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Like Mary Poppins, Disney composer's story defies belief

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The road to Mary Poppins and Broadway began over 50 years ago with a little pop song by Robert and Richard Sherman called "Tall Paul." The cuddliest Mouseketeer, Annette, recorded it and it became her first hit. So when Walt Disney began elevating his protégée to TV and movie stardom, the brothers were asked to write a song for Annette to sing in a two-part movie, The Horsemasters.

"We jumped at the chance, of course," says the younger brother, Richard, 82. "We played the song for the head of the music department there, and he said, 'Great, Walt's got to hear it.' We said, 'Walt who?' He said, 'Well, Walt Disney, of course!'"

They couldn't believe it. First day on the lot, and they were ushered into Disney's office. There was a little bit of confusion as Walt began telling them the story line of the film that would eventually become The Parent Trap. The brothers finally had the courage to interrupt Disney and tell him why they were there.

"So why did you let me go on like this?" Disney demanded.

"We didn't want to say, Because you're an icon!" Sherman remembers. "So we said, 'Would you like to hear what we've written?'"

Time spent spinning the Parent Trap scenario wasn't a waste, since the brothers wound up contributing three songs to that project as well. They continued writing tailor-made goods — for Zorro and such — until another fateful visit to Disney's office when the brothers received a book from the master's hands: P.L. Travers' Mary Poppins. Disney asked the brothers to have a look and tell him what they thought.

Dipping into the story of the magical nanny, they realized they were looking at the chance of a lifetime. Weaving together six chapters from the first book of the eight-volume series, they came up with a provisional scenario for a film adaptation to go along with a half-dozen song samples. They managed to get a half-hour appointment to make their enthusiastic pitch — armed with "Jolly Holiday," "Feed the Birds," and the bodacious "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious."

It was "Feed the Birds" that convinced Disney that the Shermans had grasped the essence of the story. But they also had the arc. For Disney took another copy of Mary Poppins down from his bookshelf and showed the Shermans the table of contents.

"He had underlined the very same six chapters in that book that we had underlined!"

The next thing Walt handed them was a pair of contracts welcoming the Shermans aboard as Disney's staff songwriters.

Writers Don Da Gradi and Bill Walsh rounded out the quintet of artists who re-imagined Mary Poppins for the screen and won the Shermans two pairs of Oscars, for Best Song ("Chim Chim Cher-ee") and Best Score. A new generation of giants helped the prim umbrella flier make the move from film to stage, beginning with producers Cameron Mackintosh and Thomas Schumacher. Composers George Stiles and Anthony Drewe fulfilled Mackintosh's dictate to adhere to the English music-hall style of the Shermans, and choreographers Matthew Bourne and Stephen Mear had the visual mojo to bring us fresh wonders so that we don't miss the animation. Adding sinew to the script was Julian Fellowes, who added new stories to the familiar mix.

Of course, there's always Mary.

"Caroline Sheen, the girl who plays Mary Poppins, is just wonderful," Sherman enthuses. "She's English, absolutely right-on. This is just a fabulous touring show."

(Mary Poppins will be presented Aug. 25-Sept. 19 at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. Details at www.blumenthalcenter.org.)

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