic, as well as several different sets. Obviously, Miller said, RCT can’t reproduce the same special effects used on Broadway. “We have torethink the magic to make it magical for our audience,” he said.
“There are magic tricks that need to be pulled off,” he said. “And there is dancing, a lot of sets coming on and off, a lot of costume changes. It’s a three-ring circus.”
In the center ring is Mariya Maragos, as Mary Poppins. Maragos, Miller pointed out, is a former Disney entertainer. At RCT, she’s part of a cast of 27, many of whom play multiple roles.
“There are a lot of characters popping in and out,” Miller said.
The actors, singers and dancers for the show were selected from an audition that surprised even Miller with the number of people who came out. “We had 104 audition, which is huge,” he said. “That’s a lot. But these shows with popular songs tend to bring out a lot of people.”
With the Rochester Repertory Theatre also casting for a large musical (“Aida,” which opens April 29), Miller was asked about the depth of musical theater talent locally.
“There is a lot of musical theater talent in this town,” he said. “It depends on the show and what people are interested in.”
Well, apparently a lot of people were interested in being a part of “Mary Poppins.”
“For us it’s a really big show,” Miller said. “One of the biggest shows we’ve done in a long time.”
Author never liked Disney’s ‘Poppins’
The 1964 film “Mary Poppins,” starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, was popular with people of all ages.
Except, that is, for P.L. Travers, the woman who wrote the books upon which the movie is based.
Travers was so disgusted by what Disney and Hollywood did to her story about a magical nanny in Edwardian London that for years she refused to grant rights for a sequel or a stage adaptation.
It wasn’t just the finished product that angered Travers. The 2013 film “Saving Mr. Banks,” with Emma Thompson as Travers, shows the prickly Travers jousting with Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks), during the scripting and filming of “Mary Poppins.” Many of the details struck her as wrong, and the songs, which turned out to be highly popular, were not exactly what she had in mind. She could accept Andrews as Mary, but didn’t care for Van Dyke.
Then, to cement the poor relationship, Disney officials somehow initially left Travers off the guest list for the Hollywood premiere of “Mary Poppins.” At the last minute, the oversight was corrected and Travers was given a seat of honor for the premiere.
But she still wasn’t pleased with what she saw. In fact, she is reported to have cried while watching the movie. Afterward, when asked by Disney what she thought of the movie, Travers said, “The first thing that has to go is the animation sequence.”
Travers died in 1996, at age 96. Before her death, she had finally relented and gave permission in her will for a stage version of “Mary Poppins” — provided only British talent was involved.
It is that stage version, which premiered in 2004, that will be produced by Rochester Civic Theatre.