Love the soundtrack and score from Mary Poppins Returns? Find out more about the inspiration behind the music, challenges with composing the music, and more in this exclusive interview with composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman!
I was invited by Disney, ABC & Freeform to Los Angeles for an all-inclusive Mary Poppins Returns Event. All opinions and ideas are 100% honest and my own! This post also contains affiliate links to products I recommend.
If you’re going into Mary Poppins Returns expecting to hear repeats of classics like Feed the Birds and Let’s Go Fly a Kite, you should change your expectations now. As Director Rob Marshall explained, the songs from the original movie were used rarely and strategically in the film.
That doesn’t mean you should expect anything less than the original. The songs and score in Mary Poppins Returns by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman are absolutely wonderful, especially when paired with the heart-warming storyline. Get the soundtrack here now!
For the last post in my Mary Poppins Returns series, it’s time to talk all about that magical soundtrack with the creators themselves.
And don’t forget to check out my interviews with the cast who made the music come alive. If you missed any of my previous Mary Poppins Returns posts, you can find them here!
- Mary Poppins Returns red carpet experience
- Emily Blunt interview
- Lin-Manuel Miranda interview
- Mary Poppins Returns Movie Review (no spoilers!)
- Ben Whishaw & Emily Mortimer interviews
- Director Rob Marshall interview
- Pixie Davies & Joel Dawson (Banks’ children) interview
Marc and Scott on Working with Richard Sherman
While they may not have used much of the original music in the new score, Marc and Scott were for sure inspired by the original film. In fact, they had a chance to work with the original composer Richard Sherman as a consultant on the music. Richard Sherman who has made iconic music such as the Winnie the Pooh music, Mary Poppins, and more! They even named a building after him at the Walt Disney Studios Lot during the Christopher Robin premiere in August!
To say he’s a legend when it comes to music is putting it lightly.
Scott answered first when we asked what it was like to work with Richard.
Oh, that was heaven. I mean, that was really heaven. And then last week, we got to spend a whole day with him. And it was just like glorious – we got to ask him all those questions that you know…
Marc politely and excitedly jumped in
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 – I don’t remember his answer.
Apparently they also talked a bit about family and outside life but Marc didn’t remember Richard’s answers.
It was so surreal that I don’t really remember any of his answers. But the glorious part was that he loved our movies so much. And that he really like that it was in good hands. And that in some way, he said to us that the baton had been passed.
And I got right up in his face. You know, like when you’re playing poker and someone has a tell. He was like, ‘are you blind?’ And I was like, you really seem sincere. But you know, 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 same room as him.
The Inspiration Behind the Music
As I mentioned before, the original film was definitely considered but not necessarily the inspiration for this new score. When we asked Marc and Scott where their inspiration came from, I was surprised to hear their answer.
Well, I think that we went back to the books. And there were so many more adventures in all the stories. And so some of them just cried out to be sung. And so we wanted – I think – and Lin said it great. He said ‘You know what’s great about it, is our movie rhymes with the first movie.’ And that’s a huge compliment too. But just the – all the material was in the books.
But we knew we had it to write it so it sounded like it was in the same neighborhood of the first movie. And also the first movie was like our teacher – was our parents. So you grow up with that – it’s got to be – there’s gonna be something about what we wrote, that would be – that would come from that. And would sound similar and we never tried to – you know, actually was right, you can’t try to copy. Or even write something that’s so close, that it will only make us pale in comparison. And yet we couldn’t help but find ourselves in the Mary Poppins vernacular. Musically and lyrically because it’s just…
And obviously Emily’s take on it is so singular to her. So that also freed us up to – she just came in with such confidence and wit. And so it was easy to kind of fit these pieces on.
And then we had Emily and Lin, and we had them right from the beginning. So we got to sculpt all this material on them.
Funny enough apparently there was a scene in the books where Mary Poppins’ birthday falls on a full moon, and the animals in the zoo become the spectators and the humans are in cages. Both Richard Sherman and Marc & Scott wrote songs about this particular scene and both songs were cut.
I for one can’t wait to see the scene when Marc’s song “The Anthropomorphic Zoo” becomes a reality.
A Score Not Just Some Songs
One of the reasons that Marc & Scott were chosen for the job in the first place was because they’re not only talented songwriters, they also create full musical scores and director Rob Marshall wanted to make sure the music in this film was seamless.
As Marc put it,
Line on this movie was a whole other experience, though, because Rob specifically hired us because he knew I also score films. It’s a whole different kind of beast, or muscle, to exercise.
And so I also had to know that the melodies for the songs could hopefully form a solid score. And not just some sort of like a wisp of a melody here or there. But really, of real foundation. And luckily, Scott, after we wrote Can You Imagine That?, which was our fourth attempt at that, to write for that slot. Because we kept writing songs like, “That’s Great.” Remember, it’s the first time Mary Poppins has sung on screen in 54 years.
So we go back and we write another song. And after we wrote that one, Scott said, ‘Now remember, play it like a score also.” So besides singing it, a la Mary Poppins, I sat down and played it. And that’s what you hear as the main theme of the movie almost throughout. That more melancholy – if you slow it down and put slightly different chords to it – it creates a whole other atmosphere.
So that was kind of a real Eureka moment for us.
You can watch a short clip of Can You Imagine That below!
Apparently Can You Imagine That was the hardest song to write in the film for the reason mentioned above – this was the first moment Mary Poppins would be back on screen in 54 years. The work that went into perfecting the song (on the 4th version), is amazing.
Marc explained what happened with one of the first three songs they wrote,
First we tried to write songs that were in the style of the English dance bands of the early ’30s. And we thought, it’d be fun if Mary Poppins had a touch of current sound work, for the ’30s. And it’s like, ‘hey I know what kids are doing. And I’m gonna sing a song in a style that will show that I’m aware, and make the kids maybe a little more interested.
And it was a fun song and they even started rehearsing – they started working on what it would look like – the underwater section. And so they already had Emily up on wires and figured out how they would slow the picture down a little – so it looked underwater. And that’s when they said – you know what, we love the song, and yet when we say the title, don’t sing it.
So just think one more time about this song. And so we knew I had to come up with something that – might sing the title.
Scott jumped in with what we were all thinking the entire interview
Or you know anyway, it’s so – a lot of pressure. And also with the first song (Lovely London Sky), they kept saying ‘we gotta deliver Lin-Manuel.’ We have to deliver Lin-Manuel. Sort of felt like a midwife.
I can’t imagine the pressure of trying to write the musical sequel to one of the greatest collections of Disney music of all time AND writing for the brilliant Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Marc continued talking about the pressure of Lin’s first song.
So the first song we wrote is the one that’s in the movie, but it’s very gentle. And at one point Rob thought there should be no music until Mary Poppins arrives. No songs. But we 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. And he should sing in the movie.
But it is the Depression or it’s like all a storm. So we were influenced, there was a great duo back then called Flanagan and Allen. And they wrote songs like Under the Arches, and songs about the common man and not being worried about riches, and you know, just being happy, him and his family.
Yeah we knew it, he’s [Lin-Manuel] thinking about a gray sky. But after that song they kept saying, ‘It is gonna deliver Lin-Manuel’? So we wrote a second song with a little bit more energy. And then a third song. And by the time we were in England rehearsing, we were still writing.
And we wrote a fifth song, and it was fun – I enjoyed singing it. And then, Emily Blunt was coming down the hallway. And she said, ‘What is what, what’s going on?’ We said, come in, we’ll sing you this latest song. And she was like, ‘Hmmm,” and ran down the hall where Rob was and said, ‘You put that first song back. That’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 back in.’
She was with all the producers and directors and executives. She’s the one who just said, ‘That’s the one.” And Lin was also like, he always loved that first song and didn’t really know why we had – although he knew why. As a writer for theater, he understood – sometimes you gotta do all that just to come back. But the other ones, we wrote two or three songs.
On Ben Whishaw’s Magical Moment
One of the most emotional scenes during the movie is when Ben’s character Michael Banks sings a song to his recently passed wife. Ben himself has claimed that he doesn’t sing but during his audition, he sang the song “Feed the Birds,” and immediately won the hearts of everyone in attendance.
He’ll win your heart in the movie too, promise!
Anyway, that moment in the movie isn’t just special because of Ben. Marc explained to us where the inspiration for that particular moment came from.
We have a friend who had lost his wife. And he told us, he wrote about it. And he would say that when everyone was gone, he would walk around – pretend that she was still, he would converse with her still every night about the day. But then every now and then, he would say, ‘Man, where did you go?’
So we asked for his blessing cause he also has three kids and just lost his wife. So we asked for his blessing to musicalize that part of his life that’s very special. So that’s why the song ends that way.
If for no other reason, go see Mary Poppins Returns for the music and that magical moment. It truly pulls at the heart strings!
About Mary Poppins Returns
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 (“A Quiet Place,” “The Girl on the Train”) stars as the practically-perfect nanny with unique magical skills who can turn any ordinary task into an unforgettable, fantastic adventure and LinManuel Miranda (“Hamilton,” “Moana”) plays her friend Jack, an optimistic street lamplighter who helps bring light—and life—to the streets of London.
Mary Poppins Returns hits theaters everywhere on December 19, 2018.