I was honored to be invited to the #MaryPoppinsReturnsEvent, a Disney press junket for Disney Mary Poppins Returns. As a guest, my expenses were covered in return for a series of articles about my experiences and reviews of the programming.
I have been sharing my experiences of visiting Los Angeles for the Mary Poppins Returns Event over the last few days. I hope you haven’t missed any of it, but if you have you can click on Mary Poppins Returns movie to get caught up. Today, I’m sharing what I learned during our interview with composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.
I started thinking about what my interview, our group interview with Disney composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman would be like on my plane ride from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. So much of a musical movie’s success hinges on the music. Yes, the storyline is important but it’s the music that carries us from scene to scene. It’s the songs that we’ll get swept up in and will be singing for years to come. Who doesn’t still sing A Spoonful of Sugar or Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious from the original Mary Poppins movie?
As my plane traveled across the country so many questions filled my head. I took out my notebook jotting down as many as I could. I wondered how many I could get in in our 20 minute interview. Knowing I wouldn’t be able to ask them all during our time together I shared some to Twitter. In fact, you can follow all the great Mary Poppins Returns conversations on Twitter by following #MaryPoppinsReturnsEvent. Keep reading to see highlights from what I did learn about composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman and the moments they made beautiful music together.
About Disney Mary Poppins Returns
MARY POPPINS RETURNS stars Emily Blunt as the practically-perfect nanny with unique magical skills who can turn any task into an unforgettable, fantastic adventure; Lin-Manuel Miranda as her friend Jack, an optimistic street lamplighter who helps bring light—and life—to the streets of London; Ben Whishaw as Michael Banks; Emily Mortimer as Jane Banks; and Julie Walters as the Banks’ housekeeper Ellen; with Colin Firth as Fidelity Fiduciary Bank’s William Weatherall Wilkins; and Meryl Streep as Mary’s eccentric cousin, Topsy. The film also introduces three new Banks’ children played by Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh and newcomer Joel Dawson. Angela Lansbury appears as the Balloon Lady, a treasured character from the PL Travers books and Dick Van Dyke is Mr. Dawes Jr., the retired chairman of the bank now run by Firth’s character.
Mary Poppins Returns will be released in U.S. theaters on December 19, 2018.
Take a look at this latest Disney Mary Poppins Returns movie trailer
Disney Mary Poppins Returns‘ Composers Marc Shaiman & Scott Wittman
What became clear as we talked with composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman is that there were moments from Disney Mary Poppins Returns that really influenced them and made the work they were doing more like a dream than work. Everything from consulting with Mary Poppins composer Richard Sherman to having Emily Blunt as one of their biggest cheerleaders left them with memories they won’t soon forget.
The glorious moment of talking with Mary Poppins composer Richard Sherman
The original Mary Poppins composer was Richard Sherman. He wrote and crafted the music for the first Mary Poppins movie. (You can see and buy or download the original Mary Poppins movie soundtrack on Amazon with this link.) During the production of Mary Poppins Returns composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman were able to spend a whole day with Richard consulting with him on music for this film. Both Marc and Scott described the experience as glorious and heavenlike. Take a look.
Scott started, “Oh, that was heaven. I mean, that was really heaven. It was just like glorious. We got to ask him all those questions …” To which Marc added, “I became four years old. I mean, there he was in front of me and I got to ask him, ‘why’d you write this song’ and ‘why was it in this key? And what was that chord?’ And the choices of words. And what was Walt Disney like.
Marc and Scott were so swept up in the experience that they don’t remember a lot of Richard’s answers, calling it ‘surreal‘, BUT they did remember Richard’s praise of their work on Mary Poppins Returns. Marc recalled, “But the glorious part of it was that, he loved our movies so much. He really felt like it was in good hands. And that in some way, he said to us that, the baton had been passed.“
It was the greatest compliment we could have ever ever gotten. 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. – Marc Shaiman on Richard Sherman’s praise.
Moments of songwriting for Mary Poppins Returns
It’s hard to imagine the work that goes into writing the music and songs for a musical. The original Mary Poppins soundtrack had 18 songs cut down from around 30. In Mary Poppins Returns there are 27 original songs. We wanted to know just how does the songwriting process happen? What do those moments look like? What comes first. Marc explained that process to us.
Cause when we first sit down to write – I mean, we had a great four months of working with Rob and his partner John and the screenwriter, David Magee (from New Jersey). Where we really start from the beginning of the movie. They had had the idea that it would be about Michael Banks, a recent widower. And that would be the crux of what’s going on. Then we just pieced the movie scene by scene, figuring out which songs – where to put a song. And how it would speak to what was going on.
Scott added that process started before they even wrote a word of the songs. From there Marc shared, “then after New Year’s it was time for us to go in a room (for songwriting). And we just sit usually four days and just sing. Marc looked back on it as part singing, part writing and part paralyzed by fear to get it right.”
In another question Marc shared more about the songwriting process saying, “We would write songs and then we’d demo them. I’d sing them after we write them. 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.“
Song moments that got cut from the Mary Poppins movies
During our interview with Scott and Marc, Scott remembered how both them and Richard Sherman had the same musical sequence get cut from their films. Marc told us about that scene, “It was about, when Mary Poppins’ birthday falls on a full moon. The animals in the zoo become the spectators and the humans are in the cages. So we wrote a song called, The Anthropomorphic Zoo.” Marc started to sing it for us before adding, “And the Sherman brothers wrote a song called The Chimpanzoo.” That song was also cut.
The moment a wish becomes a dream
To talk about how working on a Disney film is unlike anything they’ve done before that was the moment that really got Scott talking. He excitedly shared, “Well, it’s funny. A Disney way, it really was a dream, it’s a wish your heart makes. I said to someone recently that, that four months, we were in a hotel room in New York. I said, ‘It’s the best time I’ve ever had in a hotel room.’ Creatively. That was sort of a magical experience, because Rob is such a person of the theater. We come from the theater. It was like working on a Broadway musical. It was really that, that whole experience.” To which Marc also added, “This movie was a whole other experience, though. Because Rob specifically hired us because he knew I also score films.“
What song was the most challenging for them to write? Which song did they spend the most moments on?
Scott spoke to us about how Can you Imagine That was the most challenging song to write. There were apparently many versions of it. Marc explained a bit why that was.
First we try to write songs that were more in the style of the English dance bands, of the early ‘30s. We thought it’d be fun if Mary Poppins had a touch of current sound work, for the ‘30s. It’s like, Hey, I know what the kids are doing. I’m gonna sing a song in a style that will show that I’m aware, and make the kids maybe be a more interested. I think 8-year-olds would be into dance bands. It was a fun song and they even started rehearsing. they started working on what it would look like, the underwater section.
But then they hit a challenge as Marc continued.
And so they already had Emily up on wires and they would slow the picture down a little. So it looked underwater. That’s when they said, ‘You know what, we love the song, and yet when we say the title, we don’t sing it.‘
Marc said they were tasked to rethink the song in a way that the title could be sung which is how the song title became, Can you Imagine That?
Watch this brief clip of the song Can you Imagine That?
Writing music for a composer… another challenging moment
Scott talked about the pressure of writing music for fellow composer Lin Manuel Miranda. He jokingly referred to it as needing to deliver Lin Manuel like a midwife would deliver a baby. There was a potential disagreement with director Rob Marshall not wanting to have any other music before Mary Poppins arrives. Yet, Marc felt Lin Manuel’s character, Jack needed to be introduced with music. Here’s how Marc described the situation.
So the first song we wrote ((Underneath the) Lovely London Sky), is the one that’s in the beginning of the movie. But it’s very gentle. At one point Rob said there should be no music until Mary Poppins arrives. No songs. But we (Scott and Marc) 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 he would sing. But it is the Depression, or it’s like all the storm. We were influenced by a great duo back then called Flanagan and Allen. They wrote songs like, Under The Arches. And songs about the common man, loving his life and not being worried about riches, just being happily, him and his family.
They wrote several more songs for Lin Manuel, but it was this first song, (Underneath the) Lovely London Sky that Emily Blunt loved and championed to be in the movie. Marc reflected on how Emily Blunt got the song into Mary Poppins Returns.
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.’ She responded with, ‘Hmmmmm.’ She ran down the hall and told Rob Marshall, ‘You put that first song in. It’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’.
The voice of Julie Andrews compared to Emily Blunt
Throughout our interviews it’s been clear making Mary Poppins Returns is about making a new story with new characters and updates to old ones while still paying homage to the original Mary Poppins. You can see the differences in this article, Mary Poppins Then and Now: The Mary Poppins Movie Compared to Mary Poppins Returns.
Julie Andrews specifically chose not to be involved with Mary Poppins Returns out of respect for Emily Blunt and so that Emily could create the role of Mary Poppins with her own uniquess. It’s one of the reasons you won’t find the original Mary Poppins songs sung by Emily Blunt. Scott and Marc both elaborated on that. Scott started by telling us how, because of Emily’s last movie her voice was at a certain way they had her work with a voice teacher to get the voice muscles back. Marc then added, that they kept Emily from training her voice to go to high so that she wouldn’t be so compared to Julie Andrews. Marc said, “It’s nice that her voice sits in a slightly different place than Julie Andrews. And that would be another reason why sometimes people ask, ‘Are the original songs sung in the movie?’ As you hopefully notice in the score, I made use of them just (not in a way you or I would expect). It would be unfair to performers to ask them to actually sing a song that Julie Andrews sang, or that Dick Van Dyke sang.“
Rob Marshall and Marc Platt were very confident that songs from the original film should not be used in this one. Marc Platt said, “Have trust in your own songs.” And I’m glad now that he did do that.
Marc Shaiman’s final thoughts on writing music for Mary Poppins Returns
There were so many great moments in our interview with composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, but I will leave you with one more. Marc said, “It could not get better than this. It can’t. For a movie, musical, I can’t anticipate anything better.“
I have to agree. I can not imagine a better musical right now than Disney Mary Poppins Returns. Take time this holiday season to see Mary Poppins Returns then share with me the musical moments you love best.
Mary Poppins Returns Music soundtrack
In Mary Poppins Returns there are 27 original songs upbeat songs and lullabies are again included. You can see and buy or download the Mary Poppins Returns movie soundtrack on Amazon with this link.
Watch Disney Mary Poppins Returns now playing at your local theater!
- Get to know the talent behind Disney Mary Poppins Returns with these Interviews with the cast and producers
- Mary Poppins Returns Emily Blunt (“Mary Poppins”) interview
- Mary Poppins Returns Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Jack”) interview
- Mary Poppins Returns Ben Whishaw (“Michael Banks”) & Emily Mortimer (“Jane Banks”) interview
- Mary Poppins Returns Director Rob Marshall interview
- Mary Poppins Returns Pixie Davies (“Anabel Banks”) & Joel Dawson (“Georgie Banks”) interview
- Other Disney Mary Poppins Returns stories
For the latest details on Mary Poppins Returns
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