An Interview With Mary Poppins

Posted on: 07 August 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

Musical star Caroline Sheen discusses her practically perfect stage role.

First the book was published in 1934, then the film came out in 1964, and since 2004 Mary Poppins has been a smash hit stage musical in the West End and on Broadway.

50connect caught up with alto and mezzo-soprano Caroline Sheen, currently playing the magical nanny on a UK tour, to talk about creating musical magic.

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Most of us have seen Julie Andrews in the Disney film, and leading ladies Laura Michelle Kelly and Scarlett Strallen impressed London audiences. So following in these footsteps, how did Caroline go about making the role her own?

"I've read all the books, I've watched the film goodness knows how many times over my life, and I've seen all the different Marys in London because most of them are my friends. It's a case of doing what I feel is true to me, and starting from scratch by reading P L Travers' books, looking at the script and seeing where that takes me as a Mary."

"I recently did a concert with two other girls who've played Mary Poppins and we sang songs from the show. We're all very different but all equally valid in our own way. Each one of us has made the part our own, so we're not all carbon copies of Julie Andrews."

Caroline was certainly well versed in the musical before taking on the role.

"When I saw this show I loved it, and I've seen it about six or seven times all in all because of friends. I've always been a huge fan of the film. I had the LP before I even had the film on video when I was a little girl. It's been a massive part of my life, and I've always known the songs. Now it's bizarre but nice to be singing them for a living."

After several meetings and auditions, producer Cameron Mackintosh and director Richard Eyre offered Caroline the part on the UK tour.

"At my final audition Cameron came right out with it and gave me the part there and then, which was incredibly flattering and lovely. I was chuffed to beans. I left the audition and didn't quite know what had happened. It was like I'd been hit over the head, it was great!"

The next challenge was mastering the moves for the energetic role.

"It's one of the most exhausting parts I've ever played but I'm cherishing every single minute."

The Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious routine is, as you'd expect, one of the highlights of the show. It was as difficult to learn as it is mind-boggling to watch, but practice made perfect.

"The sign language and semaphore has been brilliantly devised by the choreographers and it's one of the hardest routines that I've ever had to do. Even the many performers in the show who have done a lot of dancing in their time found it hard to learn! Once we'd learnt it it was fine, but we started learning it on the first day of rehearsals and then just kept doing it once a day, every day, so it's part of our muscle memory now."

Mary PoppinsAs well as Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, the stage musical includes favourites from the film such as A Spoonful of Sugar and Chim Chim Cheree. However there are also new songs, including the delightful Practically Perfect, and extra bits added to the old songs to give them a slightly new flavour. This additional material written by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe blends seamlessly with the Sherman Brothers' Disney numbers.

"They've managed to write them in the same kind of voice that the Sherman Brothers have in the film and so I can't imagine one without the other now. They fit in so well that a lot of the audience who aren't quite so familiar with the film and have only seen it once or twice are convinced that those songs are part of the film."

In addition to the singing, dancing and script, written by Julian Fellowes, there is a technical element to the show. Mary Poppins is known for blowing in and out of the lives of the Banks children with the aid of a flying umbrella, so the team have had to incorporate this. Suspension from the ceiling sounds daunting, but Caroline is happy to fly.

"I do about three flights in all during the show, and they're always met with amazed children's faces. It's an incredible operation that goes on to do all the flying. I'm harnessed up, I have so many wires coming off me, and each time I fly there are about five or six cameras watching me from every angle, so I do feel very safe up there. It's high but it's fine as long as I don't look down too much."

Though the show is touring the UK, it has a several month run in each city, which allows plenty of time to prepare such technical wizardry.

"It's lovely to be able to do all that, especially on tour because sometimes you can't do all the things that you would in a London show."

Spending several weeks in each location also means Caroline has the opportunity to explore the city.

"I get to know the places that I'm working in as well which is good. It's the first time I've toured and I'm really enjoying it. It's nice to get out of London for a bit because it's hectic and dirty, and it's nice to be able to see the rest of the country."

Caroline's other stage appearances include roles from Truly Scrumptious in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to the less cheerful Eponine in Les Miserables. Both of these demonstrate that she does not believe in the old adage 'never work with children or animals'.

"There's that stigma which is totally untrue. It's a joy to work with such talented young people. Each time I work with children I'm always amazed at their professionalism and skill. They bring such enjoyment to the show, they're so excited to be there, and it does instill something exciting in me as well."

Performing in fun family musicals is more enjoyable for Caroline than the darker shows.

"Les Miserables is very moving and I loved doing that, but I do have quite a comic bone somewhere inside me. I much prefer making people smile and laugh than making them cry, so I'm really enjoying that element of Mary Poppins. It's a happy show, which I prefer to the drab type of musicals. Much as that was lovely to do, it's nice to have smiley faces at the end."

Mary Poppins - Spoonful of Sugar"When I see the looks on people's faces - children, parents and grandparents alike - they're so drawn in by the whole show it makes it feel really worthwhile. It's great for people to come and get away from real life for a few hours and escape to fantasyland."

Caroline's love of bright and colourful musicals also extends to her theatregoing, though she enjoys challenging productions too.

"I really enjoy shows like Hairspray, but also shows like Sunday in the Park with George which is wonderful. I like musicals where I have to think and there's some meaty matter."

 She believes it's important to encourage new talent.

"There's lots of good new writing out there too which is exciting and I hope things start happening for new writers as well. Revival after revival can get stale after a while. We need new juice so I try to invest as much of my theatregoing in that as I can."

A love of musicals has been with Caroline since childhood.

"Oh gosh, you couldn't stop me! I had a bedroom wall full of musical theatre posters. I was a member of my local amateur theatre group and youth theatre, and then the National Youth Theatre of Wales. I was so passionate about it and I still love it."

Though she has appeared on the small screen in Doctors, Torchwood and Hotel Babylon, the stage is where her heart lies.

"Recently I tried to stop doing so many musicals and go into TV and films, but you can't beat getting on stage and dancing and singing in front of people, it's the biggest buzz in the world."

Caroline's other roles on the London stage have included Sandy and Marty in Grease, Philia in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Jennifer in The Witches of Eastwick and Florinda in Into The Woods. She relishes being in the business, despite the downside of insecurity.

"When I'm unemployed and working in a shop or teaching, it's easy to lose track of who I am and what I do, and that's quite depressing sometimes. So I always try to remember that and cherish every moment when I am working, because it's the best job in the world."

Nearly a decade ago Caroline was in the very first cast of Mamma Mia!, the musical that's currently a box office smash. She understudied the role of Sophie.

"I remember going into rehearsals and we were all thought, what are we doing? It was one of the first musicals to be based on a band's music so that was untried territory. Then we ended up being a hit show."

Now the musical featuring Abba's songs has been set down for posterity with a star-studded cast.

"We used to play games backstage, saying, I wonder who'd be in the film version if it was ever done? I don't think any of us ever thought in our wildest dreams it would be Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan. It's incredible."

Watching the film was a strange experience for Caroline.

"I bawled my eyes out all the way through, because it's odd seeing something that I'd imagined so many times when I was standing on stage doing the show. Seeing it in the actual locations with Greece, the sea and the sun, it's wonderful. I'm so pleased that it's done so brilliantly."

With a resurgence of film adaptations of musicals, starting with Chicago, and over the last year Sweeney Todd, Hairspray and now Mamma Mia!, musicals are firmly back in the spotlight.

"Seeing people on film break out of dialogue and suddenly start singing a song was a surprise in Chicago and people found that slightly weird, but now it's becoming more common, I think people are more accepting of it. They don't mind paying for a cinema ticket to go and see a musical."

Caroline also believes musical films are good for the theatre.

"The films actually boost the theatre ticket sales of the shows in London as well. Mamma Mia! is having a real boost from the film and the same thing happened when Chicago came out, so it's really exciting."

With the future of musicals looking bright, Caroline's own career must be assured. She takes nothing for granted however.

"I do have to pinch myself sometimes. Every now and then the 14 year old in me pops up and goes, oh my god, look what you're doing. Dreams can come true, if you work hard enough and apply yourself. I can't believe I've been so lucky."

By Cherry Butler

Tour Dates

Birmingham Hippodrome Thursday 10th July to Saturday 27th September

Edinburgh Playhouse 2nd October to 6th December 2008 - Lisa O'Hare will be taking over the lead role

Manchester Palace Theatre 11th December 2008 to 7th March 2009

Cardiff Wales Millennium Centre 11th March to 18th April 2009

Booking Information

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