The Music Of The Disney Classic

Ever since Julie Andrews flew into the lives of the Banks children aided solely by an umbrella, generations of children have fallen under her spell. Disney’s first live-action film, which told the story of a “practically perfect in every way” English nanny with magical powers, Mary Poppins, was an instant hit on its release in 1964, not least thanks to its unforgettable soundtrack.

The story of the film goes right back to the studio’s early days in 1934, when publisher Eugene Renal sent Walt Disney a hot off-the-press copy of PL Travers’s Mary Poppins with a note written inside the front cover reading, “To Walt Disney – Not another ‘Mickey’ but I think you should like our Mary.” It was a decade later, however, when Disney finally considered its potential as a feature film. Walt and his brother Roy launched a charm offensive in a bid to secure screen rights and, though Travers was initially resistant to the idea, they eventually succeeded.

Listen to the Mary Poppins soundtrack on Spotify or Apple Music.

In 1960, Disney gave Richard and Robert Sherman – the brothers who had written “It’s A Small World (After All)” for the 1964 World’s Fair – a copy of Mary Poppins and asked whether they thought it had potential as a musical. “We said it would make the greatest musical fantasy of all time,” Richard Sherman revealed in a 1993 joint Houston Chronicle interview with his brother. “So we underlined some chapters that we felt were really musical. And when we showed Walt our notes and played the song sketches, he pulled out his book, and he’d underlined the very same chapters.” Robert said it was, “one of the greatest feelings we’ve ever had.”

Still, the making of Mary Poppins was hardly plain sailing. In 1961, Travers visited Hollywood to approve a treatment – a short stay that formed the basis of Disney’s 2013 movie, Saving Mr. Banks, starring Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks. As Saving Mr. Banks reveals, Travers took umbrage with the screenplay and the use of music in general. In a 2013 interview with The Guardian, Richard Sherman recalled the authors’ initial reaction, “It turned out she was a walking icicle. She didn’t like anything we did… Showing her our ideas was like walking out of a hot shower and having cold water thrown all over you. Her opening line was that she didn’t see why she should meet us since she didn’t want music in the film. In the two weeks we spent with her, she managed to destroy all the dreams, hopes and love we had built up.”

Despite the impression Travers gave the Shermans, the author sent a thank you note to Disney’s writers after leaving the studios to return to London. Work continued apace and things came together quickly after that. Actor Dick Van Dyke, who played the chirpy cockney chimney sweep Bert, summed up the Sherman’s appeal in a 2012 interview with The LA Times, “As songwriters, they were a perfect combination. The emotion was Robert and the fun was Dick’s part. They were made by God for Walt Disney. They somehow managed to convey Walt’s meaning in those songs.”

Typical of their gift for finding magic in the everyday was the jaunty “A Spoonful Of Sugar.” The song comes about when Mary Poppins is teaching the Banks children, Jane and Michael, that chores – in this case, tidying their room – can be more enjoyable if they are turned into a game. The inspiration behind the song was revealed in 2020 when Jeffrey Sherman – the son of Robert – tweeted, “”When I was a kid we got the polio vaccine. My dad, working on Mary Poppins, asked how my day was. I told him about the vaccine. ‘Didn’t it hurt?’ I said they put it on a sugar cube and you ate it. He called my uncle Dick and the next day they wrote ‘A Spoonful Of Sugar’.”

Another perennial favorite is the tongue-twisting knees-up, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” sung by Mary Poppins and Bert. When the nanny wins a horse race and is surrounded by reporters, she suggests that only one word will do and launches into song. Richard Sherman told The Guardian it was inspired by a childhood game, “When we were young, [we had] a contest to find a word longer than antidisestablishmentarianism, the longest word in the dictionary. We came up with all sorts of crazy inventions, and were reminded of this when we wanted the Banks children to bring back a non-tangible souvenir from their fantasy adventures.” Though lexicologists claim the word had been around since the 1940s, its use in Mary Poppins popularized it, and it is now in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Shermans’ range was demonstrated by the minor key waltz “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” a theme for Bert sung by Van Dyke, which won the 1964 Academy Award for Best Original Song and has been covered by John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong. In a 1996 interview with Performing Songwriter, Robert Sherman revealed that the character of Bert came about thanks to their idea for the song, “One day, Don Dagrati, this marvelous writer and artist, had a little 8 x 10 sketch in charcoal, a little chimney sweep with his brooms over his shoulder and he was whistling with his cheeks puffed out. And Dick and I looked at each other and said, ‘That’s a song.’ But there was no chimney sweep in our treatment so far.” Walt Disney turned an existing character in the screenplay into a chimney sweep and the rest is movie history.

Those three songs would be more than enough to ensure Mary Poppins went down in musical history, but the Shermans were on a roll. “Sister Suffragette” is a punchy salute to the pioneers who campaigned for women’s suffrage in the UK sung by Glynis Johns, who plays Jane and Michael Banks’ mother, Winifred. Then there’s the outrageously catchy “Jolly Holiday,” sung by Bert as a tribute to Mary, or the lilting “Feed The Bids,” which Walt Disney once claimed was his favorite song.

Mary Poppins was a runaway success, both commercially and critically. It was the only Disney feature film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in Walt Disney’s lifetime, and in 2013, the Library of Congress added it to the National Film Registry, a pantheon of films that have cultural, historic, and aesthetic significance.

Listen to the Mary Poppins soundtrack on Spotify or Apple Music.

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