Fifty-four years after my immigrant Jewish grandmother took me to see “Mary Poppins” at one of Manhattan’s now-defunct movie palaces, a sequel, “Mary Poppins Returns,” is now showing in a multiplex near you. And once again, the heart and soul of the musical fantasy — the songs — come from the pen of a Jewish composer. This time around the songs are written by New Jersey born-and bred Marc Shaiman, the Grammy-, Emmy- and Tony award-winning composer who has worked on the soundtrack of iconic movies like “Sleepless in Seattle” and “When Harry Met Sally.”
Last time out, the Sherman brothers, sons of Russian-Jewish immigrants, won two Grammys and two Academy Awards for their score to “Mary Poppins,” which included such now-classics as “A Spoonful of Sugar,”“Feed the Birds (Tuppence a Bag),” and “Chim Chim Cheree.” The brothers — Richard and Robert — were staff writers for numerous Walt Disney films, including “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” “Charlotte’s Web,” and “The Jungle Book.” Perhaps their best-known song is “It’s a Small World (After All),” the theme of the 1964 New York World’s Fair, although their song “You’re Sixteen” could be equally famous, as it was first a Top 10 hit for Johnny Burnette in 1960 and then a chart-topping single in 1974, when it went all the way to the toppermost of the poppermost in a version by former Beatle Ringo Starr.
The brothers were somewhat to the manor born – their father, Al Sherman, was a Tin Pan Alley songwriter who worked alongside George Gershwin and wrote dozens of hits for the likes of Louis Armstrong, Al Jolson, Benny Goodman, and Frank Sinatra. Interestingly enough, according to one obituary of Robert Sherman, who died in 2012, the brothers were “an inseparable musical team but bitter enemies away from the piano.” Robert Sherman was also among the first U.S. soldiers at the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp.
Had author P.L. Travers had her way, however, there would have been no Sherman songs in the original film. The Australian-born Travers wrote the original “Mary Poppins” series of children’s books upon which the film was based. Rather than original songs, however, she wanted only standards of the Edwardian period in which the story is set. She reportedly told the Sherman brothers, “I don’t want any of your songs. I only want ‘Greensleeves’.” While her motivation is unclear, Travers did write book reviews for The New Pioneer, a pro-German and anti-Semitic journal run by John Beckett, a leader of the British Union of Fascists and the National Socialist League (the British Nazi party). Incidentally, Beckett’s mother, Dorothy Salmon, was Jewish. In any case, Walt Disney overruled Travers, and the rest is “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” musical history.
British actress Emma Thompson portrayed Travers in the 2013 movie, “Saving Mr. Banks,” which recounts Walt Disney’s efforts to get the rights to the “Mary Poppins” books from a reluctant Travers (Tom Hanks played Disney). Subsequently, actress Meryl Streep presented an award to Thompson at a ceremony held by the National Board of Review, an organization of filmmakers, students, and movie scholars. Streep took the opportunity to call out Walt Disney as a racist, a misogynist, and an anti-Semite. This didn’t keep Streep from being cast in the new movie, in which she portrays Topsy, Mary Poppins’s eccentric Eastern European cousin, in spite of the fact that “Mary Poppins Returns,” like the original, is a Walt Disney film.
Seth Rogovoy is a contributing editor to the Forward.
This story "The Secret Jewish History Of Mary Poppins" was written by Seth Rogovoy.