I have had the opportunity to talk to many musical talents. But sitting down with Composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman from Mary Poppins Returns was especially special. These two have collaborated on many projects over the years. From Broadway and movie hit Hairspray to NBC’s Smash, as well Broadway adaptations of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Catch Me If You Can, their experiences have taken them to a task very few could take on.
During the Mary Poppins Returns Event, these two talked about the challenges of taking on a followup to an iconic film such as Mary Poppins. And what it’s like to work with Richard Sherman, one of the Sherman brothers that worked on the original.
Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman Mary Poppins Returns Composers Interview
Scott: Everyone has told us that you come out of this room feeling fantastic.
Having stayed true to the original, yet it’s different. Where did that inspiration come from?
Scott: 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. 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 all the material was in the books. And then we had Emily and Lin, and we had them right from the beginning.
We knew we had it right, so it sounded like it was in the same neighborhood of the first movie. And also the first movie was like our teacher. It was our parents.
So you grow up with that, there’s gonna be something about what we wrote, that would come from that. And would sound similar and we never tried to – you know, 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.
Marc: ‘Cause when we first sit down to write – I mean, we had a great four months of working with Rob and his partner John and the screenwriter, David Magee. Where we really start at the beginning of the movie. They had had the idea that it would be about Michael Banks, a recent widower. That would be the crux of what’s going on.
Then we just pieced the movie scene by scene. And figuring out which songs – where to put a song. How it would speak to what was going on. Or further what was going on. Even before we wrote a word.
And so that was fantastic. ‘Cause you only have to talk about it. But then we did that like in autumn, through Christmas. And then after New Year’s, was time for us to go in the room. And we just sit there, usually for days and just sing.
I know that Richard Sherman was working as a consultant with you. What was that like?
Scott: 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 –
Marc: (Interrupting) I became four years old. (laughing) 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? What was that chord? The choices of words. And what was Walt Disney like – I don’t remember his answers.
Did you ever talk about family? Or what’s going on in the world?
Marc: You did. Yeah, yeah, yeah. But it was so surreal that I don’t remember really of his answers. (we all laugh) But the glorious part of it was that (Mary Poppins Returns) was in good hands. And that in some way, as he said to that to us, the baton had been passed.
Scott: So that was glorious!
Marc: 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 seemed sincere.
Scott: And his wife was there, she would never let him tell a lie. (we are all laughing)
Marc: But you know, it was the greatest compliment we could have 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 room with him.
Scott: I mean, ‘cause as I imagine with everyone you talk to, this is probably the first movie that most of us saw as kids. And so it’s a funny way, it’s integral to working on the movie, was that you have this love for the first movie. So that was very important to Rob.
Scott: It was interesting, with Richard Sherman, because in the first movie, they had musicalized a sequence that got cut. And we tried to musicalize the same sequence. And it got cut.
Marc: It was about, when Mary Poppins’ birthday falls on a full moon, the animals in the zoo become the spectators and the humans are in the cages. So we wrote a song called, The Anthropomorphic Zoo, the (singing) The Anthropomorphic Zoo…. (we all clap) And the Sherman brothers wrote a song called The Chimpanzoo.
Scott: Much better.
Marc: Both got cut. So we could do a nice medley…
You’ve done such a wide variety of work. How was making Mary Poppins Returns differ from what you’ve done before?
Scott: Well, it’s funny. A Disney way, it really was a dream, it’s a wish your heart makes. So it was a love. That four months, we were in a hotel room in New York. Just thinking about it, thinking about it. I said It’s the best time I’ve ever had in a hotel room. [(we all laugh) Creatively. And so, that was sort of a magical experience, ‘cause Rob is such a person of the theater. And we come from the theater. So it was like working on a Broadway musical. ‘Cause it was really that whole experience.
Marc: I’ve worked with hundreds of directors. But Rob is singular in his vision, and he’s straightforward – and the blinders are up. And so it gives you confidence.
Scott: And very meticulous.
Marc: And we would write songs and then we’d demo them. I’d sing them after we write them. We write the lyrics together, where we just phrase-associate with each other, for days until we have it all written down. And then I scotch tape all those phrases to the piano.
Scott: Just pray that something goes.
Marc: Like, in this movie was a whole other experience, though. Because Rob specifically hired us also because he knew I also score films. It’s a whole different kind of beast. Or muscle, to exercise.
And so I also had him know that melodies for the songs could hopefully form a solid score. And not just sort of like a wisp of a melody here or there. But really, of real foundation. And luckily, Scott after we wrote, Can You Image That? It was our fourth attempt 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. After we wrote that one, Scott said, “Now remember, play it like 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.
Marc: So that was a real kind of Eureka moment for us. Once we wrote that song, and if we’d work this theme in as well.
There are so many classic songs from the first film. And how there’s gonna be so many classic songs from Mary Poppins Returns.
Scott: Oh, you’re kind to say. Thank you.
Which was the first song you wrote?
Marc: So the first song we wrote, is the one that’s in the movie. But it’s very gentle. And at one point Rob said 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 we would sing. And he should sing first in the movie. But it is the Depression. So we were influenced by a great duo from back then called Flanagan and Allen. They wrote songs like, Under The Arches. And songs about the common man, loving his life, not being worried about riches and – you know, just being happy, him and his family.
Scott: When he says, “Lovely London sky,” he’s thinking about a gray sky. It was just that.
Marc: But after that, they kept saying, “Is it gonna deliver Lin-Manuel?” So we wrote a second song, with a little bit more energy. And then a third song. By the time we were in England, rehearsing, we were still writing.
Then we wrote the fifth song. I was fun, I enjoyed singing it. And then, and Emily Blunt was coming down the hallway. She said, “What is that, what’s going on?” We said, Come in, we’ll sing you this latest opening song. And she like, “Hmmmmm.” And she ran down the hall to where Rob was, and said, “You put in that first song. And 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 in.”
And so she was the one 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 we knew why. As a writer for theater, he – sometimes you gotta do all that just to come back. But the other ones we wrote two or three songs.
Marc: All before what’s in there.
Scott: Even the ending was just “Balloons, balloons, balloons.” It was more wistful. And then we just like, it’s gotta say something more. Then when we came up with the title of, There’s Nowhere To Go But Up. And then, and we just were like, it’s gotta say something more.
When we came up with the title of, There’s Nowhere To Go But Up, which is so perfect for nowadays. You know, as you get lower and lower with, well, the best, most positive way to put it is, Well, there’s nowhere to go but up.
When you’re writing a song, and you’re writing to the singer’s abilities, how are you keeping with the theme of the movie?
Marc: You’re juggling. Which, you don’t have to explain to Moms. Just multitasking creatively. And you’ve got the director. The director is the final say. Our own taste. I mean, with Scott and I sometimes, do have different ideas about where it might go. And then there’s the performer.
Scott: But then there’s Emily, who had just done this very intense drama. So her voice was way, was here. (speaking low) So then she started working with a voice teacher. It’s like a muscle that has to come back.
Marc: And it was nice to not go too high. So that she wouldn’t be so compared to Julie Andrews. It’s nice that her voice sits in a slightly different place than Julie Andrews’. And that would be another reason why sometimes people ask, Are the original songs sung in the movie? As you hopefully notice in the score, I made use of them just a little bit. But it would be unfair to performers to ask them to actually sing a song that Julie Andrews sang, or that Dick Van Dyke sang.
Rob and Marc Platt were very confident that we should not do that. And even my use of melodies in the score. Me and Rob were loving it. And I may be when she first comes in and meets, and she’s going around the living room talking to them. I scored that whole scene with, “If you want this choice (singing)….” It was almost magical, the second she walked in the archway. All the ways until the end of the scene, she goes, “All right, I’ll take the job, I’ll stay.”
That whole song, I could play it in a way that was matching what as going on in the scene. And it ended with, “Jane and Michael Banks.” Just as Jane looked at Michael. And nodded her head like, we’re doing this. But then Marc Platt said, “Have trust in your own songs, and stuff. And Let’s not do that this early in the movie.” And I’m glad now that he did do that.
Maybe a sequel?
Marc: Oh, yes? It could not get better than this. It can’t. For a movie, musical, I can’t anticipate anything better.
Scott: We’re in another project now. We’re doing a book for Broadway, a new musical. It’s Some Like It Hot. So yeah.
Marc: So we’re right in the thick of that, right now.
Scott: The writing.
Marc: You know, so that feels good to us. We fit that era.
Scott: It’s got lots of sets and no children.
You’re living your best life then, right?
Marc: And a little personal note, 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 – 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?”
Scott: So that became part of this film.
Marc: So we asked for his blessing. ‘Cause he also has three kids. And just lost his wife. So we asked for his blessing to music that part of his life that’s very special. And if we could use that in this. So that’s why the song ends that way.
Scott: I’m sorry to end this on a sad note. But it is Disney! Gotta kill the mom! (we all laugh) I’m surprised they allowed you to be here! Thank you! You guys are terrific.
Mary Poppins Returns in theatres December 19th!
I was invited by Disney to attend the #MaryPoppinsReturnsEvent. All opinions are my own.