Too many spoonfuls of sugar?

Disney hopes 'Poppins' will fuel, not undercut, its other shows

If any new tuner seems like a sure thing on Broadway this season, it’s Disney’s “Mary Poppins.”

But with three Mouse House musicals already on the boards, some industry watchers wonder if yet another will stretch the company’s audiences too thin — particularly those of “Tarzan,” Disney’s recent addition to its Broadway contingent, which hasn’t soared at the box office since its May opening.

Disney execs say they aren’t worried. If “Poppins” proves the hit it looks likely to be, they argue, the overspill from the new entry might end up doing the existing shows a favor.

“Poppins,” currently in previews for a Nov. 16 opening, has a healthy advance, said to be around $18 million.

As properties go, the 1964 pic is one of Disney’s most popular. And the stage version is the product of not one but two legit powerhouses, Disney Theatrical Prods. and Cameron Mackintosh.

” ‘Mary Poppins’ is one of the jewels in the Walt Disney crown,” Thomas Schumacher, producer of Disney Theatrical, emphasizes.

Disney decided to give “Poppins” pride of place in its showcase theater, the New Amsterdam. (To make way for it, the company moved long-runner “The Lion King” to a smaller house, the Minskoff.)

Disney’s other Rialto offerings — “Beauty and the Beast,” “Lion King” and “Tarzan” — feature such things as talking animals and dancing flatware, easy to show in an animated pic, but more challenging to render onstage.

In contrast, “Poppins” was already a human-centric book musical on the screen. “It’s a zero-resistance proposition,” says David Schrader, managing director and chief financial officer of Disney Theatrical.

“Poppins” is also the third concurrent Gotham production from Mackintosh, whose long-running “Phantom of the Opera” is joined by a return visit of “Les Miserables,” opening Nov. 9.

But Mackintosh, while he is well known for big-budget Brit musicals like “Cats,” “Les Miz” and “Miss Saigon,” doesn’t have the same brand recognition among general audiences as Disney, the company whose animated pics nearly every child in America grows up watching.

But then there is that question of whether the Disney quartet will cannibalize each other. And a fifth, “The Little Mermaid” (preeming in Denver in June 2007), is possibly on the way.

Schumacher isn’t concerned. “You can make a stronger case that these shows hold each other up,” he says.

“If they can’t get into ‘Lion King’ or ‘Mary Poppins,’ then we can offer them ‘Tarzan,’ ” Schrader says. “That could help ‘Tarzan.’ It definitely helped ‘Aida.’ ” That Disney tuner logged a four-year-plus Broadway run that ended in 2004; it did respectable biz but was never a breakout success.

“Beauty and the Beast,” which has been running since 1994, could also benefit. But that show recently has been surpassing expectations anyway, thanks in part to the replacement casting of Donny Osmond.

In any event, Schumacher thinks it’s better to be competing with yourself than another producer. “If we’re not in that theater, someone else would be,” he says.

As for the B.O. prospects for “Poppins” in New York, the producers can look to the reception in London for a hint of things to come.

The show earned favorable reviews and was a strong seller, but has slowed a bit since it opened in December 2004.

“We had a whole year where it was sold out completely,” Schrader says. “Now the weekdays are a little bit softer.”

“Poppins” seems a quintessentially British property, and thus likely to do better in London than in Gotham. But the producers contend that “Poppins” isn’t as British as it seems.

The character originated in a series of books, the first of which was published in 1934, by P.L. Travers, an Australian author living in England. Most people, however, got their first taste of Mary and the Banks family through the pic, which starred Andrews and Dick Van Dyke and featured Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman’s hummable tunes, including “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Chim Chim Cher-ee” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”

“The movie was an American creation, and the story’s focus on family values is far more of an American ideal than a British one,” Mackintosh says.

The movie is so iconic that Mackintosh, who had the rights to the books while Disney retained rights to the film, wouldn’t do a stage incarnation without the movie material.

“They’re inextricably linked,” Mackintosh says. “I think the only way the public wants a new ‘Poppins’ is to pull the best of both the movie and the books.”

The stage version of “Poppins” has a darker tone than the pic, with scribe Julian Fellowes working in material from the books as well as from a screenplay Travers wrote for an unproduced movie sequel, with new plotlines including the return of a diabolical nanny who raised Mr. Banks.

Many speculators assumed that a creepy number called “Temper Temper” — in which the children’s toys come to life to put the kids on trial for losing their temper — would get cut in the trans-Atlantic move.

It didn’t, and doesn’t look likely to go. The major changes to the Rialto show are the reconceived staging of the songs “Jolly Holiday” and “Anything Can Happen” (one of the new tunes from George Stiles and Anthony Drewe that supplement the original Sherman brothers songs).

Officially, the show is recommended for children 6 and older. Whether the decision to keep “Temper Temper” will earn the show a rep as being too scary for very young auds remains to be seen, although Scott Mallilieu, prexy of Group Sales Box Office (where “Poppins” is a formidable seller), isn’t worried.

“There are scary moments that might frighten a child in most family shows, and in all Disney shows,” he says. “I don’t really think it’s going to affect anyone.”

Mackintosh, Schumacher and the creatives will continue to tweak and hone throughout the preview process. After all, Mackintosh says, a big advance doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll run forever.

“Whatever the advance is, it’s how a show grabs you by the collar once it opens that counts,” he says.

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