BWW Interview: Elena Shaddow Takes Flight in Paper Mill's MARY POPPINS!
Broadway veteran Elena Shaddow takes on the title role in Paper Mill Playhouse's production of the Disney-Cameron Mackintosh musical, MARY POPPINS. Performances begin tonight, Wednesday, May 24th and will run through June 25th at the New Jersey venue. The staging will be directed by Paper Mill Producing Artistic Director Mark S. Hoebee and feature choreography by Denis Jones and music direction by Meg Zervoulis. Today, Ms. Shaddow speaks exclusively with BWW about stepping into the iconic shoes of everyone's favorite nanny!
Everyone has their own fond memories of this story. I wanted to start by asking you about your own first experience seeing MARY POPPINS.
Well I think I am pretty typical in the fact that I loved this movie as a kid. We had the VHS tape and we would put it in all the time. You know we had all those classic VHS tapes, "Lady and the Tramp", "Sound of Music" and of course "Mary Poppins" was one of them. So it's such a part of my childhood vernacular that when I'm singing these songs, it's almost like talking because I've been singing them my whole life. So while I am performing them, it doesn't feel that way. It almost feels like I am just repeating something that I've known my entire life. So yes, I really, truly loved watching the film as a kid.
You recently played another iconic nanny, Maria von Trapp, in Paper Mill's THE SOUND OF MUSIC. Do you see any similarities between the two characters?
You know, not really, except for the fact that they both have to love these children unconditionally and sort of fill a void in the children's lives. But as far as characterization, they're really night and day. The way that Rodgers and Hammerstein characterized Maria is more rambunctious and a little more of a rebel, whereas Mary Poppins is really quite the opposite, everything is prim and proper. She knows the 'Emily Post' way of existing and she would never, ever break a nail or lift a finger if she didn't have to. She's never rude, in fact she's extremely, exquisitely polite and appropriate at all times. Whereas Maria, as I look back on my characterization of her from four years ago, is kind of like a floppy puppy. But that's okay because then she does grew up throughout the show. So yes, they're very different, Mary Poppins is straight as an arrow. But of course they are both nannies and their prime objective is to look after the children and teach them.
While the show is first and foremost about great fun and entertainment, do you feel it also has an important message to share?
Oh sure. The through line of Mary's whole journey in this show is that she is teaching these children. So every stop along the way, the kids are asking, 'What game are we playing today?' And she has mini objectives throughout the show, little lessons and little pearls of wisdom that she wants them to obtain and then retain. So the first lesson that we get is in the park, where Bert says, 'if you're with Mary, anything is possible.' And then all of a sudden, we sing 'Jolly Holiday' and the children's eyes are just opened to the magic that being with a certain person can do for your spirit, to put it in figurative terms.
'Spoonful of Sugar' is really about learning how to find the good, even if it's a hard job, finding a way to get through something that's difficult. You whistle, or you sing in order to make it easier, and then you realize, it's not so bad. And then they go to the cathedral where the children see somebody who's not as wealthy as they are and learn that they must look past what they see. So there are these little lessons that she's teaching them about hard work and compassion and not judging from the outside and things like that.
But then of course, the overall theme of the show comes in a big number called 'Anything Can Happen If You Let It', which explores this idea that if you reach for the stars, all you'll get are the stars, but if you reach for the heavens, you'll get the stars thrown in. So always reach for your goals, always think higher and bigger and never set your sights too small or too short. And I think that is absolutely something that we all, as human beings, would love to feel. The possibility and the hope for something greater, or just knowing that it's possible. And also, learning to be content with who you are and not being afraid to reach. It's a very, very positive message, and I think it still rings true today.
Can you speak about working with Tony-nominated choreographer Denis Jones in this production?
What I love about Denis is that he is also a director and he also comes from a performing background, he's been in many Broadway shows himself as a performer, and so he understands the whole craft of getting on stage and performing. And the way that he has choreographed the show is always through storytelling. He always wants to makes sure that the dancing serves the storyline and it's never just dance for dance sake, which is a wonderful thing. For example, would Mary and Bert be doing crazy ballet partnering when they dance? Probably not. So Denis took a step back and said, 'ballet between the two of them would not serve their storyline. They're not in love, they're not a romantic couple, why would they be doing ballet partnering?' So he collaborates in a way that's really extraordinary and thoughtful. And he's also very kind, and very patient, not just with me, but with the entire cast. He's almost in a zen-like state of calm at all times. I never feel like he's judging or making anyone feel badly for not being able to do the choreography the first time. He trusts performers and because of that, we all feel like we want to get it right for him. So it's a real environment of encouragement and positive reinforcement. He's really quite extraordinary and it's been a real honor to see his process and to work with him firsthand.
What has it been like to literally 'take flight' in this production?
Well, I'm really an earth-bound person, so at first I was definitely a little nervous! The company helping us with that is called Foy, and our Foy director is extremely safe and is extremely professional, and he's got me on headset and he's on headset with our stage manager and one of our crew members who runs the track that lifts me up and moves me across the stage. So I really feel very safe and I'm starting to actually enjoy it. It's very cool to see, and I'm making a huge metaphor here, to see things from a different perspective. It's really beautiful to look out onto the audience from so high up and to look down at the stage. You know I always say, you're given challenges in your life to make you a better person. And this is definitely one of those challenges for me!
You've done so many wonderful productions at Paper Mill. What do you enjoy most about working at this venue?
Well I live in New Jersey and I get so many stories from people in my community who have grown up in this area who say, 'Oh, when I was a kid growing up we used to go to Paper Mill' and 'Oh, my grandma used to take me every summer to see a show there.' So the theater has such a family-based outreach and maintains its audience members in a really special and amazing way. And that's a nice connection for me as well, for me to be able to say to our friends, 'Come see the show!' It's really very special and very rewarding for me, and it makes me feel so rich to be able to live and work in a community and share the gifts that I've been given.
And Paper Mill itself is an exquisite establishment, from the top down. They are all one-hundred and ten percent professional, one-hundred and ten percent thoughtful, conscientious people. And when I come there, they always give me high fives, they're always so excited to see me back. This is the fourth show I've done together with my dresser, Debbie Whitehead, and we just have a real working, understanding relationship. And the crew as well, we just love each other. So it's a very rich experience and it's really special. I can go on and on obviously. They're all just good people. And that to me is priceless!
Paper Mill Playhouse's production of the Disney-Cameron Mackintosh musical MARY POPPINS will begin performances tonight, May 24 for a limited run through June 25 at the New Jersey venue. Watch exciting footage from the production HERE!
Shaddow most recently appeared on Broadway in 2015's THE VISIT. Her other Broadway credits include THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, THE WOMAN IN WHITE, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, NINE, SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS and LES MISERABLES.
Production photos by Matthew Murphy
(Photo at left courtesy of Jennifer Broski)