Everyone involved in the making of “Mary Poppins Returns” felt the pressure to do justice to the original 1964 film.
Rob Marshall worked on it for three straight years. Animators came out of retirement to do hand-drawn animation in the style of the first. Sets were built. Cast members moved their family to London for a year. But perhaps no one short of Emily Blunt and Marshall were as heavy with responsibility as composer Marc Shaiman and his co-lyricist Scott Wittman. They had the Oscar-winning songwriting duo Robert and Richard Sherman to live up to, after all.
Shaiman, who composed the score and nine original songs for the new film, credits the Shermans for getting him interested in music to begin with. He remembers being four years old and listening to the “Mary Poppins” album and thinking, “This is what I want to do with my life.”
“He was a precocious 4-year-old,” added Wittman, who has known Shaiman for over four decades. The two are Broadway mainstays and have worked together on the “Hairspray” and “Catch Me if You Can” musicals.
As a framework, Marshall said he “didn’t want to reimagine the music and have it be a contemporary version of “Mary Poppins,” or Mary Poppins singing ‘Let It Go’ or something.” He wanted it in the style of the Sherman brothers and classic movie musicals, which became an opportunity for Shaiman and Wittman.
“We realized this was our chance to thank them via music and lyrics,” Shaiman said. “The whole movie is to say thank you, you’ve taught us all of these things, let us show you what you’ve given us by doing our take on the story.”
The process of writing the score and the songs was long and laborious, and a true team effort: Four months of twice-a-week sessions with Marshall and screenwriters David Magee and John DeLuca to hammer out the story, the script and the direction of the songs together, and decide which moments in the P.L. Travers books to musicalize.
“Very often we would say to David, can you write a monologue of what you think this should be?” Wittman said. “And then we’d say OK thanks we’re taking that and we’re going to write a lyric to it.”
They also were able to write specifically for Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda, playing to their strengths. The two men said Blunt has the rare gift of “perfect pitch.”
“I loved working with those two guys, they’re a rip,” Blunt said. “They’re just hilarious to be around.”
Wittman likes to quote Lin-Manuel Miranda’s summation of the music.
“He said this Mary Poppins rhymes with the first movie,” Wittman said. “We felt it was important that they both live in the same world. That influenced the writing.”
Wittman, the co-lyricist, had books upon books about London in the 30s, dictionaries of cockney rhyming slang and encyclopedias of odd Victorian words piled up in his studio that he studied and would go back to in crafting the new lyrics. He laughed that despite his extensive research, there were a few times he and Shaiman, both Americans, got caught with a rhyme that didn’t quite work with an English accent. One was pointed out by Miranda’s dialect coach, the other by the young actors portraying the Banks children.
The lyrics in question that the kids caught, “hand” and “command,” were to be sung by Meryl Streep, who, because of the “bizarre, bouillabaisse” of an accent she was affecting was able to make it work.
The whole experience has been something of a dream for Shaiman and Wittman. They got the rare privilege of getting to record the actors singing along with a 100-piece orchestra before filming began. They’ve also gotten to spend time with Richard Sherman (Robert Sherman died in 2012), and hear legends like Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury sing their songs.
“As someone who usually can’t shut up, I have yet to find the words to describe what it is to hear them,” Shaiman said.
Sherman has told them that he’s happy with what they’ve done. As is their director.
“Marc and Scott have written this very sophisticated, hummable, fun (piece),” Marshall said. “The lyrics are so clever and so smart. You feel like you’ve heard them and know them but they’re new.”
Wittman said they’re, “Just proud of the movie the way it came out. It could have gone wrong in so many ways.”
“My agent said that!” Sherman added. “He said there are so many ways this could have gone so terribly wrong. And it’s such a miracle that none of those things happened.”