About the author:
Mary Poppins is gearing up to celebrate its fifth Broadway birthday on November 16. Though the show's title nanny delights the Banks family of 17 Cherry Tree Lane, young Jane and Michael also find themselves under the supervision of nasty temporary nanny Miss Andrew. Ruth Gottschall, a skilled comic actress who has appeared on Broadway in The Music Man, Cabaret, The Goodbye Girl and more, originated the role on Broadway and still calls the New Amsterdam Theatre home after five years. Below, Gottschall, who also makes a brief appearance on stage as Queen Elizabeth II, looks back at her first days with the production and offers insight into how she keeps the show exciting after more than 2,000 performances.
Just the other day I sat down in the makeup chair at the New Amsterdam Theatre and said, “Did you ever think?” This is my fifth year with Mary Poppins, and it’s the longest I’ve ever been in any show. When I tell people outside the theater world that I’ve been doing the same show every night for five years, their eyes widen, their jaws drop and they ask, “How do you do it?” Even actors do too sometimes.
I’ve been a fan of the Sherman Brothers and Mary Poppins since I was a kid. My dad had given me a copy of the Mary Poppins book, and I can still picture the cover: It was pink with Julie Andrews’ head in a small circle. And of course I adored the movie. Bert was my favorite. I mean, it was Dick Van Dyke for heaven's sake, what's not to love?
As the show was readying to come to Broadway, my agent e-mailed me the material, and I was totally intrigued. The scene with my character, Miss Andrew, looked like fun, and her song, “Brimstone and Treacle,” was terrific. I didn't know much about the character because I had only read the first Mary Poppins book, and she isn’t introduced until the second book, Mary Poppins Comes Back. However, I thought the part was great…just her name…Euphemia Andrew! Charming, right?
Villains are so much fun to play, especially Disney villains. They always think they’re right, so they don’t have the constraints of a hero. They don’t doubt themselves ever. Most of us don’t go through life with that kind of mindset, but it’s very freeing to be on stage with a character who never has to think, “Gee, should I do that?” It’s always, “Of course I should! I’m right!”
I don’t think of Miss Andrew as being mean. She may be strict, but in her mind she’s doing what she thinks is right, and knows exactly how things should be run in the Banks household. If the audience falls in love with you, that’s terrific, but if they hate you that’s even better. Sometimes I even get booed! If I had a dollar for every time a child starts to scream or cry when I'm onstage... At last Saturday's matinee I finished my song and a little boy behind our conductor screamed, "Geez, someone should stab her through the chest with a pitchfork!" It helps me think, “OK, I earned my paycheck this week!”
It’s tough to do anything more than 2,000 times, but the challenge is keeping the show exciting. Fortunately there are people in the audience each night seeing Mary Poppins for the first time, and that really helps. I hope that at every performance we’re inspiring new, young theatergoers. And maybe there’s one kid out there thinking, “That’s what I want to do when I grow up.” I try to change up my performance a bit every night and never do exactly the same thing twice… I would bore myself! Sometimes I have more fun with the character and make her a little more dramatic; sometimes I make her a bit more reserved.
We have a lot of fun backstage at the New Amsterdam Theatre. I do crazy little rituals and weird little things each night before going on stage. Some are as simple as high-fiving people, but I always do a little dance with some of our wardrobe department members and Megan Osterhaus, who plays Winifred Banks, no matter what, before I get on the throne in “Jolly Holiday” as the Queen.
This job is so much about the people we work with each night. There are nine of us left from the original company, including our unbelievable swings. We’ve had four different Marys (eight including understudies), and they all deliver unique performances. We’ve had close to 35 children playing Jane and Michael Banks as well. When they come back to visit us, sometimes it’s hard for me to recognize them because they’ve grown up so fast. They’re driving and dating! The cast and crew are sort of like a little village all to itself. So many people have gotten married and had kids during the past five years. We’ve been through so much together.
And just for the record, not all of the children are terrified. Last week I received a call in my dressing room after the show saying a little girl wanted to meet Miss Andrew. She was this teeny, tiny four-year-old blond girl from Atlanta. I went on stage to meet her and she just came running at me and threw her arms around me. I thought, “This is my kind of girl!”