Comprising one of contemporary Hollywood’s great songwriting duos—who brought music and lyrics to Broadway hit Hairspray, and collaborated on acclaimed NBC musical drama Smash, among many other projects—Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman faced the biggest moment in their storied careers, with Mary Poppins Returns. A sequel to a timeless Disney classic, which has left its indelible mark on generations of viewers, Rob Marshall’s film called for an original score and an array of original songs that could capture the ineffable essence of what made Mary Poppins a groundbreaking piece of cinema.
Following up with the (now-grown) Banks children of Cherry Tree Laneas they navigate the challenges of adult life, the sequel’s songs were inextricably tied into advancements in plot, as much as they were a respectful homage to a spirit of magic, joy and wonderment first conjured up in the Sherman Brothers’ songs and the score of Irwin Kostal. Artists whose entire careers had been shaped by this one defining film, Shaiman and Wittman were of course “petrified with fear” at the prospect of contributing a verse—such was the artistic pressure that came with comparison to a singular work of art. Shortlisted as contenders for the job—with Shaiman as composer and lyricist, and Wittman as co-lyricist—it was this very passion and the terror it produced that may well have landed them the job. “We knew and had worked with Rob Marshall and [producer] John DeLuca, but that isn’t necessarily a reason why you get a job. Sometimes it can be the reason you don’t get a job. So, we begged. I went and said to Rob, ‘This is everything, this movie, to me. I learned everything I could about songwriting, listening to that album, since I’ve been four years old,’” Shaiman admits. “The idea of taking it on was very scary, but the idea of not doing it was even scarier.”
Landing their dream job—which would star Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Meryl Streep and more—Shaiman and Wittman would channel a musical tradition of clever lyrics with rapid-fire wordplay, embedded within a lush orchestral sound that has generally ceased to be heardon screen. Writing nine original songs—with many alternates—the pair have confirmed to Deadline their pair of submissions for Best Original Song at this year’s Oscars: powerhouse song-and-dance number “Trip A Little Light Fantastic” and the beautifully elegiac “Place Where Lost Things Go.”
Getting to this moment—with a long-anticipated title set to shake up the Oscar race—was a matter of determined persistence. As Shaiman says, “It never stopped, the fine-tuning.”
Can you explain your starting point in crafting songs for Mary Poppins Returns?
Marc Shaiman: Once we started working on the plot, and how the plot worked with songs, and how songs worked with the plot, that was many months that we spent with Rob, his partner John DeLuca and the screenwriter David Magee. For three or four months, we had a lovely experience of talking about what it would be—beat by beat, scene by scene—and we didn’t have to think about songwriting, or the fear of writing songs that would be inevitably compared to the greatest film score ever written for an original musical.
Then, when it came time to go in the room and actually write the songs, that’s where the “petrified with fear” part comes in. But once we realized that this was our chance to almost speak for generations, through music and lyrics—not to mention everyone else on the film—to say thank you to the Sherman Brothers, to show our love for the film and all the men and women who worked on it or appeared in it…Once we could switch that switch in our hearts and souls and brains and think of it as a way for us to express our love for it…
Scott Wittman: That’s kind of what the movie is about, isn’t it? It’s about remembering that innocence in you and that time when you had no snark and no irony. Once the story had been defined, because Mary’s such the architect of everything, the songs had to move the story along. So David would write, Rob would meet with David, we’d send in songs, and then we’d get notes. It was all very collaborative, a very lovely process, and then we had Emily and Lin as part of that process. Emily was making a movie in New York, and she would come to us so we could tailor these things—these moments, these songs—on her, as well as Lin, who was in Hamilton at the time.
How did you think about the ways in which you could play to the strengths of your stars? Certainly, Lin gets to do some of the kind of fast-paced, lyrically complex work for which he’s become known.
Wittman: Emily was really instrumental in releasing the fear because she came in with such confidence and approached this as her own character, not something from another movie. So, that freed us up in a way, too—that she is great, with great confidence. So, it was fun to tailor that. And Lin, of course, when you think about it, patter songs…
Shaiman: Before rap, they existed for hundreds of years, patter songs. Especially in England and the English music halls…
Wittman: Tongue-twisters, and fast pace.
Shaiman: That’s always existed. So we got very lucky there because we didn’t want to feel like we were pandering to the audience, to supply Lin with rap that would seem anachronistic.
Wittman: It would be like writing for Danny Kaye…
Shaiman: Or, Stanley Holloway was a great performer of these kinds of songs. He played the father in My Fair Lady, but he was famous long before My Fair Lady for singing these kinds of songs. So we got very lucky there. As we were being told by our producer and Disney, “Make sure you deliver Lin-Manuel. Give the audience what they want from him,” we also had to deliver what Lin wanted, which was not to just do what he’s already done. He was eager and joyful about the freedom. He had just worked on the hardest, most intense writing of his entire life, so he was freed by the idea that he was on this project, being an actor and a performer and a singer. He mentioned in an article that, when I went to see Hamilton, I wrote on Facebook later, “He’s so talented, I would want to strangle him—if that was the kind of writing I could do, and wanted to be doing. But since I can’t do that, I’m happy. I’m free to be able to just enjoy what he does.” And he felt the same way about what we have done here.
He loved how we were writing within the style of the first film, and also the other musicals of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. It’s a style that matches Scott and I; we just fall naturally into it, and that’s the other thing. We wanted it to seem like it could be in the same universe as the first movie, and yet didn’t want to seem like we were copying or imitating songs. That was a real tightrope to walk.
While Robert Sherman passed away in 2012, Richard Sherman is still with us, and is listed as a consultant on the film. Did you spend much time with him in the process of putting this film together?
Wittman: Well it’s funny, we just spent a couple of hours with him this afternoon.
Shaiman: Our producer, Marc Platt, really mostly met with him a lot, played him all the songs, [showed him] the screenplay.
Wittman: He was part of the process.
Shaiman: Yeah, and if he had something that he thought should have been different or changed, he would have said so. But lo and behold, he didn’t. He was loving what he was hearing, and he really loves the new movie; I’ve now sat next to him and heard him say it a lot. And believe me, I looked so deeply into his eyes while he was saying it for any tell—his left eyelash [twitching] or something. But he really loves it. He said to us, “You guys picked up the baton and continued running the race, and you did it beautifully.” He was very, very moved, and that is the greatest review we could have ever hoped for.
Marc, can you expand on the musical traditions you were working within with the music you composed? It somehow captures the magic of yesteryear, evoking classic Disney.
Shaiman: It’s of a tradition, whether it’s Mary Poppins or Oliver!, which was of the same time. Those films had lush, wonderful orchestrations, and often those orchestrations are quite different from how these would be if it was a Broadway musical. When you have the luxury of having that full orchestra that could never fit in a Broadway pit, that created, starting with the MGM musicals, a certain lush and elegant sound. Me and my orchestrators and arrangers, everyone working on this film was so overjoyed to do that kind of work that we grew up on and loved. There is no real opportunity anymore to exercise that, but we all had it in our hearts and souls and brains, and were able to attack it with great fervor, not to mention the orchestras themselves. They so enjoyed getting to play in this style, and they had to be virtuosic, sight-reading. But the emotion and the harmony and the style of it, they so enjoyed getting. It’s something they just don’t get to do anymore.
On any given day it could have been anywhere from 80 pieces to almost a 100- piece orchestra, and to hear that sound is just a thrill beyond words. Of course, to have to write all those notes, that’s a lot; I’ve never worked so hard on an underscore, ever. Also, Rob is so confident that when we pre-recorded all the songs before they filmed, he had us do it with a full orchestra. Not even like a cut-down version of it, or a digitized version of an orchestra to be done later. He had the confidence of recording that way and spending all that money because he wanted the actors and himself to have that sound on the set, to inspire them to be in this kind of movie musical. What’s amazing is, everything that we recorded beforehand is all still in the film; he was correct. He knew that if we concentrated on it and all pictured the same thing as the finish line, that it wouldn’t be wasted time, or wasted money, to record orchestras before they filmed a single frame.
Could you give a sense of the breadth of songs in Mary Poppins Returns, and their thematic underpinnings? Obviously, the plot hinges around a loss in the Banks family.
Shaiman: Certainly, loss is a big theme in at least two of the major songs for the movie, which are “The Place Where Lost Things Go” and “Trip A Little Light Fantastic.” “The Place Where Lost Things Go” is Mary trying to gently explain to the children how, although they’ve lost their mother, she is still around, and will always be around—that she lives in every single memory. But you have to say it in a way that kids can understand, and it isn’t until the last verse where she actually mentions their mom.
Wittman: That’s taken from one of the [P.L.] Travers books; in one of the books [Mary Poppins and the House Next Door], Mary’s uncle is the Man in the Moon, and he explains to them that on the other side of the moon are all the things we’ve lost, but wish we could find again.
Shaiman: So we stole that idea from that one story and transplanted it to this moment in the nursery, where she has to soothe them back to bed. Then with “Trip A Little Light Fantastic,” the character of Jack [played by Miranda] kind of explains another way to put it that’s much more upbeat. We also knew it had to be a dance number, but he said to them, “It’s about finding the light when things are dark. Just find the light, follow the light, and you’ll get yourself out of it.” So, that’s definitely a major theme throughout the movie, loss and how to reclaim what you have lost. Michael Banks has lost all his joy, to the point where he no longer believes [in magic] as an adult, which is a big theme throughout all the Mary Poppins books—there’s eight of them. It’s the big theme that runs through a lot of stories, which is that the adults forget.
“Trip A Little Light Fantastic” has been described as a tribute to the large-scale musical numbers of Hollywood’s Golden Age. What was the process in taking your songs to set and bringing them visually to life?
Wittman: We rehearsed for six weeks.
Shaiman: We rehearsed the movie just like you would rehearse any other Broadway musical. They could perform that song from beginning to end, and that was how they would run through it, although of course they did eventually film it in sections. But we got to see the whole number from beginning to end in real time; David Krane was our dance arranger, and he would be there in rehearsals with Rob. It was our song constantly, over and over again, but they’d find new variations, new ways to play new things that match the choreography and vice versa.
By the time we were recording it, it was all extremely laid out. Even at the recording sessions, they had to go out there with their socks on, so as to not make any noise, but Rob’s two main associate choreographers went out and stood next to the conductor and danced everything, so that they and Rob could feel like, “Yeah, that’s the right tempo.” Or, “That needs to be a little faster, that needs to be a little slower.”
There are many strong numbers to discuss. Could you discuss a bit of the idea when it came to one of your first songs, “Can You Imagine That”?
Shaiman: With “Can You Imagine That,” we knew what the images were going to be, so the lyrics are very specific.
Wittman: Mary Poppins is a great believer in reverse psychology, and she’s explained to the kids, “Isn’t it the worst thing on Earth to have fun?”
Shaiman: “Here are these wonderful things I’m going to talk about. Can you imagine people liking that? Can you imagine that?” We definitely felt we had an “Aha moment” when we came up with this long title that had such a double meaning.
Wittman: I love that Mary says, “Can you imagine, to splash about in bathtub gin? Can you imagine that?”
Shaiman: That’s almost a callback from the first film, when she’s giving the kids medicine. That was maybe the fourth song we wrote for that spot, but once we had that title and that melody, we felt like, “Yes, that’s it. We nailed that one finally.”
Did you write many songs for the film that didn’t make the final cut?
Shaiman: Yeah, I think there’s only two spots in the movie that are the very first song that we wrote. Not that we didn’t keep refining them, but except for “The Place Where Lost Things Go” and “Turning Turtle,” every other spot had at least one other song on its way to becoming the song that’s in the film.
What did it mean for you to be able to write for Disney legends like Angela Lansbury and Dick Van Dyke, who starred in the original film in dual roles?
Shaiman: I’m still at a loss of words to describe what it’s like to hear your songs, the songs that you’ve been blessed enough to write for a movie called Mary Poppins Returns, and get to hear and watch Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury singing them. I’m really usually not at a loss for words, but I still can’t even think of a way to express what it’s like.
Wittman: Especially the audience reaction when Dick comes into the movie, it’s so thrilling. It’s, as Emily calls it, a “joy bomb.”
What’s your takeaway from your Mary Poppins experience?
Wittman: It’s a tonic for the times we live in.
Shaiman: It’s the most positive way to look at current times, saying “ Well, yes, we’re scraping the bottom. But the good thing about the bottom is there’s nowhere to go but up.” Emily Blunt, I’d give her 13 Academy Awards for the final shot of the movie, as she looks back to Cherry Tree Lane. I am endlessly moved by that shot.