This month has seen a resurgence of interest in The Sound of Music thanks to an impressive reissue of the film on Blu-Ray and another release of the classic film soundtrack on CD. Countless amounts of kids and adults have grown up on the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, made especially memorable by Julie Andrews as the free-spirited Maria Von Trapp - a role that earned her a second Oscar nomination, just one year after her win for Mary Poppins.
For this writer, it's Poppins that remains Andrews' most satisfying work, and it's the subject of this week's Friday Feature. Read on after the jump to learn about the movie and its winning music - a score sweeter than any spoonful of sugar.
Mary Poppins (1964) is well-known for a great many reasons. It was one of the last major projects from Walt Disney Pictures that Disney himself saw to completion. It made a movie star of young Julie Andrews and soundtrack stars out of Richard and Robert Sherman, who penned the whimsical songs for the film. It anticipated some of Disney's most special effects-laden projects, and introduced a venerable series of children's books by author P.L. Travers to a new generation of readers. Even the lower points of the movie - Dick Van Dyke's laughable attempt at a Cockney accent, for instance - are lovable. It's a Disney classic, through and through, and the making of it seemed to suggest that it was always fated to be.
Walt Disney loved to read the Mary Poppins series of books - about a prim and proper English nanny - to his two daughters and dreamed of making them into movies. He appealed to Travers many times, but was turned down over the course of two decades. She finally approved in 1961 on the condition that she get script approval rights; she did, although her stories were greatly changed for the screen. The somewhat stuck-up Poppins was not so "practically perfect in every way" on the page, but became that way when Andrews - passed over for the film version of My Fair Lady, a role she originated on Broadway - was cast as the nanny to the Banks children. Disney also changed the time of the story from the 1930s to Edwardian England, some two decades prior.
Travers was initially not happy with all the changes - she particularly disliked the animated sequences and initially suggested that the score consist of musical standards of the era - but it's safe to say Disney did alright with his ideas. Of course, he had help: in 1961, Travers met with co-writer Don Di Gradi and songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman to hash out the basic outline of the story for the Mary Poppins film. The Shermans, who'd been the only songwriters to have been hired to Disney's staff off the strength of tunes like "Let's Get Together" from The Parent Trap and the title tune to The Monkey's Uncle (sung by Annette Funicello with The Beach Boys!) - not to mention their killer songs from the Disneyland parks ("It's a Small World," "There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow") - played Travers many of the songs intended for Poppins. (Although many of them were cut from the film, they'd end up in other Disney projects, including The Jungle Book (1967) and Bedknobs & Broomsticks (1971).)
The core tunes that the Shermans wrote were all show-stoppers. "A Spoonful of Sugar" was the ideal musical introduction to the wit and magic of Mary Poppins. Andrews and Van Dyke had glistening chemistry on tunes like "Jolly Holiday" and the tongue-twisting "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious." Van Dyke himself shone as a singer and dancer on "Chim Chim Cher-ee" and "Step in Time," where he leads a chorus of chimney sweeps through a dance over the London rooftops. The crown jewel, though, has to be "Feed the Birds (Tuppence a Bag)," which Disney spent the remainder of his life proclaiming as his favorite song. Its simple, heartfelt melody and message were pure Disney, through and through, and it sounds good from the golden voice of Andrews, the soft strains of an orchestra and even, decades later, by Sherman himself, in tribute to Walt himself.
Mary Poppins was a smash hit, earning two Oscars for the Shermans (one for the score, one for "Chim Chim Cher-ee"), the special effects, the editing and Andrews' winning performance. (Ironically, she beat out Audrey Hepburn, who'd been picked for the lead in My Fair Lady!) The film was a hit with audiences, too, becoming the top money-maker of 1965. (Runners-up included not only My Fair Lady but Andrews' follow-up, The Sound of Music.)
The original soundtrack, a delightful vinyl affair, included almost every song from the film, many with new edits and orchestrations to place further emphasis on the vocal performances.
Various Artists, Mary Poppins: Original Cast Soundtrack (Buena Vista BV-4026/STER-4026 (U.S.)/His Master's Voice 1794 (U.K.), 1964)
- Overture - Orchestra and Chorus
- The Perfect Nanny - Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber
- Sister Suffragette - Glynis Johns
- The Life I Lead - David Tomlinson
- A Spoonful of Sugar - Julie Andrews
- Pavement Artist (Chim Chim Cher-ee) - Dick Van Dyke
- Jolly Holiday - Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke
- Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious - Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke with Pearlies
- Stay Awake - Julie Andrews
- I Love to Laugh - Ed Wynn, Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke
- A British Bank (The Life I Lead) - David Tomlinson and Julie Andrews
- Feed the Birds (Tuppence a Bag) - Julie Andrews with Chorus
- Fidelity Fiduciary Bank - "Navckid Keyd" and David Tomlinson with Bankers
- Chim Chim Cher-ee - Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber
- Step in Time (The Chimney Sweep Dance) - Dick Van Dyke with Chimney Sweeps
- A Man Has Dreams (The Life I Lead)/A Spoonful of Sugar - David Tomlinson and Dick Van Dyke
- Let's Go Fly a Kite - David Tomlinson and Dick Van Dyke with Londoners
The original LP was released on CD in 1987 (Buena Vista BV-5005) but was not a top seller. That could have easily been it for the music had it not been for the efforts of a department clerk in Walt Disney Records' product development branch named Randy Thornton. While checking through the vault of master tapes on-site, he had discovered a tape marked "Mary Poppins Pre-Demo," which consisted of versions of the famed songs (plus a few unheard melodies) played on piano and sung by The Sherman Brothers.
It turns out that Thornton had found something nobody had known to exist - even the brothers themselves assumed it lost - and soon production was underway for a remixed, remastered and expanded release of Mary Poppins. That disc (Walt Disney Records CD-016, 1989) properly resequenced the soundtrack, moving "The Perfect Nanny" to the fourth track, after "The Life I Lead." It also included 16 minutes of reminiscences from The Sherman Brothers alongside excerpts of those demo reels. It was again released in 1997 (Walt Disney Records 60615-7); this reissue also expanded the running time of the "Step in Time" sequence to better reflect the film version.
In 2000, after Thornton had extensively restored a 17-hour interview with Disney for a project the company was working on, Richard Sherman presented him with another opportunity for restoration: reels of 1/4" tapes containing the aforementioned original story meetings between Travers, the Shermans and Di Gradi! To time with the 40th anniversary of the film and a resultant deluxe edition of the film on DVD, Thornton again produced a stellar Poppins set that reinstated the original score elements (orchestrated by the legendary Irwin Kostal) alongside a bonus disc of those story meetings. That disc also featured a fascinating vintage interview with Andrews, Van Dyke, The Shermans and Kostal and closed with the original demo reels as presented on the 1989 reissue.
This edition is required listening to not only fans of Mary Poppins, but of Disney in general. The words on this page are one thing; listening to this set with all its bonus trimmings will convince you that this is still one of the crowning achievements of all who were involved.
Disc 1: Original soundtrack and score
- Buena Vista Fanfare *
- One Man Band *
- Sister Suffragette
- The Life I Lead
- The Perfect Nanny
- Air Mail/Admiral Boom/The Not-So-Perfect Nannies/Mary Poppins Arrives *
- A Spoonful of Sugar
- Pavement Artist **
- Jolly Holiday **
- Jolly Holiday (Reprise) *
- Penguin Dance *
- The Carousel Horses *
- Pavement Artist (Reprise) **
- Stay Awake
- Trouble at Uncle Albert's *
- I Love to Laugh
- A British Bank (The Life I Lead)
- Feed the Birds (Tuppence a Bag)
- Father's Footsteps *
- Fidelity Fiduciary Bank
- Panic at the Bank *
- Chim Chim Cher-ee/March Over the Rooftops **
- Step in Time
- A Man Has Dreams (The Life I Lead)/A Spoonful of Sugar
- Mr. Banks is Discharged *
- Let's Go Fly a Kite
Disc 2: Archival Material
- Cherry Tree Lane
- Mr. Banks Decided to Hire a Nanny Himself
- The Children Write Their Own Advertisement
- The Line of Applicants and Mary Poppins Arrives
- Notes on Mary Poppins Meeting The Banks
- Up to the Nursery
- Bert and the Talking Pictures
- A Carousel Ride to the Seashore
- The Return Home
- The Next Morning We Meet the Sweep
- Uncle Albert's
- A Change in the Wind and an Adventure with Admiral Boom
- The Bird Woman
- Mr. Banks and the Compass
- The Compass Sequence: Timbuktu
- The Compass Sequence: Land of Sand
- The Compass Sequence: Tea in China
- The Compass Sequence: The North Pole
- The Return Home
- Everyone Descends on Cherry Tree Lane
- Mary Departs
- Hollywood Spotlight Microphone
- The Sherman Brothers Reminisce
* denotes previously unreleased track. ** denotes track with previously unreleased material.
Tracks 1-21 are original story meetings conducted with P.L. Travers, Richard Sherman, Robert Sherman and Don DaGradi, 1961