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The Music of Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins is counted by many Disney fans to be Walt Disney’s finest work. He was originally introduced to the Mary Poppins stories by his daughter Diane. Diane Disney was a fan of the series of books by author P.L. Travers who began publishing the books in the 1930s in London during the Great Depression. Walt was immediately enchanted by the books and saw their movie potential, trying several times over the course of the next 20 years to get the rights to make Mary Poppins into a movie.

In 1960 Richard and Robert Sherman, the young songwriting brothers were invited to the Disney Studio to demo a song that Annette Funicello, Disney’s then teen phenomenon, was to perform in a film called The Horsemasters. The two impressed Walt in their initial meeting and were also assigned to work on Disney’s famous early 60’s live-action film, The Parent Trap.

It wasn’t long before the talented team was working on several productions at the Disney Studios. During one of those early meetings with Walt, Walt went to a bookshelf in his office, pulled out a tattered red book called Mary Poppins and asked “the boys” (as he referred to them), if they had ever heard of it. He gave it to them to read and soon they were coming up with ideas for music based on the book. The first song they wrote was “Feed the Birds.” Richard Sherman explained that the song “Feed the Birds” isn’t really about birds, it’s about how something so small can make such a difference. All it takes is a little bit of nothing to do something nice – tuppence. He believed it was the heartbeat of the entire movie.

They worked together with Don Da Gradi to put together a few songs along with some sketches to show to Walt. After a few weeks the trio met with Walt to present their ideas. They played through the various songs they brought to him and at the end of hearing them all Walt said, “You think story and that’s good. Sing me that bird woman song again.” After the boys finished, Walt stayed silent for a moment then nodded and said, “that’s what the story is all about.”

The Mary Poppins books weren’t big unified singular stories, instead each book was a collections of smaller standalone stories. From that initial meeting DeGradi and the Sherman brothers got to work on creating a unifying storyline from the various unrelated tales in the book. Of all the chapters in the book, there were six that stood out to them as lending themselves to music and a possible storyline. They worked together for two years with the books hammering out details all while Walt didn’t yet have the rights to the book.

Walt’s tenacity in pursuing P.L. Travers for the movie rights to her book finally paid off as dwindling book sales throughout the 1950s put added pressure on Travers to strike a deal with Walt.

With that the Disney team could move forward in crafting Walt’s vision for Mary Poppins. The filmmakers wanted to achieve a ‘broadway” style sound for the film. The Sherman Brothers in particular were very impressed by the scoring of the broadway musical Fiorello. Walt himself liked the work of whomever the musical director was for the Garry Moore Variety Show. It turns out both of these were the work of famous composer and conductor Irwin Kostal, who was brought on board as musical director, arranger, and conductor for the movie. While the Sherman brothers came up with the concepts, the lyrics, and the melodies for the movie, it was upon Irwin Kostal to take those melodies and orchestrate them into a full soundtrack using a 75 piece orchestra and he also reworked the Disney recording stage for stereo sound.

Kostal had recently won an Oscar for his work on West Side Story, and would go on the following year to score The Sound of Music which of course also featured Julie Andrews in the leading role as Maria Von Trapp. Some twenty years later Kostal would conduct the rerecording of Fantasia for its 1980s re-release.

The Sherman Brothers and Irwin Kostal weren’t the only ones with musical ideas for the movie. The book’s author P.L. Travers weighed in having some favorite tunes she wanted the Sherman Brothers to put in the movie such as “Greensleeves” and “Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay”. But of course the Sherman Brothers had to persuade her to let go of these ideas because while they also loved those classic songs, they weren’t appropriate for a musical that must have original songs.

Walt liked for each of his characters to have their own theme song that would not only help to introduce most important characters, but that would also serve as their background theme when they were in focus on the screen in other scenes. It helped create a certain familiarity with the characters as the movie played out.

One of the first characters to have a theme that we meet is Admiral Boom, the veteran naval officer neighbor of the Banks’ who has converted his roof into the deck of a ship. Admiral Boom was meant to have his own performance singing his theme, but at the last minute it was cut from the film. But while Admiral Boom’s feature performance of his song was cut, the theme did survive in the movie as the underlying melody in Irwin Kostal’s orchestration that we hear when the Admiral is on screen.

David Tomlinson, the famous British actor who portrayed George Banks had never sung professionally before and was nervous he wouldn’t be good enough, but Irwin Kostal knew Tomlinson’s untrained baritone voice would be just right for George Banks’ signature piece “The Life I Lead.”

Karen Dotrice and Michael Garber performed the next theme, “The Perfect Nanny” when they read/sing their own handwritten advertisement for a Nanny to their father. P.L. Travers was keen for as many characters in the movie to be portrayed by English people as possible, and in a letter to Walt had suggested child actress Karen Dotrice for the role of Jane Banks. What Travers didn’t know was that Walt had already cast her in the role.

Well before production began on Mary Poppins, Walt went to see stage singer and actress Julie Andrews perform in Camelot. Julie Andrews had been singing since she was just a young child in London’s West End and made her Broadway debut in The Boy Friend in 1954 age of 19. She was billed “Britain’s Youngest Prima Donna” and rose to fame playing Eliza Doolittle in the broadway production of My Fair Lady in 1956.

At their meeting Walt told her about Mary Poppins and said he wanted her to possibly star in it. Julie told walt that sounded wonderful but there was just one problem, she was pregnant. Walt said that’s ok, we’ll wait, and so he did.

We greet Julie Andrews and meet Mary Poppins and her theme, “A Spoonful of Sugar,” first as theme music when she appears floating above London heading toward the banks’ house on Cherry Tree Lane. The Sherman Brothers had been toiling on a theme song for Mary Poppins for some time and were struggling to find a saying that summed up her outlook on life or her attitude. One day, Bob Sherman’s son had to get the polio vaccine at school. When asked if it was painful he replied that no, that they put it on a spoonful of sugar. Immediately Bob Sherman knew they had their theme for Mary Poppins.

But “Spoonful of Sugar” almost never existed. Originally, the brothers had written a theme for Mary Poppins called “Through the Eyes of Love.” Before filming the movie, Julie Andrews visited the Disney Studios to preview the songs and sketches for the film. She told Walt that she didn’t think that “Through the Eyes of Love” necessarily worked for her. It was agreed that rather than the ballad, which also had shortcomings according to P.L. Travers as it hinted at romance between Mary Poppins and Bert, Mary Poppins needed something marvelous, which is precisely what we got in “Spoonful of Sugar.”

Julie Andrews not only made it possible for Spoonful to exist by her request for a replacement to “Through The Eyes of Love,” and of course her extraordinary vocal talents, but Julie Andrews also provided the whistling of the robin that joins her in the song. They had hired a professional whistler for the role, but that person just wasn’t capturing the mood, so Julie volunteered and nailed the part.

It’s hard to imagine anyone but Dick Van Dyke playing the role of Bert, but other actors considered for the role included Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, Danny Kaye, and Tommy Steele. The Movie then takes the audience into Bert’s pavement Drawing and interestingly the first scene here, was also the very first sequence shot for the movie. Being that it was Julie Andrews’ first film, this is the very first shot of the very first movie Julie Andrews had ever filmed.

The music here is “Jolly Holiday” and features not only Bert and all the animals singing about their admiration for Mary Poppins. Here several famous voices are featured. Paul Frees, of Haunted Mansion fame voices the horse, Thurl Ravenscroft of the Enchanted Tiki Room voices the pig, and Marni Nixon sings as the geese. Marni Nixon is famous for having performed as Audrey Hepburn’s singing voice in the movie version of My Fair Lady that same year.

The “Jolly Holiday” sequence of course also features the “Penguin Dance,” which features the sound of a kazoo. Richard Sherman himself played the kazoo. In order for his playing to fit the music, they sped up the recording of him playing the kazoo and fit it to the fast pace of the orchestra.

James MacDonald, the sound effects wizard for the movie one day heard some of the dancers who played the chimney sweeps making a sound by patting their tummies. He immediately knew this sound would work perfectly as the sound of the feet of the penguins tapping. He recorded several of the sweeps dancers patting their tummies as penguin feet. However, Irwin Kostal replaced James MacDonald’s recording with a recording of himself patting his own tummy as he believed his own stomach was a better size and shape to produce the sound.

This next sequence really showcases the vision and the artistry of the people who worked on this film. First the piece “The Carousel Horses,” which is variation on the “Jolly Holiday” theme is orchestrated by Irwin Kostal and features no less than 12 glockenspiels to perform the song of the carousel horses. Kostal then employs nine french horns as we see the carousel horses peel off the carousel to join the fox hunt.

When coming up with the concept for the next piece, the Sherman Brothers thought it would be nice if after having left the pavement drawing, Mary Poppins could give some sort of gift to the children. What they came up with for this gift was a word they invented – Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

It was a British tradition of pearly bands (called this for their outfits embellished all over with hundreds of pearls) to play at sporting events and pubs etc all around the country so it was perfect for Mary Poppins to perform with a Pearly Band after winning the horserace.

They remarked at how hard it was in recording this song to make professional musicians play in an amateurish sort of way. They also used a technique for this song where each instrument was recorded individually and then all the separate tracks were put together to make it sound like they had played together as an ensemble. This was achieved using something called a click track which clicks to keep the beat of the music and plays in a small earpiece on each musician to keep them all playing at the same speed. Even the vocalists were recorded individually. Originally, the Sherman Brothers titled the track “The Pearly Band” but it was Walt who said, “Don’t be afraid to call it ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.’”

Upon returning home after their day in the pavement drawing the children don’t want to go to sleep, claiming they are much too excited from their fun-filled day. The Shermans provide us here with a track called “Stay Awake,” the lyrics to which urge the children to stay awake and fight sleeping while the soothing melody that employs 6 cellos and 6 violas lulls the children to sleep. This song almost didn’t make it into the film as Walt considered removing it for time. Julie Andrews, who loved the song, wrote to P.L. Travers mentioning that the song was in danger of being removed. Travers wasted no time in writing to Walt to urge him to keep the song in the movie. Travers felt that the reverse psychology of urging the children to stay awake while making them fall asleep was so very Mary Poppins it was a shame to leave it out. So it stayed.

“Feed the Birds,” as mentioned before, is the Heartbeat of the movie. Here again we see Irwin Kostal’s genius combine with the Sherman Brothers moving lyrics, and Julie Andrews’ voice to create something extraordinary. Kostal evolves the orchestration from the simple sound of the street musette, to the surging power of the full orchestra joined by a pipe organ and chorus.

The bird woman was played by wheelchair bound, elderly veteran actress Jane Darwell of Gone With The Wind fame. Walt insisted on top treatment for Darwell and had her chauffeured to the set in a limousine.

The bird woman sequence on the steps of St. Paul’s was the last sequence shot for the film on Sept 6, 1963. Walt didn’t often visit the sets while they were filming but he made it a point to attend that last day to watch and greet Jane Darwell. Darwell passed away not long after Mary Poppins but was delighted by her treatment during film.

Dick Van Dyke, famously not only portrayed Bert in the film, but also played the elderly Mr. Dawes Sr. of the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank where he performs the song of the same name. Dick Van Dyke was noted for having recorded this piece in one single take.

When Bert, Mary Poppins, and the Banks children find themselves marching over the rooftops of London at dusk, they need to climb a set of smoke stairs to get from one building to another. Originally this scene called for Julie Andrews to Yodel in order to make the smoke form into the steps. However, it was felt this was a little too out of character for Mary Poppins and so we got Irwin Kostal’s lovely orchestration of “Chim Chim Cheree” into the piece “Over The Rooftops.”

The next piece, and one of the more famous pieces of music from the movie, owes its place in the film primarily to British matte painting artist Peter Ellenshaw. Peter Ellenshaw painted a vast majority of the skylines and backdrops you see in the movie. Ellenshaw was a very proud British gentleman and one day he was teaching some of the film’s creators, including Walt, about a dance that had become very popular in England called Knees Up Mother Brown. He demonstrated how during the song everyone links arms, kicks their knees up, and sings together. Walt Loved it shouting, “Get the Sherman boys in here!” So they came in to the room to find Ellenshaw, Walt, and several others arm in arm, kicking their knees up and singing “Knees Up Mother Brown.” Walt insisted that this was just the sound they needed for the film. The Sherman Brothers took the song away wrote “Step in Time.”

The Sherman Brothers, again, wrote the song and the lyrics which was only a few bars, then giving it to Irwin Kostal to orchestrate into 14 minutes of music that became the full “Step in Time” dance sequence weaving in not only the “Step in Time” theme but other themes such as “Spoonful of Sugar”, “Sister Suffragette”, “The Life I lead,” and more.

When Richard and Robert Sherman were very young, their father would make kites for them. For the end of Mary Poppins they were trying to think of something that the father in the movie could do with the children that would be even more exciting than anything Mary Poppins could do. So it was the Sherman Brothers’ father who inspired the movie’s famous final number, “Let’s Go Fly A Kite.” But their original demo didn’t quite hit the mark. When the boys demo’d that version for Walt he said it sounded too much like a broadway show and didn’t reflect the musical style of his english music hall style movie. So they changed the key to 3/4 time like a waltz for the final version.

The Sherman brothers wrote 32 songs in all for the Poppins project though less than half, 14 actually, made it into the final version of the picture. Though not all were lost to history. Any good Disney fan knows nothing is ever thrown away. “The Land of Sand” was a piece written for a sequence in the film that would take the children on a tour around the world thanks to a magical compass. A few years later when Disney needed a song for Kaa in the Jungle Book, the Sherman Brothers resurrected “The Land of Sand” in the form of “Trust in Me.”

During development of the movie, it became clear to the Sherman Brothers that though they had worked on so many songs for Mary Poppins, Walt didn’t have a guarantee of the rights to the movie from PL Travers. They feared that all of their countless hours of work and creation would be in vain. Walt assured the boys that he had another project up his sleeve in case Mary Poppins didn’t work out in Bedknobs and Broomsticks and many of their pieces could be reworked for that film. Though Walt did eventually get the rights to Mary Poppins, he still proceeded with Bedknobs and Broomsticks a few years later. The song “The Beautiful Briny” that appeared in Bedknobs and Broomsticks was another Sherman brothers creation originally intended for the lost Magical Compass sequence of Mary Poppins.

When the film finished production every member of the crew requested a copy of the soundtrack. Sales for the cast album went gold in just 13 weeks. It was #1 on the charts for 16 weeks, and a best seller for more than a year. The film itself  won 5 oscars in 1965 including Best Song for “Chim Chim Cheree.”

Julie Andrews, famously won both the Oscar for best actress, but possibly more famously, the Golden Globe. Julie Andrews had risen to stardom in My Fair Lady on Broadway, but was passed up to play the role on screen in favor of Audrey Hepburn, who had to have Marni Nixon voice the songs for her. She was disappointed not to be able to play the role that had made her famous but the decision by Jack Warner of Warner Bros. to pass on Julie Andrews freed her up to be able to play Mary Poppins. When she won the Golden Globe in her now famous acceptance speech she thanked the man who made a wonderful movie and made it possible for her to win the Golden Globe, one Jack Warner.

Mary Poppins was the top grossing film of 1965 beating out The Sound of Music, Goldfinger, and My Fair Lady and held the title of Disney’s highest grossing film of all time for 20 years. This was in a time when tickets cost $1.75. When adjusted for today’s ticket value it still grosses higher than the likes of Finding Nemo and The Lion King.

Through history there have been well over 200 recordings of Mary Poppins songs by other artists, multiple releases of the soundtrack including in other languages besides English, and the film led to a popular broadway musical, the movie Saving Mr. Banks, and now after more than 50 years, a sequel. Music from Mary Poppins has been heard through the years in the parks in fireworks shows such as Fantasy in the Sky, the magic kingdom entrance area music, Mickey’s Soundsational Parade, The Jolly Holiday Bakery Cafe area music, and countless other places.

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