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Adults and children go to family musicals with divergent agendas: they need to sit still, and we need to stay awake. At a performance this week of Mary Poppins, however, the Disney/Mackintosh show that has transferred to Broadway from the West End, my seven-year-old companion (female) and I agreed on two things: 1) we enjoyed ourselves immensely, and 2) why couldn’t the capable Mrs Banks, the story’s mother, have a cause or a career?
After 2¾ magical hours, in which we had seen a well-starched nanny soar to the skies and her sooty boyfriend Astaire soar his way upside-down across the proscenium arch, the question of Mrs Banks’s professional life may seem a minor one.
But here’s why I bring it up: all evening, I had been nursing a disappointment that the song “Sister Suffragette”, from the 1964 movie Mary Poppins, had been cut from this turn-of-the-century extravaganza.
I had accepted the excision as part of the cost of melding the movie’s Sherman Brothers’ songs with new tunes by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. But I wasn’t happy that a number that, when I was seven, had been my introduction to feminism had had to make way for the likes of “Practically Perfect”.
Even though this story of a nanny who lands in the London household of the Bankses and imparts equal parts discipline and delight had been directed by a Brit (Richard Eyre), designed by an Irishman (the limitlessly inspired Bob Crowley) and based on novels by an Australian (P.L. Travers), the scenario had, it seemed, succumbed to Disney’s American-conservative squeeze.
Namely, that Mr Banks should be allowed to keep his job at a bank while learning the value of fatherhood but Mrs Banks should decide that motherhood was the only life for her, whatever her demonstrated business acumen. At least in the movie she got to be an activist.
I would have kept my disgruntlement hidden if, after loudly applauding the actors (all splendid), my seven-year-old had not turned to me and asked: “Why didn’t Mrs Banks want to go back to work?”
With all proper respect for stay-at-home mums and for the realities of the Edwardian era, is this really a question that Disney, in 2006, wants some little girls to be asking?
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