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Mary Poppins Films in the Curriculum – Can You Imagine That?

By Keith Mason, Ph.D.

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Mary Poppins and the sequel Mary Poppins Returns can enhance student learning, especially in terms of their musical scores and themes. Several musicals derive from children’s literature besides Mary Poppins, including Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and James and the Giant Peach. This article’s headline derives from the song “Can You Imagine That?” in the Mary Poppins Returns score inviting teacher and student creativity. Suggested learning scenarios for using both Mary Poppins films are outlined and some ideas can also work for the Mary Poppins stage musical.

Mary Poppins premiered in August 1964 with Julie Andrews in her first film. She garnered Oscar and Golden Globe awards as Best Actress, and the film won four additional Oscars. Mary Poppins Returns premiered in December 2018 starring Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins. The film received four Oscar and four Golden Globe nominations. The original takes place in 1910 and the sequel takes place 25 years later during “the Big Slump,” equivalent to the United States Great Depression.

Both Mary Poppins films combine live action and animation. The Disney films are based on Mary Poppins books by P. L. Travers, magical, flying nanny. The Sherman Brothers created the musical score. Besides the original Mary Poppins, they did the scores for countless musicals including Chitty Chitty Bang, The Aristocats, and Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Underscoring was completed by Irwin Kostal who also scored the film musicals West Side Story, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and The Sound of Music. Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman created the sequel’s score, with orchestrations by Paul Gemignani.

Walt Disney (1901-1966) was an animator, film producer, voice actor and entrepreneur. He founded the Walt Disney Studios, a motion picture studio, in Burbank, California. He is world famous for his theme parks including Disneyland and Disney World. To please his daughters, Disney tried to obtain the rights from author P.L. Travers to produce a Mary Poppins film but was unsuccessful for more than 20 years. Travers and Disney’s relationship is featured in the book Mary Poppins, She Wrote by Valerie Lawson and in the 2013 film Saving Mr. BanksMary Poppins was a blockbuster and the most profitable film of 1965. The revenue from Mary Poppins was used by Disney to purchase 27,500 acres in central Florida and finance the construction of Walt Disney World.

Mary Poppins Learning Scenarios: Spit Spot and Off We Go

The music and concepts of the Mary Poppins films can enhance the music curriculum. Teachers can capitalize on children’s literature as source material, encourage reading through the Mary Poppins books and implement curriculum frameworks. These frameworks include the multiple intelligences, habits of mind, differentiation, project-based learning and interdisciplinary learning. Some themes can align to both Mary Poppins musicals such as London, Disney animation, kites and reading the Mary Poppins books. Interdisciplinary learning includes themes in the original such as banking, chimney sweeps, and snow globes, and themes in the sequel such as marine life, Royal Doulton china, balloons, and lamplighters.

Habits of mind can help analyze characters using the 16 dispositions or habits. For example, Habit # 1 – “Persisting” – can be seen in characters that have the ability to follow through and get the job done as does Mary Poppins in both films.

Consider characters, vocal music, instrumental music, themes, and interdisciplinary topics to ensure both depth and breadth of learning. Special features on DVD and Blue Ray releases, book tie-ins and sheet music can enhance instruction.

The following scenarios highlight the musical scores in both Mary Poppins films and can be accomplished online. Analysis of song lyrics (meaning and rhyme patterns), time signatures, orchestrations, and character development are all possibilities. Solo or ensemble performances would also be ideal. Choral arrangements for both Mary Poppins films are available. All students (and especially struggling students) require practice. The use of musicals can bring the written word to life through many activities and music.

Mary Poppins (1964)

“Sister Suffragette” Mrs. Banks’ song can help explore the history of women’s right to vote and Susan B. Anthony.

“The Life I Lead” This song is a character song revealing how Mr. Banks views his life.

“The Perfect Nanny” A letter expressing the Banks children’s requirements for a new nanny.

“A Spoonful of Sugar” This song highlights positive thinking and how to make things better.

“Jolly Holiday” Bert and animated animals sing about the joy of spending a holiday with Mary Poppins.

“Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” This made up word is fun to pronounce and sing. Mary Poppins even pronounces it backwards. Students could create their own made up word and give it a definition.

“Stay Awake” A lullaby that is oxymoronic. Mary Poppins sings for the kids to stay awake yet sings it gently as a lullaby so they will fall asleep. Students can explore other lullabies such as “Brahm’s Lullaby.”

“Feed the Birds” Walt Disney’s favorite song from the original score, the song can inspire lessons about birds, humanitarian efforts and the homeless. They can also locate the bird lady within the Mary Poppins books.

“Chim Chim Cheree” This Oscar-winning song is a character song performed by chimney sweep Bert who sings about sweeping being as lucky as is shaking hands with someone.

“Step in Time” Bert, the Chimney Sweeps, Mary Poppins and the children sing and dance on London rooftops.

“Let’s Go Fly a Kite” This song shows how much Mr. Banks wants to spend time with his children instead of being all work and no play.

The Sherman Brothers Robert and Richard Sherman, a songwriting team hired by Walt Disney, have written more musical scores than any other composer/lyricist individual or team. Besides the original Oscar-winning Mary Poppins score, for what other musicals did they write scores? Who performed the vocals on some of these songs? Look for the isolated music score on analog audio tracks on laser disc or DVD.

Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

The sequel Mary Poppins Returns was released 54 years after the original Mary Poppins. The musical pays homage to the original in several ways and features two actors from the original, Dick Van Dyke and Karen Dotrice.

“(Underneath the) Lovely London Sky” This song can inspire a close look at London including cuisine, architecture, history, and British English.

“A Conversation” Michael Banks has a conversation with his departed wife wondering why she has left him.

“Can You Imagine That?” This song from the sequel invites creativity. One great use of the song is to have students create their own lyrics before the line “can you imagine that?” making certain that the lines fit the music as in the original song. Marine life, including dolphins, can be explored because of the animated sequence involving Mary Poppins, the children, the Admiral, and his assistant.

“Royal Doulton Music Hall” Mary Poppins, Jack, and the Banks children are on their way to a Vaudeville music hall. Royal Doulton china can be researched within the context of British society.

“The Cover Is Not the Book” The lyrics and setting invite exploring pitter patter, Vaudeville, Disney animation and the importance of reading as in “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Other idiomatic expressions could be explored.

“The Place Where Lost Things Go” This Oscar-nominated song addresses both things and people that we lose. Mary Poppins sings this song as a lullaby and life lesson for the Banks children who have lost their mother. Consider the reprise of this song when the children sing it to their father. What have they learned? What do they teach their father?

“Turning Turtle” Mary Poppins’ cousin Topsy sings about how every other Wednesday, her world turns upside down. The song later teaches everyone that a simple change of perspective can go a long way.

“Trip a Little Light Fantastic” London’s lamplighters help light the way. The last part of the song features rhyming language that students can use to create new lyrics, working in small groups or as a class.

“Nowhere To Go But Up” This ensemble number has the message of rising above life’s challenges and the power of positive thinking and believing in what is possible. The history of fairs and balloons can also be explored. Students can also compare this to “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” in Mary Poppins.

Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman The composer and co-lyricists created the sequel score. The two worked on other musicals such as Hairspray and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Shaiman and Wittman Find out about the two men in terms of musical training and background.

The Score Marc Shaiman integrated instrumental snippets of melodies from the original 1964 score including “A Spoon Full of Sugar,” “The Perfect Nanny,” Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” “Feed the Birds,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and “The Life I Lead.” Students can identify the spots where these appear after familiarizing themselves with the score and by doing research to help them with this task. They can also listen for melodies from the sequel’s score, for example, when Mary Poppins arrives, we hear the melody of “Can You Imagine That?” Other rich instrumental tracks appear on the soundtrack and in the film.

Both Mary Poppins musicals are rich resources for music educators and students alike. Utilizing films such as Mary Poppins and Mary Poppins Returns exposes students to musicals as content-rich material that enhances students’ learning. This explains why we can capitalize on the Mary Poppins films in the curriculum. Can you imagine that?

Keith Mason, Ph.D. received eight Paper Mill Playhouse Rising Star Awards for educational impact for integrating musicals into the high school curriculum. He is currently working on study guides for musicals in general and for specific musicals.

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