If it seems there’s been something in the air around the theatres on Toronto’s King Street all autumn long, well, that would be Richard Eyre.
The veteran British director made his mark first this fall at the Royal Alexandra with his smash production of Private Lives starring Kim Cattrall and Paul Gross.
With that show off to Broadway, where it officially opens next week, Eyre’s craft is now on display a block down the street at the Princess of Wales, where a touring production of Mary Poppins is just settling in – “My pension,” says Eyre wryly of the stage musical adapted from the 1964 film about the original supernanny.
Mary Poppins has, indeed, been a nice spoonful of sugar for the bank account of the man who was artistic director of London’s National Theatre for a decade and has ushered in numerous new plays by the likes of David Hare, Tom Stoppard, Trevor Griffiths and Nicholas Wright to the stage over his distinguished career.
A collaboration between powerhouse producers Cameron Mackintosh of The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables fame and Disney, the West End-born musical has been open for business in New York since 2006 and is now closing in on Oklahoma! to become the 28th-longest-running show in Broadway history.
It’s been a welcome late-career success for Eyre, 68, who is notorious for having missed out on one of the biggest paydays in theatrical history back in the 1980s.
“I’m famously the man who turned down Les Misérables,” says the fashionable, grey-haired Eyre, lounging around the downstairs lobby of the Royal Alexandra late last month before a matinee. (The Victor Hugo-inspired megamusical instead made a very rich director out of Trevor Nunn, Eyre’s Cambridge contemporary who would later succeed him as director of the National in 1997.)
Eyre was a excellent fit for this make-up assignment from Mackintosh. Because he had only seen the movie with Julie Andrews as a cynical young university student, he was unencumbered by nostalgia for Mary Poppins. “It was an object of mockery, I feel somewhat ashamed to say,” he says.
Though the stage musical retains most of the classic Sherman Brothers songs such as Chim Chim Cher-ee and Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, it has been significantly rewritten and restructured, drawing on elements from Australian writer P.L. Travers’s original series of books about the supernatural nanny who brings the Banks family together.
Songwriters George Stiles and Anthony Drewe have inserted new songs, while the dialogue flows from the pen of Julian Fellowes, a writer who certainly knows his way around the English class system of the early 20th century. (His period work includes the Oscar-winning screenplay for Gosford Park and the current Brit TV hit Downton Abbey.)
“For me, it was like creating something original about a dysfunctional family,” says Eyre. “If you go back to the original fables, there’s something very affecting about the story of this angel, this visitor from who-knows-where.”
As he proved with Private Lives – which in its 6½-week run in Toronto was the highest-grossing non-musical play in the history of the Royal Alex, playing to 96 per cent capacity – Eyre is adept at putting a new spin on well-worn tales.
Various critics have remarked that Eyre’s production stripped the old chestnut free of the crisp campiness that audiences have come to expect from Noel Coward. “I wanted to subvert that detached, Coward-like cadence and approach to character,” he agrees.
In recent years, there has been a tendency to read Coward’s plays and those of other pre-liberation gay dramatists such as Terence Rattigan as “in the closet” like their creators were. “I feel it’s slightly patronizing,” says Eyre, who feels the strength of Private Lives lies in how Coward was able to cast his outside eye on the dynamics of a certain heterosexual relationship.
How Eyre ended up casting Canadians as both dysfunctional lovers Amanda and Elyot is a bit of happenstance. While Cattrall was the star of an earlier production he directed in London, Gross was the added ingredient for the North American run – and a bit of a surprise, given the former Due South star hadn’t acted onstage in over a decade and is not a big draw south of the border.
Gross, in fact, wasn’t actually the first actor that Eyre approached. Movie star Hugh Jackman had to decline the role first – the Australian being otherwise occupied on Broadway in his own solo show (the one that itself played Toronto last summer).
When he started to explore other options, Eyre thought of Gross because of the cult Canadian television series Slings and Arrows, in which he played the artistic director of a classical theatre festival in Southern Ontario clearly modelled on the one in Stratford. He’d also seen Gross’s film Passchendaele; Eyre’s most recent film, The Other Man, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival the year that Gross’s First World War epic opened it. “He was obviously a very good actor, and very attractive,” says Eyre.
And any nervousness from New York producers? “They were pretty sanguine about it,” he said. “ Kim is a draw.”
After Private Lives opens on Broadway, it’s back to Britain for Eyre, who continues enjoys a busy career in theatre, film and their hybrids. Next up are two films for the BBC of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1 and 2, starring Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal, Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff and Jeremy Irons in the title role.
Mary Poppins runs at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre until Jan. 8.
By the numbers
Number of people who have seen the musical worldwide.
Mary Poppins’s rank among the 100 longest-running shows on Broadway, with 2,072 total performances (as of Nov. 6) since the show opened on Nov. 16, 2006.
Number of musical sequences that have been modified from their use in the film. If you’re wondering why Mary doesn’t sing A Spoonful of Sugar when she first arrives at the Banks’ home, don’t worry. It’s just been moved to later in the story.
Number of letters in Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
Number of Tony Award nominations and wins, respectively, for the original Broadway production. (It won for best scenic design.)
Years between the release of the movie and the world premiere of the musical at the Bristol Hippodrome on Sept. 15, 2004.
Year producer Cameron Mackintosh was knighted for services to the British theatre. He is not only the producer of Mary Poppins, but also Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera and Cats.
Age at which Australia’s Pamela Lyndon Travers published her book Mary Poppins, in 1934. She so disliked the 1964 movie adaptation that she only approved the musical on the condition that no one who worked on the movie be directly involved in the creative process. The musical is based on the film and Travers’s series of books. Dave McGinn