On an unusually grey and overcast December day in the typically cheery city of Beverly Hills, a stage was set with early 20th century lamplights and trees covered with cherry blossoms. The backdrop of the stage featured a gorgeously blue, cloudy horizon over a beautiful Depression-era English city, setting the magical mood that would transport guests of the Mary Poppins Returns press conference from a modern city in California to a timeless and familiar place underneath the lovely London sky: No. 17 Cherry Tree Lane — a location everyone had visited so many times in their childhood days.
Feeling both nostalgic and cheerful, in that bittersweet way only a magical English nanny could make one feel, the eager guests from The Nerds of Color were ready to engage with the filmmakers and players responsible for allowing audiences to revisit the home first featured in Disney’s seminal 1964 classic, Mary Poppins.
When producer and moderator, Mark Platt, entered as unexpectedly and swiftly as the titular character in both films, he introduced director Rob Marshall, stars Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Emily Mortimer, and Ben Whishaw, producer John DeLuca, composer Marc Shaiman, lyricist Scott Wittman, and screenwriter David Magee, who took to the stage ready to answer everyone’s burning questions about the follow up to a legend 54 years in the making.
“Why Mary Poppins?” Platt asked Marshall.
After complimenting Platt as a producer, Marshall responded, “You know what I thought to myself when this came our way? ‘If anyone is going to do it, I would like to do it.’ It was incredibly daunting at first, of course. But at the same time I really felt like I have that film, as many of us on this panel do, in our blood. And I wanted to be able to, in an odd way, protect the first film, and treat this film with great care and love.”
Marshall continued: “Musicals are very difficult to do — an original musical — there’s so many layers to it. But with this one, creating an original musical from scratch was actually, for me, a dream, and I had never done it before. And to be able to create it with this beautiful company was exactly what I was hoping for. And I have to say the guiding message of this film, about finding light in the darkness, is honestly what drew me to it and kept guiding me throughout the whole process, including to this very moment, when people are actually now seeing the film. Because it feels so current to me… I feel people need this film now. And I certainly knew that I wanted to live in that world and be a part of that, and sending that message out into the world now of looking for hope and light in a dark time. And that’s why we set our film in the Depression-era in London — the time of the books. It was really so it could feel accessible and feel like it could be a story that could be told now.”
After Marshall gave his answer, Platt posed his next set of questions to the woman of the hour, Emily Blunt. The iconic nature of the role was something no one at the conference took lightly — least of all Blunt herself. She went on to describe both the honor and pressure she felt upon being offered the role and approaching it after accepting.
“When you said ‘Mary Poppins,’” she said to Platt, “The air changed in the room. It was such an extraordinary, unparalleled moment for me, because I was filled with an instantaneous ‘yes,’ but also with some trepidation. All happening simultaneously in that moment, because she is so iconic. She has such a big imprint on my life, and on everyone’s life. People hold this character so close to their hearts. And so how do I create my version of her? What will my version of her be? Because no one wants to see me do a cheap impersonation of Julie Andrews, because no one is Julie Andrews. And so she should be preserved and treasured in her own way with what she did. And so I knew this was going to be something I can take a big swing with, and knew I could do it with this man,” she said gesturing to Marshall, “who is the most involving, meticulous, brilliant director in the world. And I was in safe hands with him however much I knew I had my work cut out for me.”
“There is not another person on this planet who could play that part but you,” Marshall complimented in return.
On what influenced her performance, Blunt had this to say:
“I found the books to be a huge springboard, and enormously helpful. She leapt off the page at me in terms of how complicated she is… she is stern, she is incredibly rude and vain, but funny. And yet there is this humanity. She has to herself have such a childlike wonder in her in order to want to infuse these children’s lives with it. And there must be a generosity and spirit to want to fix and heal in the way she does. So I think for me, and certainly for Rob, when we talked about it in the year and a half before we started rehearsing, we would talk about her so much. And we both wanted to find those layers and those moments of humanity — and also the fact that she’s a bit of an adrenaline junkie,” she said with a smile. “She loves these adventures. It’s like her outlet. So just finding those moments so she’s not just one thing. Because she is so enigmatic. Such a delicious character to play. I loved her!”
It was a priority for the filmmakers to capture the spirit of the original film. And as such, it only felt right that a character that embodied the spirit of Bert accompany the returning nanny for this installment. Enter Broadway royalty, Lin-Manuel Miranda, in the newly created character of Jack the lamplighter.
Lin, a huge fan of Marshall since Chicago, discussed his experience getting called for the role. “When I got a call from Rob Marshall and John Deluca saying, ‘we’d like to talk to you about something,’ that became a priority. They came to buy me a drink between shows (I was still in Hamilton at the time. I met them for a drink. They said they were doing the sequel to Mary Poppins. And I said, ‘WHO’S PLAYING MARY POPPINS?’ And they said, ‘Emily Blunt.’ And I said ‘Ooh, that’s good!’ And honestly, I can’t give them enough credit for seeing this role in me.”
Lin continued: “When I’m playing Hamilton, there’s no childlike wonder in Alexander Hamilton. He has a very traumatic early life. He goes on that stage and he wants to devour the world, and he wants to move so fast and do everything. Whereas Jack in this movie, as they pitched him to me, has this childlike wonder. He’s in touch with that imagination you all see in your kids when they can sort of play in their imagination for hours. Jack’s never lost that. And I feel so humbled that he saw that in me. And from that moment, from that drink, I was in. And it came at the perfect time for my family too. We’d finished a year of performing Hamilton, and then I chopped my hair off and left the country, and jumped into Mary Poppins’ universe. It was beautiful.”
Also stepping into the roles of iconic characters were Mortimer and Whishaw, inheriting the parts of Jane and Michael Banks, now facing the challenges of life as fully grown adults. Taking characters who audiences only remember as children from the original classic and growing them up was no small feat for the two actors.
On the topic of the classic film and how that influenced her approach to the role, Mortimer had this to say: “The only thing I really thought about in preparing for the part of Jane, in terms of what I took from the original movie, were the two parents. Who were such brilliant characters in the original movie…they’re so eccentric, so ‘out-to-lunch.’ And they’re sort of — on the one hand — terrible parents, and on the other so full of love, yet completely absent. And they make you feel better about your own failed parents and your failure as a parent,” she joked. “And I just felt like ‘Who would this girl be, who had this mother and father?’ And that was how I approached the role.”
Whishaw also chimed in on his sentiments about the classic film. “I was obsessed with the film as the child. It was the first film I ever saw. My dad taped it on the tele, on a VHS tape. And I watched it obsessively. And I used to dress up as Mary Poppins and parade up and down the street in our village,” he teased. “It’s a mythic part of my childhood. So I was just sort of moved every day. You don’t expect as an adult to be revisiting something that is such a part of your childhood. I was moved everyday to be involved in that world I recall so well. I can’t watch the first film without crying. It’s just a very tender place in myself.”
As all fans remember, one of the most iconic pieces of the original Mary Poppins was its soundtrack, possessing a 50-year-old legacy of legendary themes all kids come to grow up with. As such, the pressure was on for the crew of the sequel to come up with songs and a score that were both new and familiar, and could live up to the status of the original film’s music. That responsibility was left to composers and lyricists Marc Shaiman and Scott Witman. Shaiman, greatly influenced by the original’s music, spoke about how much the music of the first film spoke to him.
“My entire childhood was Mary Poppins. I really have no other memory of my childhood,” Shaiman joked. “Except listening to that record and reading the synopsis of the story. And the fact that,even as a child, with the ability to write music and lyrics, was even fascinated by the orchestrations of it… I didn’t know what those instruments were — I was 4. And I didn’t know what those words were… But I knew I wanted to know. And with that reprise [of ‘Feed the Birds’] — the chords — I thought ‘why are they making me feel something so deeply.’ And not just the chords, but also the strings… all these things are just flowing into my brain, and my ears, and my heart. And I learned everything I could from that album.”
On the whole, the same can be said for all who grew up with the original film, its performances, and its music. Indeed, as audiences fell into eternal love with the original in 1964, so too did the beloved legacy of the Julie Andrews masterpiece shape the childhoods and careers of everyone involved in the next chapter; as presented in their reverent approach to continuing the story.
And thus, we can relax and take confidence that as the wind blows in the east, and the mist starts to come in, what Marshall and team have been brewing, would most definitely make dear Walt grin.
Mary Poppins Returns hits theaters December 19, 2018.