One of the reasons I loved Mary Poppins as a child was the music. It's the reason I loved watching it with my dad. It was a shared love of music and musicals that gave us a bond over the movie. Richard Sherman's original composition has stuck with me, as it has with many, over these past 54 years. I was so excited for the sequel Mary Poppins Returns, in part, because I knew it meant a new big-screen musical.
Composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman did not disappoint. I was so excited to sit down and meet the music makers of Mary Poppins Returns during our interview with Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman on my recent trip to Los Angeles.
Richard Sherman was a consultant on Mary Poppins Returns and composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman talked about what a joy it was being able to work with him and talk with him during the process. Marc Shaiman said he felt like a 4-year-old boy again, watching the movie for the first time.
On working with Richard Sherman
“But the glorious part of it was,” Shaiman said, “he loved our movies so much. And that he really felt like it was in good hands. And that in some way, he said to us that the baton had been passed.”
“So that was glorious,” Whittman said.
“It was the greatest compliment we could have ever gotten,” Shaiman said. “The way he looked at us. And talked to us and treated us as, I wouldn’t say equals. But worthy at least to be in the room with him.”
“I mean, 'cause I imagine everyone you talk to,” Whittman said. “This is probably the first movie that most of us saw, as kids. And it’s a funny way, it’s integral to working on the movie, was that you have this love for the first movie. So that was very important to Rob [Marshall].”
On working with Lin-Manuel Miranda and Emily Blunt
Composing music for the people who will be performing it is a wonderful, beautiful thing. To be able to write something that plays to someone's strength's is a glorious asset. Both Lin-Manuel Miranda and Emily Blunt were part of the project from the beginning.
“So we got to sculpt all this material on them,” Whittman said. “But we knew we had it right, so it sounded like it was in the same neighborhood of the first movie. And also the first movie was like our teacher. Was our parents. So you grow up with that, there’s gonna be something about what we wrote, that would come from that. And would sound similar and you can’t try to copy, or even write something that’s so close, that it will only make us pale in comparison. And yet we couldn’t help but find ourselves in the Mary Poppins vernacular. Musically and lyrically. And obviously, Emily’s take on it is so singular to her. She just came in with such confidence. And wit. And so it was easy to kind of fit these pieces on.”
On song development
Shaiman and Whittman talked about how they spent 4 months in a hotel room in New York City working on songs. Writing, and demoing, and thinking about songs.
“I’d sing them after we write them,” Shaiman said. “We write the lyrics together, where we just phrase-associate with each other, for days until we have it all written down. And then I scotch tape all those phrases to the piano. And just…”
“Just pray that something goes,” Whittman said.
But they weren't just composing music.
“Rob specifically hired us, also, because he knew I also score films,” Shaiman said. “It’s a whole different kind of beast. Or muscle, to exercise. And so I also had to know that melodies for the songs could hopefully form a solid score. And not just sort of like a wisp of a melody here or there. But really, form a real foundation. And luckily, Scott after we wrote, ‘Can You Image That?' which was our fourth attempt to write for that slot. And after we wrote that one, Scott said, ‘Now remember, play it like score, also.' So besides singing it, a la Mary Poppins, I sat down and played it. And that’s what you hear as the main theme of the movie almost throughout. That more melancholy, if you slow it down and put slightly different chords to it, it creates a whole other atmosphere.”
On the most challenging songs to write
“Can You Imagine That” was the most challenging song for Shaiman and Whittman to compose because there are so many versions of it throughout Mary Poppins Returns.
Shaiman said they first tried to write songs that were more in the style of the English dance bands from the 1930s.
“We thought it’d be fun if Mary Poppins had a touch of current sound work, for the '30s. And it’s like, ‘Hey, I know what the kids are doing.' And I’m gonna sing a song in a style that will show that I’m aware, and make the kids maybe be more interested,” Shaiman said. And it was a fun song, and they even started working on what it would look like, the underwater section. And so they already had Emily up on wires and how they would slow the picture down a little. So it looked underwater. And that’s when they said, ‘You know what, we love the song, and yet when we say the title, we don’t sing it. So, just think one more time about this song.' And so we knew I had to come up with something that might sing the title. So it's a lot of pressure.”
It's also a lot of pressure to deliver someone like Lin-Manuel Miranda.
“So the first song we wrote, is the one that’s in the movie. But it’s very gentle,” Shaiman said. “And at one point Rob [Marshall] said there should be no music until Mary Poppins arrives. No songs. But we felt that Lin’s character, although he’s not magical, he can’t create the magic, he believes it. He’s a believer. So we thought we would sing. And he should sing in the movie. But it is the Depression, or it’s like all the storm. So we were influenced, there was a great duo back then called Flanagan and Allen. And they wrote songs like, ‘Under The Arches.' And songs about the common man, loving his job. And not being worried about riches and just being happy, him and his family”
“But after that, they kept saying, ‘Is it gonna deliver Lin-Manuel?' So we wrote a second song, with a little bit more energy. And then a third song. And by the time we were in England, rehearsing, we were still writing. And we wrote the fifth song, and it was fun, I enjoyed singing it. And then, Emily Blunt was coming down the hallway. And she said, ‘What is that, what’s going on?' We said, ‘Come in, we’ll sing you this latest song.' And she's was like, ‘Hmmmmm.' And she ran down the hall to Rob, and said, ‘You put that first song back in. That’s the first song I heard. It was the song that charmed me into wanting to be part of the movie. It’s about London, it’s just put that first song in.' And so she was the one with all the producers and directors and executives. She’s the one who just said, ‘That’s the one'.”
On what's next
Shaiman and Whittman are right in the middle of creating a musical version of the book “Some Like it Hot” for Broadway, which is slated to open in 2020. The new musical version of classic Billy Wilder comedy “Some Like It Hot” is bound to be fab coming from this duo, who won a Tony for their work on “Hairspray.” I can't wait to see this. Their work bringing shows like “Hairspray,” “Catch Me If You Can,” “The Odd Couple.” and “Charlie and The Chocolate Factory” is one of many reasons I'm the theatre lover I am. Hairspray is one of my all-time favorite shows!
MARY POPPINS RETURNS arrives in theatres everywhere! Grab your tickets now!
Thanks to Walt Disney Studios for bringing me to Los Angeles on an all-expense paid trip. As always, all opinions are my own.