BBC News


Page last updated at 17:17 GMT, Friday, 23 January 2009

Mary Poppins - a tale for our times

Mary Poppins on stage


The tale of the twinkly-eyed nanny is suddenly topical - because the father is a banker suspicious of a money-making scheme that's too good to be true, says Harold Evans.

Who'd have thought that an English nanny with a sharp tongue could have a message in these glum times for all the grown-ups?

Mary Poppins film
Suddenly this tale seems more timely

I'm talking about Mary Poppins, whose magical umbrella landed her on Broadway at the end of 2006 just in time to see the clever people on Wall Street slip on multiple banana skins.

The sweet Disney musical is still running - my 18-year-old daughter and 22-year-old son loved it and so did we - but only now is anyone noticing that the period piece fable set a hundred years ago is grimly relevant to our troubled times.

I know the majority of the folk filling the seats on Broadway didn't buy their Mary Poppins seats at $121 a ticket because they were thirsting for a political seminar, but they'll get it in the musical's incidental moral tale of Mr George Banks, the exceedingly bourgeois bowler-hatted father of Mary Poppins' charges, Michael and Jane.

Mr Banks, if I may remind you, was suspended from his banking job because he upset the owners by showing the door to a man who had a too-clever scheme to make millions.

Harold Evans

Mr Von Hussler may now be seen as a representative of the people in what used to be laughingly called high finance

When Mr Banks is summoned back a few months into his suspension by the elderly gnomes who own the bank, he's expecting to get the chop. Instead, he's embraced as a hero because the rejected client took his scheme to competitors and, to the joy of the gnomes, the scheme ruined them.

Mr Von Hussler, to give the rogue his name, may now be seen as a prophetic representative of the people in what used to be laughingly called high finance who've brought so much misery today with their wretched derivatives, sub-primes and credit default swaps.

Man holding a sign saying "Bernie, it's not too late to do the right thing - JUMP"
A bystander makes his feelings about Bernard Madoff known

Rocco Landesman, the president of the third largest theatre group, tells me several Broadway investors have lost millions that could well have gone into original musicals but won't - thanks to the machinations of just one notorious investment manager, Bernard Madoff, the man with an enigmatic Mona Lisa smile whose trick was to make $50 billion disappear. Von Hussler , Madoff - what is it with these names? Watch out next for Mrs Ripoff.

Falling curtains

That Mary Poppins has suddenly acquired such vivid topicality - a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious topicality - is not good news for anyone else on Broadway where the lights have gone out in theatre after theatre.

Hairspray on Broadway
One of Broadway's victims of the credit crunch...

In a single week at the beginning of January, no fewer than nine productions ran down the curtain for the last time. This period always marks Broadway's winter of discontent. It's heavily dependent on tourists from within and outside the US, and they stay at home risking brain death from watching reality shows on television.

But this year some productions that were expected to run like the well-reviewed musical Gypsy - "one of the best musicals ever written" - have been pulled. The musical 13, shuttered a week ago, only opened last autumn.

Only 20 shows are running on Broadway as I speak, compared with 36 in London's West End. Some fear there will be dark theatres in the spring.

The critic John Heilpern blames the empty seats on theatre managements.

"Broadway must be the only industry in America that hasn't noticed the country is in an economic crisis. They've even got the chutzpah to increase ticket prices."

Young Frakenstein
... and another one

I certainly have to think twice before taking the family to a show they may hate at a cost of $500, and think a third time if I want to avoid the common affliction of leg cramp scrunched up in a typical Broadway seat constructed in the 1920s, and since I am asked to pay an extra $17 to $25 for an aisle seat.

Producers and theatre managements in turn point to the huge risks they take. Three quarters of all musicals lose their backers' money because producers and designers want to excite with lavish costumes, sets and stars, knowing that if they don't the critics will pan them. And managements and producers in turn blame the unions for the costs of rules they impose while drawing as much as $100,000 to $200,000 a year during production.


Whoever you care to blame, the cupboard is certainly looking very bare for the kind of original razzle-dazzle productions of Broadway mythology.

The original showbiz capital of the world!
The bright light of America's cultural identity!
The beacon of optimism!

Spring Awakening closes
... and another one

The address where you can feel the buoyancy of America, see the American dream of 42nd Street come true before your eyes in dance, song and spectacle.

Well, not quite. More of the effort these days is going into revivals and what's making box office music are the imports from Britain. Broadway's top earner is Billy Elliott.

Would you have put savings into asking Americans to pay $136 for a ticket to see striking coal miners dancing in Mrs Thatcher's Britain and exchanging jokes in Geordie-speak?

You'd have done well, since Billy is earning more than a million dollars a week. The US has been so eager for a laugh it has even succumbed to what the critic John Heilpern calls that "noble irresistible British tradition known as Bedroom Farce".

When the retro farce Boeing-Boeing came to Broadway in 1965, it lasted only 23 performances. This time rave reviews by Heilpern and others for the revival and its star Mark Rylance - again, both imported from England - encouraged Puritan America to explore its own appetite for sex and silliness. I'm glad to say Boeing-Boeing seduced enough Americans to pay its way.

Familiar faces

For John Lahr, the theatre critic of the New Yorker, the shuttered theatres are all too reminiscent of what happened after the stock market crash of 1929. A record number of productions were running then - 264 - but by 1934, the number had halved.

Theatre in Bath
Everybody squeeze in

Talent went west to make the new talking pictures and create a rival to Broadway. But Lahr is less concerned about the number of shows than what gets on during hard times.

"People will want to be distracted. Nobody ever went broke selling forgetfulness."

Mary Poppins would say cheerfully it is the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down - in the most delightful way - but Lahr fears the serious dramas that address cultural issues in US society will not be staged.

"London theatre is healthier than New York because it is more closely connected to the culture, has succumbed less to corporate blandness."

I'd bow to nobody in my respect for British originality in the likes of Tom Stoppard, David Hare and Stephen Daldry, but Britain of course has the huge advantage over America's commercial theatre in the stimulus for creativity writers and producers get in state-supported theatre at the National, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Court. Cherish them!

Since original all-American musicals are not likely to come back soon, Broadway has been turning to straight plays that are a lot cheaper. Traditionally they're a harder sell, so the big hope is that populating them with faces and voices people have got used on television and in movies will make the difference.

There's excitement about what the Sopranos boss James Gandolfini and movie star Geoffrey Rush can do for two French plays being brought to New York by Britain's Robert Fox.

Jeremy Piven at the Golden Globes
Jeremy Piven soldiers on

Drawing on electronic star power is a reverse of the east-west migration that happened in the 30s, but that, too, has its risks. Fellow actors, producers and stage hands would like to get their hands on the windpipe of Jeremy Piven, who plays the fast-talking agent in the hit TV show Entourage. He was brought from Los Angeles to New York to play in a revival of David Mamet's Speed the Plow from October to February.

Only he didn't. He walked out of the play this month, saying his doctor had told him his exhaustion was due to eating a lot of sushi. It had given him mercury poisoning.

The gossip columnists have had a field day tracking the unexhausted Piven at bars on the Lower East Side. Writs are flying. Better than that, Mamet is writing dialogue for the unfolding news story. "My understanding" he says of Piven, "is that he is leaving show business to pursue a career as a thermometer."

Below is a selection of your comments.

Even more apposite was Little Dorrit. How many others saw the similarities between Mr Merdle and Bernard Madoff and their schemes to get rich quick? Surely it was only a coincidence that these scenes were playing out on the box at the same time as the real life scandal was exposed?
Jim Owers, Shanklin, UK

Wrong. Mr Banks was fired because when he took Jane and Michael to work with him, his employer Mr Dawes took Michael's money and would not give it back. This led Michael to shout "Give me back my money" at the top of his voice repeatedly. Other customers heard this and demanded their money back too. The bank had to close all of its cashiers due to the panic and Mr Banks was dismissed. However, when he was fired he told Mr Dawes a joke. This made him laugh so much that he died laughing. And because of the happiness he caused, Mr Banks got his job back.
Sarah McAvoy, Bournemouth

Mary Poppins made the same points when it appeared as a Disney movie - one of Disney's most right-on productions - nearly 50 years ago, with strong references to the women's movement as well as comments on social inequity and financial greed. Lots of people watched it; it's a shame that few adults paid any attention to what they probably saw as silly fiction for kids. Since then Disney has probably lost the plot a bit.
Jimbob, Newport

Y'know it's so bizarre, I was just watching Mary Poppins last night after buying it on DVD on the cheap from Zavvi (ironically), and I said the exact same thing about how the bank scene seems quite a reflection of the current time.
Andrew Moore, Belfast

Another musical that serves as a tale for our times is Blood Brothers; one of the songs, Sign Of The Times, talks about "early retirement, for those surplus to requirement."
Connor Sephton, Skelmersdale

Tupence. Take a look at Gurdjieff, who influenced the author of Mary Poppins. He has rather a lot too say about money.
Richard Oakes, London

I am a frequent theatre goer and loved the information I obtained from this story. I had not wished to see Mary Poppins but now shall do so, if I get a discounted ticket. (That is the only way I could afford to see a show).
Radhini, Demarest, US

I agree that ticket prices are way too high. We are only an hour's drive away from the city and would see lots more shows if ticket prices were around the 60 or 70 dollar mark. At the end of the day as someone once said, "it's all about bums on seats laddie".
Gary Welsby, Coram, New York, US

Too much sushi. The life of the petit bourgeoisie never fails to amaze me. Poor people get lead poisoning from things like leaded gasoline and lead in paint.
Peter Ramsey, Canada

This suggests that state funding is one of the solutions - "... but Britain of course has the huge advantage over America's commercial theatre in the stimulus for creativity writers and producers get in state-supported theatre at the National, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Court. Cherish them!"

Perhaps. But how does that explain the quality television drama and comedy that American produces and which is imported by Britain? Their writers did not hone their skills in taxpayer-supported jobs. In fact, one might even says that such support is dangerous since it does not force writers to focus on what people are prepared to pay their own money to see.
Arneson Stidgeley, London

Perhaps if Broadway wasn't so profligate with its cash, maybe its greed wouldn't have led it to investment difficulties.
Amy Surplice, Drogheda, Ireland

Print Sponsor



Download or subscribe to this programme's podcast

Podcast Help

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2019 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific