While searching for column ideas based around the positive effects bestowed upon society by the arts and artists, I discovered a charming story detailing how science has contributed to the arts. Songwriting brothers Robert and Richard Sherman were stalled in their work creating the songs for Walt Disney’s upcoming movie Mary Poppins, having hit a snag when projected star Julie Andrews turned thumbs down on a song she found too sentimental.
Robert Sherman’s son Jeffrey recalls that his dad was depressed at the inability to come up with a worthy substitute, glumly sitting at his home with the curtains drawn when young Jeff came home from school after having just received the polio vaccine. Knowing that the boy was afraid of shots, the songwriter sympathetically asked, “Didn’t it hurt?” Jeffrey replied, “No; they dropped the medicine in a sugar cube and you just ate it.” Robert stared at the boy for a long time, then said “Thank you,” went to the phone to call his brother, and the next day the Sherman brothers wrote “A Spoonful of Sugar,” the lilting tune that tells how sugar “helps the medicine go down in a most delightful way.”
Apparently the older Shermans mistook the Sabin (oral) vaccine for the (injected) Salk vaccine when they later told the story of the song’s inspiration, but the tale lived on to gain newfound resonance recently when Jeffrey tweeted about it in response to the introduction of the vaccines against COVID-19; to his great surprise, the tweet went viral. “I just want to do what I can to instill that we all are in this together, that we must trust scientists, immunologists, and doctors to lead us through this dark time,” he said. “I thought by posting what I did about that song and its background regarding the polio vaccine, I might change a few minds,” the writer, producer, and director explained.
Mary Poppins went on to win five Academy Awards including one for “Best Original Music Score;” the origin story for one part of the score elicits many memories from the era when it was produced. The movie remains a favorite in our family, and a well-worn songbook containing the sheet music for all those enchanting songs is still often pulled out from the old piano bench to lighten and brighten our lives. I also well remember, the trepidation I felt when our family received that polio vaccine, fearing its unknown effects, but fearing the dread disease more.
Other memories include recalling the brouhaha over Julie Andrews being passed over to star in the movie version of My Fair Lady after attaining deserved accolades for playing Eliza Doolittle in the original stage play on Broadway, an oversight leading to righteous vindication when she earned an Oscar for her work in the contemporaneous Mary Poppins. Additionally, the movie version erased many harsh characteristics of the book’s title character, an erasure that earned the eternal disdain of the book’s author P.L. Travers, who also hated the use of animation in the film and wanted the soundtrack to feature standards from the period in which the story was set rather than the original music created by the Shermans; Travers never again agreed to a Disney adaptation of her books.
However, mostly I happily remember watching the inventively delightful scenes and listening to the joy-inducing soundtrack as Mary Poppins works her magic in the lives of the Banks family as well as in the hearts and minds of generations of movie audiences around the world enchanted by the sweet wonder of it all. The fact that a spoonful of sugar that helped eradicate polio also played a part in the creation of this wonder provides an added dollop of sweetness to our memories.