“Who would ever imagine a Mary Poppins sequel?”
That was the big question that came to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s mind when director Rob Marshall and producer John DeLuca introduced him to a role on their upcoming musical, Mary Poppins Returns.
Inspired by the stories of PL Travers, the film is set about 25 years after Disney’s legendary nanny left the Banks family for the first time. After a great loss, the adult Michael (Ben Whishaw), his three children and his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) need Mary back more than ever. Miranda stars in a film as Jack, a lamp spotlight and former apprentice of Dick Van Dyke’s beloved chimney sweep Bert, who accompanies Mary and the children on their adventures.
Fortunately, from the moment Miranda heard that Emily Blunt was going to follow in Julie Andrews’ footsteps, Miranda was hooked on the idea of the sequel. And then Miranda went on his own adventure, one that his family moved to London, played him to Van Dyke himself, and offered the kind of experiences beyond a theater freak’s wildest dreams.
Lin-Manuel Miranda (center) and the company of Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns.
(© Jay Maidment)
Was it a “yes” on the spot?
There was a “yes” on my mind right away, but nothing is a “yes” right away when you’re married. It was a “go home, talk to Vanessa, do we want to move to London, do we want to make this our life for a bit?” She was all-in. Then it was a “yes”.
What was the second thought that came to mind after you signed up?
“Will we have the tools for that?” That’s why Rob Marshall, who came out of the theater, was such a godsend. It was like rehearsing a Broadway show, only we had more time. You’re a theater site so I’m going to tell you all of the cool plays.
Before everyone was occupied, we did a week-long workshop in Disney’s room while Aladdin went on. It was just us and the best theater actors. We had one of the Matildas, Oona Laurence, as one of the Banks children. The late Marin Mazzie sang the role of Meryl Streep before Meryl signed up. We tested the material.
We had nine weeks of rehearsal in London and on the first day they give me and Emily a hat and stick and we just start. By rehearsing it like a Broadway show, we became a company. When we were filming, I felt totally ready.
Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda in a scene from Mary Poppins Returns.
(© Disney Enterprises, Inc.)
What did Rob do on set that you would like to incorporate into your future projects?
What I’ve seen from him is how you use theatrical principles to run a movie set. Rob works the same way I enjoy working with my staff on Hamilton. That means the best idea wins. He has a brain confidence. He has his partner John DeLuca and three employees, co-choreographer Joey Pizzi, assistant choreographer Marlon Pelayo and associate choreographer Tara Nicole Hughes. Marlon will choreograph me with me, Joey will work with the dancers, and Tara will wrestle with the kids, but they all serve Rob’s vision. When I was tick, tick … BOOM! Directed, I mentally trusted my brain as I watched Rob at work.
And then Dick Van Dyke goes on set. Was there a point where you said, “Be cool, Lin!”?
Yes, but I also know that there is no point in Dick Van Dyke’s being cool. To be honest, I went sideways. I only dealt with Broadway stuff. My first big break was Conrad Birdie in sixth grade, so I said, “How was Chita Rivera?” and talk about how much this original recording of Bye Bye Birdie meant to me. It’s just bubbly and serious and always has been. If you think I’m busy, this guy did 34 episodes of the Dick Van Dyke Show, filmed Mary Poppins on his hiatus, and he was in Bye Bye Birdie as Albert Peterson, and that role is really hard to lift. We complained about this grind.
The day he was on set was really special. It was the only day Rob really went broke. We never felt any pressure. We just felt, “This is a great movie, these songs are great, let’s just serve Rob.” In the film, Dick Van Dyke has a monologue and he finished it. We all waited for Rob to say cut, but nothing happened. It’s because Rob cried and couldn’t tell. We all lost it, of course, but Mary Poppins was Rob’s first film so it’s hard for him to direct Dick Van Dyke and come full circle from that first film.
Dick Van Dyke returns as Mr. Dawes Jr. in Mary Poppins.
(© Jay Maidment)
How did you react when you first heard the score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman?
Marc and Scott were born to write this score. Everything Marc learned about orchestrating he learned from the Mary Poppins album. It’s really visceral. When I said “yes” to the job, I showed my son the original film for the first time. The music starts and my son gasped for breath. Children don’t gasp. Old ladies in the opera gasp for air. But this boy heard these French horns and left [gasps]. It was a real gasp. That was the same reaction Marc had.
Excited to play Alexander Hamilton again and do it in Puerto Rico?
I’m really. I’ve been scared all year, and really scared. Fear that working on the theater wouldn’t survive another hurricane season, fear that the ticket site would crash – it didn’t crash – fear of all the things that are beyond my control. Now I’ll just become Hamilton and I remember that the two hours and 40 minutes that I was on stage on that show was the most fulfilling and relaxing time of my life because my only job was being Hamilton, and he needs all of my focus.
So much of your own work is focused on heritage issues and what we leave behind. How is Mary Poppins Returns contributing to this?
It’s funny because it’s not what I was thinking about when I took the job. I just thought, “I’m going to learn so much from Rob Marshall and Emily Blunt and all of these amazing people.” But it’s wild that there will be a generation who think of this as a set of two films. When I think of Mary Poppins on that fluffy white Disney VHS, I think this can sit next to it, and I’m proud of that.
Emily Mortimer, Nathanael Saleh, Pixie Davies, Julie Walters, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Joel Dawson and Emily Blunt in Mary Poppins Returns.
(© Jay Maidment)