For our first guest post of nonfiction november, we are featuring the words of contributor Allie Leach. Allie takes a zany approach to nonfiction. One of the things I appreciate most about her as both a writer and a human is her willingness to try new things, to ask lots of questions, to seek out those tiny mouseholes where stories reside. Before I met her, she was described to me as this woman who went into college classrooms dressed in a panda suit, you know, to see what happened. Please enjoy her piece on the word broad.
broad (brôd), adj. [ME. bord; AS. Brad; akin to G. breit], 1. wide; of large extent from side to side. 2. having great extent or expanse; spacious. 3. extending about; clear; open: as, broad daylight. 4. open to the sight; obvious: as, a broad purpose. 5. strongly marked: said of dialects or accents. 6. outspoken; unreserved: as, a broad statement; hence, 7. ribald: as, a broad joke. 8. all-inclusive; tolerant; liberal: as, he takes a broad view of the matter. 9. extensive; general: as, in a broad sense that’s true. 10. main; essential: as, in broad outline. 11. Spoken with the tongue held flat and low in the mouth and the oral passage wide open, as a in father: the current phonetic term is open. adv. in a broad manner; widely. n. 1. the broad part of anything. 2. [Slang], a woman or girl: a vulgar term.
Not So Practically Perfect on Broadway
On our first date, about seven years ago in Indiana, my husband and I watched the movie, Mary Poppins. This seems random at first, yes, but we had both grown up with this movie. At a party about a month before, we were absorbed in one of those great conversations where you realize you have something strange and wonderful in common with another person. And the tie that bound just happened to be, well, Mary Poppins. Still new to each other, we coyly poised ourselves at opposite ends of the couch, and not only watched the movie, but, being the nerdy English majors that we were, dissected the lyrics. If a stranger were eavesdropping, they would’ve thought we were munching on pot brownies.
“This shit’s deep,” remarked Rick. “Think about it: ‘Let’s-go-fly-a-kite.’ The lyrics are so simple and wise. It’s telling us how to find everyday joy in our lives. It’s like…the meaning of life.” I looked at him, mesmerized and in love.
“You wanna go fly a kite?” I suggested.
Four years later, we’re in New York. Rick’s at school at Columbia University, and I’m visiting him from Tucson, where I’m also going to school. We buy tickets to see what else but Mary Poppins on Broadway. Broadway: a word synonymous with the bravado and bigness that is New York City. Full of spectacle and stars and shows. A place I’ve always dreamed of, always in broad, hyperbolic fashion. Located in the heart, the heat of Times Square, I’m surrounded by stampedes, people moving like they’re trying to get somewhere. And aren’t we all? If I panic, if I hesitate for too long, I’ll be stamped by their footprints. And so we dance past each other in a maze-like motion, until we can get through a door. A door that frees us from the ads that look like monster-sized Lite-Brites, each one shouting their show: Mamma Mia! Hair! South Pacific! Wicked! Mary Poppins! And so we escape and slip through the door, hoping for something that’s supercalifragilistic.
Rick and I are up in the balcony, holding each other’s hands, being all romantic, and reminiscing about the time we watched our beloved musical for the first time together.
“I kind of thought you were a freak,” I say.
“Why?” he laughs, squeezing my hand.
“Because you kept squealing and hitting the couch after we’d discuss the song lyrics.”
“I wanted to grab you and kiss you really bad,” he admits.
Before the show starts, the orchestra begins to play a medley of songs, some of which I recognize, and some of which I don’t. Huh, I think. The curtains rise. The actors sing a string of familiar songs like “Chim-Chim-Cheree” and “The Perfect Nanny.” But even though I know these songs, there’s something lost here. All of the actors have these booming voices that are crisp and clear, but annoyingly and cloyingly loud. What’s so great about the original 1964 movie, starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, is that these actors’ voices—even the children who play Jane and Michael Banks—crack and quiver and warble. And because of these nuances, their voices build to create meaningful and moving songs. In this case, singing simple and small, trumps big and broad.
As Act I breezes along, the song “Practically Perfect” jumps out. Wait a minute, I think. Hold the mic-ro-phone. This song isn’t from the movie! And not only is it not from the original beloved movie, my original beloved movie, but this song…it’s…bad. Now, I know that Mary Poppins is a bit of an egomaniac. Yes, in the movie, she does have that amazing, yellow measuring tape that dubs her practically perfect in everyway, but she says this phrase lovingly and with a wink. She doesn’t sing a whole song about why she’s so goddamn perfect. That’s not true to her character; she’s so much more refined than that. Even so, in this new version of the musical, Mary gloats, “I’m practically perfect from head to toe. If I had a fault it would never dare to show. I’m so practically perfect, in every way.” Where’s the humility, the honesty, vulnerability? It’s in our flaws that we’re perfect, and the real Mary Poppins knows this. Heck, she’s dating Bert, who’s a poor but wonderful chimney sweep and street performer. And then she goes on to teach the children about unattainable perfection: “By the time I leave here, you both will be the same. You’ll be practically perfect.” Oh, Lord. Those kids are going to grow up and become two highly dysfunctional adults.
By Act II, it’s not just me who’s an unhappy theatergoer, Rick is visibly peeved, too. We both roll our eyes at each other and shift around in our seats. And we refuse to clap after the songs. This is musical warfare, and we’re on the opposing side. I squint my eyes, trying hard to read the program in the darkness, and realize that the song “Sister Suffragette,” one of my favorites, has been excluded. This song highlights Winifred Banks, Jane and Michael’s crusading and empowered mother. Keep in mind that this musical is set in the early 1900’s, when women were fighting for their right to vote. And this song does a tremendous job expressing the vive and vigor of this time period as Mrs. Banks sings: “Cast off the shackles of yesterday! Shoulder to shoulder into the fray! Our daughters’ daughters will adore us, and they’ll sing in grateful chorus, ‘Well done, Sister Suffragette!’” Not only are these lyrics poetic and well written, they’re incredibly poignant. This song has instead been replaced with the song “Being Mrs. Banks,” with lyrics like: “And now although you’re lost, it’s time that we closed the ranks. I’ll fight for the man who needs freeing. The real you no one is seeing.” Now, I have to cut the songwriters—George Stiles and Anthony Drewe—some slack here. These are some great lyrics, but this is a completely different Mrs. Banks from the previous song. Instead of fighting for women’s rights, she’s fighting for her needy husband.
The lyricists of the original 1964 Mary Poppins were two brothers, Richard and Robert Sherman, born in the 1920s to Russian-Jewish immigrants in New York City. The duo went on to win two Academy Awards for Mary Poppins. The Sherman Brothers also wrote songs for other classic Disney hits, such as The Jungle Book, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Aristocats, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Charlotte’s Web, and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. And for their work, they won nine Academy Award nominations, two Grammy Awards, four Grammy Award nominations, and twenty-three gold and platinum albums. In short, these bros had mad skills and major street cred. In all seriousness, though, the lyrics and songs that these two brilliant men created were full of smart, historical references, playful poetics, and touching turns of phrase. I can remember watching the movie, Charlotte’s Web, as a kid, and bawling when, as Charlotte was dying, she sang to Wilbur, “How very special are we. For just a moment to be, part of life’s eternal rhyme,” in the song “Mother Earth and Father Time.” Even now, as an adult, I listen to this song, and it gives me pangs.
Back on Broadway, Mary Poppins, Jane, and Michael head to Mrs. Corry’s sweet shop—yet another departure from the movie—where the lady sells silly words, like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” After they leave Mrs. Corry’s, they walk through a park and these dancing statues start singing “Jolly Holiday.” Granted, these details were lifted from the original book series “Mary Poppins,” written by an Australian woman named Pamela Lyndon Travers. When she emigrated to England and began writing her series of children’s novels about a magical English nanny named Mary Poppins in 1933, she wrote under the pen name P.L. Travers. Even so, seeing people dressed in tight silver body suits with spray painted faces singing “Jolly Holiday,” is almost as frightening as what’s coming up next in this remake. And what’s more, these awkward scenes replace the wonderful park outing, when the whole gang jumps into one of Bert’s paintings and are charmed by dancing penguins, the horse race, the caramel apples, and the subsequent trip to Bert’s old Uncle Albert’s place. Remember when their laughter suspends them high to the ceilings while they drink tea and sing “I Love to Laugh?”
As the disjointed story continues, Rick and I are confused when, after Mary Poppins leaves the family so that they can bond, a new nanny appears on the scene. This Nanny is Miss Andrews, who was Mr. Bank’s frightening, childhood Nanny, (though Mrs. Banks doesn’t realize this when she hires her). Miss Andrews, this super-evil Nanny, sings a new song called “Temper Temper,” with eerie lyrics like “children who lose their temper will lose everything in the end” and “you will not see your parents for quite some time” and “children who refuse to learn will not return,” a line Miss Andrews repeats three times in a row, in a cackling voice. This song was so freaky that kids were crying in the audience. In fact, it’s recommended on the official Mary Poppins Broadway musical website, that children be at least six to attend a performance, because it can be too scary for the youngins’. This song completely goes against the ethos that is Mary Poppins: joyful, humane, and life affirming. I’m pretty sure the Sherman brothers wouldn’t approve. Although Julie Andrews, surprisingly, did. She actually praised the cast for their new interpretation when she appeared onstage during the curtain calls after a performance in London in 2005.
The musical ends with the sentimental and cheesy “Anything Can Happen,” which is full of clichés like, “if you reach for the stars all you get are the stars, but we’ve found a whole new spin if you reach for the heavens” and “anything can happen if you let it. Life out there is waiting for you, so go and get it” and “Go and chase your dreams, you won’t regret it.” The song is too general, too broad and abstract. The original movie ended with the song “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” which, in my mind, was perfect. This song is so simple and concrete. And the act of flying a kite is symbolic to the story. Mr. Banks has finally let loose, has finally decided that life’s too short to be uptight and strict. And so he does something simple and joyful: he takes his kids out and they fly kites. What could be a better, more lasting image than that?
In the hubbub of the finale, Mary Poppins reappears, but this time, she’s flying high across the audience, strings attached, holding her famed, black umbrella. The parents and kids and, well, everyone it seems except for Rick and me, are ooo-ing and ahhh-ing and chanting, “ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN IF YOU LET IT!” The crowd roars with applause as the actors give their bows, and yet Rick and I are in our own, disenchanted world. Our arms are crossed, our fists clenched tight. We will not clap for this, we’ve decided. We leave early, as the actors come out for their final encore, and we trudge like Eeyore down the red, carpeted stairs. We walk through the theater’s corridors and can hear the muffled applause and music fading away. For a moment, New York City seems as quiet as a secret. This sensation, though, only lasts for a moment. As we push the theater doors open, we’re thrown into the rainbow fluorescence of Times Square. It’s dark outside and the scene has shifted. The streets are still crowded with people, but I’m not overwhelmed anymore. I want to be a part of it.
Allie Leach lives in Tucson and works at The University of Arizona Poetry Center. Her work has appeared in South Loop Review, Hot Metal Bridge, Diagram, and Tucson Weekly. When not at work on essays, she’s plotting to become a professional tap dancer and collector of miniatures.