Building on a beloved story is always a challenge. At the New York premiere of “Mary Poppins Returns” on Monday night, director Rob Marshall called his task “daunting to say the least.” But as the cast and creative team shared their experiences (and favorite songs), it was clear that everyone involved had a reverence for the original — and that they were determined to make the tale their own.
Emily Blunt had seen Julie Andrews’ iconic take on the character as a child, but she deliberately decided not to revisit the 1964 film until after the shoot for “Mary Poppins Returns” had wrapped. Instead, she went straight to the source: P. L. Travers’ series of Mary Poppins novels. “I just read the books, and read this exquisite script, and so much was evoked from those two experiences that I managed to find a new version of her,” Blunt told Variety.
“I was aware of the books, but I have to be quite honest, I wasn’t fully aware there were eight of them!” Marshall admitted, laughing. Once he dove in, they proved to be exactly what he and his team needed. “There was a lot of material, and it made sense for there to be a sequel someday. It was sort of thrilling, because the first film means so, so much to us, and we wanted to make sure to honor that first film, but at the same time, we were anxious to create an original musical from the very beginning.”
So, how did he strike that balance? “Honestly, I used myself as a barometer the entire time. I knew that I would want to see a live-action, hand-drawn animation sequence in the spirit of the first film, because I thought it would feel very fresh today, but I also feel it’s in the DNA of ‘Mary Poppins,’” Marshall explained. That signature style was one of several “guideposts” he considered essential for the sequel — a list that also included the penguins. “I knew I would be disappointed if they weren’t part of it!”
Screenwriter David Magee had a similar relationship with the 1964 feature. “‘Mary Poppins’ was a film from my childhood; it was something baked into all of our DNAs,” he said. “We went back and we read [P. L. Travers’ stories] like crazy, and of course we went back to the original film, but what we were trying to do was pull the elements they hadn’t touched on in the first film and take the story to another level.”
There was one moment from the books that didn’t quite make the final cut of the film — but Lin-Manuel Miranda hopes we’ll be able to see it soon. “I hope if there’s ever sort of a Blu-ray, special features — there was a song called ‘The Anthropomorphic Zoo’ that was also in the animated sequence,” he told Variety. “That was great! We had two huge numbers in a row, so they sort of took the best of that and made the Royal Doulton Music Hall song, which is also wonderful, but I hope they release ‘The Anthropomorphic Zoo.’”
It’s not the only lost song from a Mary Poppins story that Miranda has championed — he also loves “Temper, Temper,” which was cut from the stage musical for its dark tone — but when it comes to the film, he considers “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” a classic for a reason. “‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ for a lyricist is the best, because it’s the most audacious thing — let’s make up a word, and then somehow have it become the hookiest song in the history of the world,” he said with a grin. “That’s like, only the Sherman brothers. It’s incredible!”
That kind of risk-taking is part of what attracted Marshall to the genre in the first place. “I think it’s very complicated to do a musical. One of the hardest things in the world is to get one right!” the “Chicago” director said. “It’s a fine balancing act — but I think the genre is so beautiful and so life-affirming. How else can you reveal someone so deeply inside the way you can in song, the way you can in dance?” With “Into the Woods” and “Mary Poppins Returns” under his belt, he’s optimistic about the future of movie musicals, and intends to stay with the medium himself. “My hope is to continue for a long time.”