Interview: Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman Share Their Experiences Writing the Music of ‘Mary Poppins Returns’

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Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman have been writing music for film and stage for years. They have worked together on projects like the TV series “Smash,” and the movie movie musical, “Hairspray.” But when they signed on to write original music for “Mary Poppins Returns,” it was a truly unique experience for both.

Following up one of the most iconic movie musicals in history was a monumental challenge, but also came with many rewards. I had the chance to speak with them together about their opportunity to work with Rob Marshall on this rare project.

Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: I am so excited because I love this movie. It’s my favorite movie of the year.

Scott Wittman: We like hearing that!

Marc Shaiman: It’s ours too!

KP: To start off, for each of you, when you got the call about “Mary Poppins Returns,” did you hesitate at all or were you just immediately like, “Yes!”

SW: We said immediately, “Yes,” and then, of course, the fear set in. So it was a yes and then terrified after that.

MS: It was like Wile E. Coyote chasing the Road Runner off the cliff, and he only realizes he’s off the cliff a few seconds later. Looks at the camera and plummets. (laughs) But I couldn’t imagine not doing it. Or living life knowing it had gotten done and I wasn’t involved, because that movie just means everything to me. Not just as my generation as it does, but also as a songwriter… I just had to do it.

SW: And I think for Rob Marshall as well, that was a prerequisite for anyone involved in the movie. David Magee, all of us, that there was a love and a need to honor the original movie. So that was certainly part of the job description.

KP: That makes sense because it really does feel like it’s made by people who truly do love the original film.

SW: Yeah, as Marc often says – I’m quoting Marc even though he’s here – “It’s our thank you letter to the first film.”

KP: When you set out to write the music, these big, amazing musical numbers, where did you start?

SW: We started with Rob and John DeLuca, his producing partner and David Magee, and we started with the books. The PL Travers books. There were eight subsequent books after the first one. We met for a couple of months, maybe four months, without ever putting pen to paper, just talking, playing “What if?” What if Mary did this? All of the adventures and everything were taken from the actual books.

MS: And as we were carving up the plot and figuring out which adventures mirrored something going on in the plot that Mary Poppins would be teaching the kids some sort of lesson, dropping bread crumbs in their brains basically, to get them to figure out how to help their father.

SW: So that was what we did for months. And then we went off and wrote it. We had a good foundation to begin with because we knew who the characters were by then and we knew what the songs needed to do in the story.

KP: Which came first? The lyrics, or the music?

SW: We write the lyrics together, so we sit in the same room, I’m there as well while the music is being written. We write the lyrics together and then the song starts to form as we’re working together.

MS: First we trade phrases. Just phrases that are on point with what the song needs to be about. The most important thing before music and lyrics is, what is the idea of the song? What is its purpose? And once you figure that out, and usually a title might come hand in hand with that, then all the fear of the blank page just goes away and suddenly it’s like a toboggan ride and you’re writing and writing. But there’s four days of us just trading back and forth phrases and then I pace them all up on the piano and phrases just start popping out as The Ones. And suddenly, just one melody will star for a verse and then it just starts leading into… you can basically write a dummy version of the song, with a couple of phrases in there and then a lot of nonsense so that we have a melody. Then we go back and we really start carving the lyrics up from first syllable on to do that thing that a song has to do, have that arc.

KP: Which song came easiest?

SW: There are all hard! There’s nothing that just, like, popped out. I like to say takes a day and a lifetime to write. But we were lucky that we had the luxury of having Emily [Blunt]. She was making a movie in New York at the time and she would come almost once a week and we got to hand tailor, bespoke these songs on her. I think the first one that never had a rewrite was the ballad, “The Place Where Lost Things Go.” I think Emily – she was a new parent at the time – could barely get through the song for a good length of time. But that’s a song that didn’t really go through a rewrite. Everyone said, “No, that’s it. Leave that as it is.”

KP: At what point when you were working did you know who the actors were going to be? Was that from the beginning?

SW: We knew Emily from the beginning, yes.

MS: But we had actually started, we wrote I think two songs before Lin-Manuel Miranda was going to play that part. So we adjusted a bit knowing that, and the fun part of knowing it was him was getting to write the English music hall song, “A Cover Is Not the Book,” that whole section in the middle of it, where he gets to go off on a tongue-twisting tangent – Oh, that was a lot of alliteration –

SW: That was good!

MS: Yeah! So that was fun, knowing we had him. And we were lucky that we could do that for him and it wouldn’t be anachronistic at all. That kind of thing was so prevalent in the English music hall, that patter song. And then on the opening song, we had already written. Then we went back and forth writing new songs. Each one of them had a bit more energy because people were saying, “You gotta deliver Lin-Manuel!” We thought that meant more energy instead of kind of a gentle song that starts the movie. But right before recording the songs, the decision was made, after five songs, to go back to the original song we wrote, “Underneath the Lovely London Sky.” Everyone liked the fact that the movie would start with a gentle welcome.

SW: Yeah.

MS: And also to be able to show Lin is not going to just be what you expect. That he has other sides to him. He was happy about that himself.

KP: It was so fun to see those sides of Lin-Manuel, with that pretty melody, but then when he also gets to just bust into that rap-style in “A Cover Is Not the Book.”

SW: Because of the animation, that was the very first thing they shot. So not only was he playing a lead in a big musical and singing that, he was also just in front of a green screen for weeks. And they would say, “No, that penguin in your right hand is heavier.” It was playing to nothing, but the animation was coming later.

KP: How do you prepare these big numbers when you know you aren’t going to get to see what it looks like for so long?

SW: That’s Rob’s skill. We rehearsed for almost eight or nine weeks prior to filming. So everything was blocked out and meticulously staged so that when the actors finally got to the set, they knew exactly who they were and what they were doing. Then that’s great freedom because you can focus on the small details of things. We rehearsed it like a Broadway show.

KP: One of the things that really struck me and that makes this so special is the little moments that are homages to the first film, where you have musical cues from “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” and “A Spoonful of Sugar.” Was that something that Rob insisted on having there, or did you just feel like it was important?

MS: That falls in my category as scoring the movie. We knew all along that that was the perfect way to involve melodies from the first movie. And it was the most emotional way to involve them. And then it just became a matter of how much or how little. I kind of went a little overboard when we first started because I enjoy doing things like that. But then Marc Platt was like, “Hold your horses! Pull the reins! Establish your own stuff before you go too far with that.” So it happens very subtly, more and more. There’s a lot of very, very, very subtle things that probably people don’t even realize they’re hearing that are just tucked in underneath. But it was a joy to do that and we’d be crazy, of course, not to have.

But it would have been cruel to have asked any of our actors to have actually sung any of those songs because the comparisons are hard enough for both the actors and for Scott and I to begin with. So to ask Emily to sing “A Spoonful of Sugar” or “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” we never entertained that idea. It just seemed like we needed to make our own.

KP: Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury. Did you set out to write songs for the characters, or did you know that you were writing for them?

SW: The song for Angela Lansbury we wrote as a character song. We knew Dick Van Dyke was in the movie, but we waited, and Rob decided he wanted him to sing. So we wrote a reprise of Lin’s song, which seemed to be kind of appropriate for him. But the Angela Lansbury character was written as the character. She’s a character from one of the PL Travers books.

MS: But it’s beyond a thrill. It’s even still hard for me to believe it when they start singing on screen that they’re singing songs that we wrote.

SW: Yeah, when I watched it I feel like I didn’t even have anything to do with it. Like I’m just watching a movie and it’s an amazing experience. It feels out of body.

KP: When you are watching the film after it’s completed, do you still think of things that you wish you’d written differently or wish you had gone a different direction? Or are you able to just enjoy it?

SW: I’m able to just enjoy it. Marc’s frantic scoring the movie, so he has another thought. But I’ve seen it– we had a huge premiere in London and a big one in LA and I’ve seen it also with kids in the audience and that’s very magical. A lot of people have been sending us notes about, “I took my child to see the movie and it’s their first non-animated film.” Four year olds just transfixed by it. Those notes have been so emotional from people, especially about the ballad.

MS: There are two lyrics I wish I could get up on that screen and, I just still, oh my god, I wish we could just go in… Literally just two words. One word in one song and one word in another song I wish we could just get in there. Otherwise, no, I pretty much can enjoy what ended up getting in there. And Rob has made the most beautiful movie. It’s staggering how perfect it is. I don’t think people really recognize the accomplishment of what he pulled off here. It’s a stunning movie. I’ve worked on a lot of movies and I certainly know the ones that are good and the ones that stink, and the ones that I’m most proud of this movie out of everything I’ve ever worked on. I can just stand back and marvel at it.

KP: I’ve seen it three times, and I’m going to go see it again.

MS: God bless you!

KP: How much time did you spend on set while they were filming?

SW: We did the prerecord after the rehearsal period. We broke for Christmas and then came back and recorded everything with the orchestra and with the actors. And then they sort of don’t need us anymore until they’re done. We would occasionally rewrite a word here and there. I went and visited once, but that all became Rob’s domain.

MS: We were working on a Broadway musical so we were stuck in New York and so we really couldn’t make it. Only when we took a small break did Scott have the chance to go. I think I was still working on the orchestrations or something for the musical, which was heartbreaking. We only watched Angela Lansbury and Dick Van Dyke sing in the recording studio via Skype. Thank god for Skype!

I only met her in person the other day at the AFI Awards. At the end of the AFI Awards she was the surprise guest speaker to close out the afternoon and she spoke wonderfully. And then off she went, and I was like, “Oh my god! I can finally look her in the face and say thank you!” I ran, I practically tackled her like a football player because she had already made it out. They made a space for her to go quickly and suddenly I was in this mad crush of people, knocking people over like the Superbowl! It was right at the front door of the Four Seasons, I was like, “Ms Lansbury!” She must have thought, “Oh, god, now what?” But once I introduced myself and said that I was part of the team that wrote the songs, she was very sweet and it was just… I still can’t believe it. It’s all still surreal, even having talked to her.

KP: Do you have any stories of a moment that you were working on song and how it came together?

SW: No one’s asked that!

MS: Well, one story, it almost sounds like a corny moment out of an old style movie about writing songs. We had written a song called “Trip the Light Fantastic” for that moment in the movie that’s now “Trip a Little Light Fantastic.” And we wrote a song that was about how the lamplighters were teaching the children, “Here’s a way to find your way home in the dark. Listen for all the sounds in London.” And it was a whole song about knowing when you’re at the wharf, and it was a fun song about sounds. We finished it and us and Rob, we realized, wait a second, we should have written about light. They’re lamplighters and there’s something about following the light that has a lot more meaning.

So we went back to the drawing board, and we were also trying to think how can we turn the title into something a little more special? And so, ironically, I got on a bicycle here in New York. They’re city bikes, where you can just put your card in and you get on the bike. So off I was going to a meeting with Scott over at Rob and John’s house and I was on the bicycle thinking about the song and what could it be instead of trip the light fantastic, trip the light fantastic, the pedals, the spokes and the wheels started talking to me like out of a corny old movie and it was trip a little, trip a little, trip a little light fantastic!

By the time I got to the apartment, I was like “Scott! I’ve got a new title!” And off we went home to write the new song. So I don’t know if that’s a fun story (laughs) but it’s true and it’s awful corny, but it’s true!

KP: I love it! How about you, Scott?

SW: I loved recording all the songs, especially Meryl Streep. I don’t know, I think Emily is great fun. She’s really, really witty and funny, and she can really make me laugh. When she screws up she always screams, “Bloody hell!” It makes me really laugh!

MS: I do have a lot of funny outtakes. I found some the other day. Words that Mary Poppins would never, ever say! I’ve got them in my back pocket for blackmail!

SW: She can always make me laugh. She’s got a great, great sense of humor.

KP: What is something really made this such a special film for you both to work on?

MS: We got to meet with Richard Sherman when all was said and done. After he’d seen the film and we spent an afternoon with him, they videotaped us interviewing each other. Scott and I asking him questions and him asking us questions. And his seal of approval, that…oh… I will start weeping if I talk about it.

SW: That’s better than any little gold man. He was fantastic, Richard, and he just loves the movie. We had a screening in Santa Barbara, and a man had come up to me after it and said he had to leave his house during the Thousand Oaks fire and one of his kids was in that awful shooting and he just started breaking down about the song in front of me. So I knew then, that’s when I sort of knew the song had a life outside the movie.

We would like to thank Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman for taking some time to speak with us about “Mary Poppins Returns.”

The film is distributed by Disney and is currently in theaters.

Be sure to visit our Official Oscar Predictions Page to see where “MARY POPPINS RETURNS” ranks among the contenders!