The Stars of Stage and Screen: Song #37/250: Feed the Birds from the Original West End Cast Recording of the Musical Mary Poppins

Do you know the story of Mary Poppins? I don’t mean do you know the plot of the 1964 Walt Disney version starring Julie Andrews in the lead. I mean, do you know the origin story of the flying nanny? Who was Mary Poppins based upon in real life? Are you aware of how her story went from book series to movie to musical and back to a movie about a movie, again? Is it news to you that the author of the Mary Poppins books disliked Walt Disney? Well, she did. In fact, by the time I am finished peeling back all the layers of this story you are going to need to sit down and rest for a while. The story of Mary Poppins is one wild ride that all begins in a lawyer’s office with the reading of author P.L. Travers’s will. Buckle up!

When I set out to begin my research for this post about the musical Mary Poppins, I thought it was going to be fairly standard stuff. Boy, was I in for a surprise! I was barely a paragraph in on my first article when I came across the news that securing the rights to adapt the story of Mary Poppins for the stage was fraught with difficulty because of stipulations in the Last Will and Testament of author P.L. Travers that forbade any new productions from employing Americans and/or anyone associated with the 1964 Disney movie. Wait…what?! My immediate question was what did Ms. Travers have against Americans that she would ban an entire nation? As I sought the answer to that question, I ended up going down a rabbit hole of epic proportions. As I think back upon it now, I am reminded of a scene in the movie All The President’s Men (about the Watergate scandal) when reporter Bob Woodward of the Washington Post is questioning his inside source code named Deepthroat about who in the Nixon Whitehouse he should talk to next. Deepthroat replied by saying, “This goes everywhere and involves everybody”. The story of Mary Poppins is like that, too.

Helen Lyndon Goff aka Pamela Lyndon Travers aka P. L. Travers

In order to present this tale in the most coherent fashion possible, let’s start at the very beginning, before there ever was a Mary Poppins. The character known as Mary Poppins first came to the attention of the world through a series of children’s books written by a woman who went by the name Pamela Lyndon Travers or P. L., for short. That turned out to be a pen name that she used for privacy reasons. Her real name was Helen Lyndon Goff. Ms. Goff was born in Queensland, Australia. Her mother was a direct relation of the former Premier of Queensland. *(I have seen her referred to as his niece and also as his sister). Her father, on the other hand, was a failed banker who suffered from alcoholism and died while she was in her teens. Throughout her childhood, Helen Goff was often left to her own devices, so she whiled away the hours reading copious amounts of books, writing poetry and short stories and playing games that showed a vivid sense of imagination. After her father’s death, Goff began participating in plays and became a published poet, too. In her early twenties, she joined a traveling theatre troupe and toured New Zealand. It was at this time that she adopted her pen name. She picked Travers for her last name because it was her father’s first name. She opted for Pamela because she thought it was pretty. The middle name of Lyndon she kept as a means of retaining touch with her legal identity. Eventually, P. L. Travers moved to England where she continued to publish her poetry and write for several newspapers and magazines. During her time in London, Travers became acquainted with people such as the poet W. B. Yeats and the philosopher Carl Jung. It was also during this time that she published her first of eight Mary Poppins books. In interviews, Travers was quoted as admitting that the character of Mary Poppins was based upon her Great Aunt Helen Moorehead from Australia. Because of how busy her parents both were with their adult lives, young Helen Goff spent much of her childhood in the care of her Great Aunt Helen, who was her namesake. In those same interviews, Travers was always quick to paint a rather bucolic portrait of her childhood years and was very protective of her family members, especially when it came to her father’s reputation.

Walt Disney circa early 1960s ** I.V.

P. L. Travers published her first Mary Poppins book in 1934. A second soon followed in 1935. By 1940, both books were beloved the world over. Two children who loved hearing all about the adventures of the flying nanny were the daughters of a man named Walt Disney. Like many good parents, Walt Disney found time to read aloud to his children. The Mary Poppins books were among their favourite stories. Being fully aware of what their father did for a living, his girls asked him if, one day, he would turn the Mary Poppins books into a movie for them. Walt Disney promised that he would see what he could do. For the next twenty years, Walt Disney met with P. L. Travers in an attempt to acquire the movie rights to her book series. When he first decided to pursue this idea, he figured it would be a business negotiation like all previous negotiations before it. How wrong he turned out to be. In reality, P. L. Travers was fiercely protective of her stories and the characters within. She did not trust Walt Disney to be able to translate her vision onto a movie screen. She was afraid he would alter the characters, add in animation and create a musical score that would change the tone of how her characters appeared in her head and in her heart. Walt Disney entered negotiations thinking it would be all about money and financial considerations. What he discovered as the process unfolded was that the negotiations were all about trust and about Travers protecting the story of her childhood life (which was what the Mary Poppins stories were all about).

Poster for the 1964 Disney movie Mary Poppins starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke.

As part of the two-decades-long courtship of P.L. Travers by Walt Disney, Mr. Disney traveled to London to meet with her at her home. He also had her flown to Hollywood in First Class so that she could meet him at the Disney Studios and get to see how a movie of her book would be produced and who might be involved in such a production. Because he was so invested in acquiring the movie rights, Walt Disney granted Travers unprecedented access to his studio. She was present for all pre-production meetings, including those with the Sherman Brothers who would go on to write the classic musical soundtrack that included such gems as “A Spoonful of Sugar”, “Chim Chim Cher-ee”, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and the subject of today’s post, “Feed the BIrds”. Everyone at Disney Studios found P. L. Travers to be extremely difficult to work with. She objected to almost every aspect of the script. She particularly objected to how Walt Disney was attempting to portray her father. However, Walt Disney had one big advantage in these negotiations and that was the luxury of time. P. L. Travers, on the other hand, had a finite amount of income and could not afford to remain in Hollywood battling Disney executives and underlings, day in and day out. She needed to get back to work and earn her own income again. Eventually, Walt Disney made his final offer for the rights to her books. P. L. Travers felt as though she had no choice, so she finally agreed. With her signature in hand, Walt Disney no longer required her approval for any aspect of the movie. He hired the actors he desired. He commissioned the songs he felt fit best. Finally, he added in a few scenes that included animation because he felt it helped bring the story to life in a magical way. So frustrated was he with P. L. Travers that he did not even extend an invitation to her so that she could attend the Hollywood premiere of Mary Poppins in 1964.

So, flash forward to the year 2000 and place yourself in the shoes of producer Cameron Mackintosh. He is a British producer of musicals for the West End theatres in London. He was given the task of approaching P. L. Travers to see if she would sell the rights to her books so that a musical adaptation could be created. After her negative experience with Walt Disney, P. L. Travers had a lot of stipulations to set out before she would consider any agreement to sell the rights to mount a stage production to Mackintosh. Foremost among those were that no Americans were to be involved, and especially no one who had been involved in making the 1964 movie that she so disliked. Cameron Mackintosh was able to score one key triumph for the proposed stage adaptation, and that was that Travers agreed to allow him to reuse the songs from the film score. As a result, the Sherman Brothers (who write the Disney songs) are credited with being co-creators of the West End musical score for the stage version of Mary Poppins. One of the reasons that the Sherman Brothers’ music was allowed to remain had to do with one particular song from the movie, called “Feed the BIrds”. While not the most popular song to be included on the original movie soundtrack, “Feed the Birds” was viewed as actually being the key reason that P. L. Travers agreed to sell the movie rights to Walt Disney in the first place.

The Sherman Brothers: Robert and Richard. They wrote the songs for the 1964 movie including “Feed the Birds”.

“Feed the Birds” is a song written by the Sherman Brothers for the film Mary Poppins. It is a song that appears four times throughout the movie and was used to set a more serious tone for the scenes in which it was included. Without going into the details of all four scenes, what is important to note is that we are introduced to the song by Mary Poppins and shown images of a beggar woman in Trafalgar Square who is selling bird seed to tourists so they can feed the pigeons who are found there. When Mary Poppins sings the song, the images are magical and filled with warmth. However, in a pivotal scene later on in the movie, the father, Mr. Banks, is seen walking through the same square on his way to a meeting at the bank, at which time he will be fired from his job. There is no joy in the scene with Mr. Banks. This was such an emotional song for P. L. Travers. It helped her to decide to trust Walt Disney enough to sell him the movie rights to her books. In her mind, with this song Mr. Disney had proven that he finally understood that her books were more than just fodder for movie scripts and were actually stories from her own life. The closing scene in which “Feed the Birds” is used isolates the father, Mr. Banks, illustrating how his life could have been different if he had invested more time in “feeding his own birds”, which Travers understood from the song to be his own children. In her heart, she knew that the Sherman Brothers were speaking directly about her and her childhood and how her life could have been different with greater attention afforded her and her siblings from her father. Perhaps he could have even remained alive and not been consumed by the stresses that led to his losing battle with alcohol. “Feed the Birds” was the one song that P. L. Travers approved of. It helped to get the Disney film made, and it helped get the West End musical made, too.

The final chapter of this story took place in 2013. Disney Studios knew that the 40th anniversary of the movie Mary Poppins was approaching. They also knew that the story behind how the movie came to be was an extraordinary one. So, a movie was made about how the original movie came to be made. This new movie was called Saving Mr. Banks. The movie starred Emma Thompson as P. L. Travers and Tom Hanks as Walt Disney. Jason Schwartzman and B. J. Novak starred as the Sherman Brothers. Emma Thompson was nominated for an Academy Award for her work in this movie. Unlike the real P. L. Travers, she was even invited to attend the film’s Hollywood premiere.

The original book in the Mary Poppins book series with Great Aunt Helen Moorehead aka Mary Poppins on the cover.

One of the very first pieces of advice given to new writers is to write about what you know. Helen Goff wrote under an assumed name in order to protect the integrity and privacy of those family members she wrote about, especially her father, whom she adored in spite of his alcoholism. To P. L. Travers, the Mary Poppins books were never just stories to her. They were semi-autobiographical chapters from her own life. Consequently, it is to be expected that she would be protective of them and cautious when it came to placing them in the hands of strangers to her life. For others, such as Walt Disney, her stories were a commodity to be purchased, repackaged and sold to generations of consumers for whom Mary Poppins has no emotional attachment. That is how show business works. It isn’t wrong. It is just how it is. I still view Walt Disney as a man of principle. I appreciate how he came to understand P. L. Travers’ point of view by including a song like “Feed the BIrds” that spoke to her heart. To me, it showed that he understood that the world of commerce from which he operated his business was built upon a foundation of creativity that came straight from the hearts of those who create…including himself. Creativity is an exercise in personal passion. Walt Disney understood that. So did P. L. Travers. My parting thought today to all of you is that I know real life can get busy at times, but always make room in your world to feed the birds in your life. In the end, nothing is more important than that.

The link to the video for the song “Feed the Birds” from the Original Cast Recording of the Musical Mary Poppins can be found here. ***The lyrics version (from the movie) can be found here.

The link to the video for the trailer for the movie Mary Poppins can be found here.

The link to the video for the trailer for the musical Mary Poppins can be found here.

The link to the video for the trailer for the movie Saving Mr. Banks can be found here.

The link to the official website for P. L. Travers can be found here.

The link to the official website for Walt Disney can be found here.

The link to purchase your own copy of any book from the Mary Poppins book series can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

Her mother, Margaret Agnes Goff (née Morehead), was Australian and the niece of Boyd Dunlop Morehead, Premier of Queensland from 1888 to 1890.[

Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #17/50: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas

In today’s post we are going to talk about the classic tale of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. For many of you, when I mention this story title, you are probably taken back to that famous segment of Walt Disney’s film, Fantasia, which stars Mickey Mouse as the apprentice who wages a losing battle against some magical mops because he had used a magic spell to get his work done instead of doing the work himself. If this is the image that you have then congratulations because what Walt Disney ended up doing with Fantasia was very innovative and important. We will talk about that in greater detail below. But first, did you know that the story of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is over 225 years old?! In fact, there have been three major iterations of this story spread liberally over those two and a quarter centuries. Each iteration was unique to the others, each was revolutionary at the time of its debut and each was extremely well-received by critics and public audiences, too. So, let’s travel back in time to 1797 and to Germany, where the story of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice truly begins.

The original author of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

In 1797, one of the world’s great thinkers, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was busy writing and speaking on matters of philosophy, politics, literature, music, religion, botany and much more. Goethe’s ideas ended up becoming some of the foundational precepts that have guided the development of western civilization. His novels are listed among the most important and influential in history. He is revered as a mentor to famed philosophers such as Hegel, Schopenhauer, Neitzsche and Carl Jung. In the field of The Arts, Goethe was acknowledged as a master of literary criticism and review, as well as that of classical music compositions by the likes of Beethoven, Mozart and Mahler. Goethe was also a poet. In 1797, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a fourteen stanza poem entitled Dar Zauberlehrling. In English, we know the title as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

The apprentice casts his spell. Goethe version.

Goethe’s poem tells the tale of a sorcerer who leaves the cleaning of his workshop to his young apprentice. Before going, the sorcerer leaves strict instructions with the apprentice to not touch any of the magical equipment that was located throughout the workshop and, most importantly of all, not to open the sorcerer’s spellbook and say any spells out loud. The sorcerer leaves the apprentice to his chores and exits the workshop. The apprentice gets to work but soon tires of his chores. Seeking an easy way out of having to do his work, the apprentice disobeys the sorcerer by opening his spellbook to look for a spell that would cause magic to do the work for him. The apprentice discovers a spell that he thinks might work for him. He states the spell aloud. Before he knows it, the mop begins to work on its own but, in doing so, it works too quickly and makes an even bigger mess. The apprentice panics because he does not know how to undo the spell and so he attempts to break the mop in half in order to stop it. But, breaking the mop actually causes new mops to spring up from the broken pieces. Now there are multiple mops all working frantically, much to the chagrin of the apprentice. In despair, the apprentice cries aloud for help. His cries are heard by the sorcerer who was returning to his shop. The sorcerer is able to stop the mops, undo the spell and save his workshop from further damage. The apprentice learns a valuable lesson in the process which is that if you want a job done well then do it right the first time. The life lesson contained in Dar Zauberlehrling resonated with German audiences who recognized that Goethe was using his poem to set out some rules for living a good and honourable life. This particular lesson spoke to the industrious nature of the German people and, as such this poem and the lesson it contained quickly became part of the fabric of German society.

The symphonic poem created by French composer, Paul Dukas, as seen in a version played in later years by The New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

For 100 years, Dar Zauberlehrling by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was the definitive version that the world knew. But then, someone gazed upon this story with new eyes and came up with a completely original take on Goethe’s classic tale. In 1897, a French composer named Paul Dukas began creating works that he called “symphonic poems”. In simple terms, what Dukas decided to do was to create a musical score to accompany famous poems, speeches and dramatic scenes from plays. In this instance, he created a short symphony in which his notes and chords acted as the words of the poem. His music told the story of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in dramatic crescendos and quiet lulls. Dukas created a libretto to go with his symphony. *(A libretto was like a theatrical programme or small book that was given to audience members. For The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Dukas wrote out the words to Goethe’s poem so that audience members could follow the “action” and understand why his music rose and fell as it did). While the scoring of written works was not originated by Dukas, his version of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was a huge hit and became the gold standard by which other musical scores were measured. In fact, the score for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice became the most popular work that Paul Dukas managed in his lifetime.

Mickey Mouse as the apprentice who casts his own unfortunate spell from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, as seen in the Walt Disney movie, Fantasia.

Fast forward to the 1930s. Walt Disney was at the forefront of a new technology called movie animation. Instead of using film in the traditional way that was used in Hollywood, Disney and his team of animators had perfected a way of turning thousands of drawings or cells into a form of moving picture as well. In the late 1920s, Disney unveiled one of the first animated short features in the world. It was called “Steamboat Willie” and featured a character that came to be known as Mickey Mouse. Disney’s innovation struck a chord with the general public. Encouraged by the positive reception “Steamboat Willie” had, Disney and his team decided to reach higher and to go further than any animator had ever done before. This resulted in full length animated movies such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, along with Sleeping Beauty. When audiences saw these new movies, Mickey Mouse drifted into the background in terms of popularity. But Walt Disney was a loyal man and had a soft spot in his heart for the character that allowed his creative dreams to come true. So, Disney decided to create something original as a vehicle to rejuvenate Mickey Mouse’s image. The idea that Walt Disney had was to create a short movie that would be part of a series called “Silly Symphonies”. In this short movie, Disney decided to attempt something that hadn’t been done before…he wanted to pair animation with established pieces of classical music. For Mickey Mouse’s short movie, Walt Disney chose the Paul Dukas score of Goethe’s story of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. As the animation was filmed, the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra played the Dukas score. Soon, the fully scored, animated short movie that became known as Walt Disney’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice was complete. The only problem was that by the time they were finished, Disney was over budget. Way over budget. He was informed by his accountants that there was no way he would ever recoup his investment because the audience for short films was dwindling. Disney’s success with Snow White had changed viewing habits. Audiences now expected longer, more detailed stories. Cursed by his own success, Walt Disney had two choices: abandon “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” or else, use it as part of something longer…something more in keeping with a full length movie. As we know, Walt Disney stuck to his creative guns and, instead of placing his short film in a warehouse to be forgotten, he went ahead and created eight other “Silly Symphonies’ using the same animators and same orchestra. With nine animated scores finished, Walt Disney assembled them all in one unified movie and called it Fantasia.

Walt Disney and the animated character that started it all…Mickey Mouse.

Fantasia was a huge hit with critics and modern audiences alike. It remains one of Disney’s most popular movies even to this day. There are two reasons why Fantasia has come to be regarded as one of Walt Disney’s most important and innovative films. First of all, he accomplished a very important thing by taking classical music out of the concert hall and introducing it to a mass audience who, otherwise would probably never have been exposed to the works of Igor Stravinsky, Johann Sebastian Bach, Tchaikovsky and so on. Secondly, Fantasia caused Mickey Mouse to become a popular character again. In doing so, Mickey Mouse became the “face” of Walt Disney’s world which he envisioned as being much more than simply a movie animation studio. Because of the popularity of Mickey Mouse, Disney World came to be built, whole lines of merchandise were created and sold and much, much more.

The man, himself, Paul Dukas.

Our world is made better because of people with a positive creative vision. All throughout its history, the story of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice has resonated in a way that few stories have. It was first a poem that was used to instill proper human virtues for living a good and proper life. Then, that lesson was taken further a century later by marrying a musical score with a literary work. Half a century after that, the idea was taken a final step further when a literary work with a musical score was provided with animated visuals to aid in the telling of the story. So, read The Sorcerer’s Apprentice as a poem, listen to it as a symphony or watch it as an animated film. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Paul Dukas and Walt Disney have all brought their own brand of genius to bear and we are all the better for it.

The link to the video for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, as it appears in the movie, Fantasia, can be found in two parts, here and here.

The link to the official movie trailer for the original 1940 version of Fantasia can be found here.

The link to the official website for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe can be found here.

The link to the official website for Paul Dukas can be found here.

The link to the official website for Walt Disney can be found here.

The link to the classical music station that streams live to the world from my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario, Canada….Classical 103.1 FM….can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post should be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022