On Tuesday night, I spoke for a few people over at Bookworks about Mary Poppins. I had been invited to give a talk about the differences between the book, the movie and the musical. The fun of it for me was exploring beforehand how different the three storytelling forms are.
I borrowed heavily from my early classes at UNM with the late Digby Wolfe. One of his favorite questions was “Whose story is this?” In books, that’s not always an easy question to answer, but it’s essential for drama.
Digby taught us to look for the character with the most at stake, the most to gain or lose. Given that measure, it’s hard to know from the Mary Poppins books who has the most at stake because they are chapter books, episodic in nature. Each chapter is a self-contained unit, like sitcoms in the old days. The only things that carry forward are the main characters and the general setting.
The characters that move forward are Mary and the Banks children. Each episode carries a lesson, but there’s little specifically to be gained or lost by Mary or the children.
When Walt Disney finally convinced the author, P. L. Travers, to allow him to adapt the books into a movie, his writers understood that there needed to be more of a through line. They settled on a character not easily found in the books: George Banks, the children’s father.
George has a lot to learn about raising children and Mary provides the example. She takes his children on adventures all over town — indeed, all over the world — by way of her magic, each adventure a lesson in life.
When the movie was transferred to the stage a few years ago, script writer Julian Fellowes apparently liked what Disney did because he expanded on that notion. George is very much the character with the most at stake.
Of course you can’t lose Mary Poppins in all this. She’s the woman on the marquee. One clever way the stage adapters found to neatly split that focus is through song.
In musicals, you have either an “I want” song or an “I am” song for your central character. When a character stands up and says “This is what I want,” or “This is who I am,” you know instantly who the story is about and what’s at stake. For Mary Poppins, George sings an “I want” song early on, “Cherry Tree Lane.” In it, he asks for “precision and order” in his household so he can reign as “sovereign of Cherry Tree Lane.” (You should know that sometimes characters ask for the opposite of what they really want in an “I want” song.)
A few minutes later, Mary Poppins declares that she is “Practically Perfect.” She’s singing an “I am” song.
As I finished making that point Tuesday night, I saw the “Aha!” faces in the group. The character with the most at stake sings the “I want” song. The character who can deliver it, if indirectly, sings the “I am” song. Very clever.
Of course I was asked to speak at Bookworks because the musical arrives in Popejoy Hall June 20. The books are available at Booksworks right now. That means you can make all these comparisons on your own.
Terry S. Davis