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‘Mary Poppins’ composers faced daunting challenge

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  • In Disney's "Mary Poppins Returns," an all new original musical and sequel, Mary Poppins is back to help the next generation of the Banks family find the joy and wonder missing in their lives following a personal loss.


    Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins in “Mary Poppins Returns.”

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. >> Everyone involved in the making of “Mary Poppins Returns ” felt the pressure to do justice to the original 1964 film.

Director Rob Marshall worked on it for three years. Animators came out of retirement to do hand-drawn animation in the style of the first. Sets were built. Cast members moved their families to London for a year. But few 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.

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 recalls being 4 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.

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 Shermans and classic movie musicals.

“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 was long, laborious and a true team effort: Four months of sessions with Marshall and screenwriters David Magee and John DeLuca to hammer out the story, the script and the direction of the songs, and decide which moments to musicalize.

They also were able to write specifically for stars Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda, playing to their strengths.

Wittman likes to quote 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.”

The whole experience has been something of a dream for Shaiman and Wittman. They got 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 to 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.”

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