'Mary Poppins Returns': How we wrote the film's Oscar-nominated songs

Tom Butler
Senior Editor
Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and the animal stars of Mary Poppins Returns (Disney)

Mary Poppins Returns home on Monday when the Oscar-nominated sequel arrives on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital Download. Starring Emily Blunt in the title role, the 2018 musical was a hit for Disney, commercially, critically, and during awards season, with Blunt’s rendition of ‘The Place Where Lost Things Go’ nominated for Best Original Song at the Academy Awards earlier this year.

With its music and score composed by Marc Shaiman, and song lyrics written by Scott Wittman and Shaiman, the Mary Poppins Returns soundtrack has been on hard rotation in the Yahoo offices, so we jumped at the chance to speak with Wittman about how the practically perfect songs came about.

The 64-year-old songwriter says being nominated for an Oscar was “thrilling”, but that losing to Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga for A Star Is Born’s ‘Shallow’ wasn’t so bad, because he’d become firm friends with the pair on the awards circuit.

Marc Shaiman, left, and Scott Wittman, co-lyricists for the songs in “Mary Poppins Returns,” pose at the premiere of the film in Los Angeles. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP, File)

With the songs from the 1964 film, written by iconic songwriting duo the Sherman Brothers heavy on their minds, it’s no wonder it took three years from start to finish to write the tunes for the film.

Here’s what we learned from Wittman about the making of another iconic soundtrack.

Yahoo Movies UK: I read that you started work on the songs for Mary Poppins Returns three years ahead of the shoot. Is that correct?

Scott Wittman: Yes, we started meeting about it. Because Marc [Shaiman] and I co-write lyrics, and he does the music. So we started meeting with [director] Rob Marshall, [producer] John De Luca, and [screenwriter] David Magee. And for the first couple of months, we just played what we call ‘what if?’

So we had all read all the books, and we came in there saying ‘what if?’

Read more: Mary Poppins sequel in early stage of development

Like ‘what if this adventure and this book could tell our story?’ So that was a fun time. That was two or three months at the beginning with no pen to paper yet.

You looked at the books but then when you’re actually starting to write the music, was there a specific song that you thought ‘this is where we’re going to begin’?

Well, I think the very first song we wrote was Lin-Manuel [Miranda’s] first song in the movie [‘(Underneath the) Lovely London Sky’] , so we just started at the beginning, and worked our way forward.

HOLLYWOOD, CA – NOVEMBER 29: Actors Lin-Manuel Miranda (L) and Dick Van Dyke attend Disney’s ‘Mary Poppins Returns’ World Premiere at the Dolby Theatre on November 29, 2018 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Disney)

That’s the logical place to start! And for me as a fan of the original which I’m sure you are, one of the things I loved…

Well, I think for Rob, that was a prerequisite for being part of the team. We wanted to honour the first one and, as we like to say, this was like a thank you note to the Sherman Brothers and to Walt Disney for that first movie.

What I liked a lot about this one is that it felt very familiar in a way, almost like a cover version of that original – is that how the sort of the song beats were worked out?

Well when Marc and I sat down to write the lyrics together and the music we knew that it had to live on the same Cherry Tree Lane as the first movie.

Watch an exclusive bonus clip about Cherry Tree Lane from the upcoming DVD and Blu-ray release below…

During the three years that you worked on the film, did the story evolve a lot, and did the songs change?

Well we wrote many different versions of songs. But the footprint of the story didn’t change. The song that was in it as a placement did. So for Lin’s first number, we both wrote 4 or 5 songs before settling on the first song. We like writing, and we like writing lyrics together, so it was fun.

Do you ever return to the songs that you didn’t use?

Oh, we could make a whole other movie! I’m sure some of them will creep out over time.

The songs draw very heavily on the original soundtrack, there seems to be certain motifs that repeat so it’s very recognisable – did you do that in terms of the lyrics as well? Referring to the way that the Sherman brothers would write their lyrics and their phrasing and stuff like that?

The Sherman brothers are a huge influence on both of our childhoods, and both of our lives. In one instance they wrote a song for the first movie called the “The Chimpanzoo” and we wrote a song in our movie called “The Anthropomorphic Zoo” and in both situations, the songs were cut!

Editor’s note: “The Anthropomorphic Zoo” is included in the DVD and Blu-ray extras for the film.

But Richard was very much a fairy godfather [to the film]. He received all the material during the process, and we’ve become very good friends with he and his wife.

Did you spend much time agonising whether or not you could include the word “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” in any of your lyrics?

No. We all approached it as a new piece. I don’t think Emily would have fancied that prospect. I think it was important that this movie have its own score.

It’s a hard word to shoehorn into a song I guess…

Yes, of course!

‘A Cover Is Not The Book’

There’s a section which is very suited to Lin Manuel and his delivery. Was that there the whole time or was that something that you added in when he was cast in the film?

The first song we wrote was before he was cast, but once he was cast, yes, we wrote together for him. The joy of it was that it wasn’t as anachronistic [as you’d think] because it’s very much in the tradition of the patter song. If you’d have told me Gilbert and Sullivan could have written it, well I guess they were the great-grandfather’s of rap.

So it was very much of the period that the movie takes place, this Stanley Holloway [style]… a sort of fast-talking words thing.

Read more: Is Mary Poppins a Time Lord?

And the story that that section is based on is actually in one of the PL Travers books.

One of the sections of that song took me by surprise by how saucy it was!

Well, Emily’s Mary was a little saucy. She’s terribly rude, so I think that for her character it was deemed appropriate!

‘The Place Where Lost Things Go’

I think it made me cry both times in the film – Is that what you’re aiming for there?

No, no, no! I don’t think I’ve ever we’ve ever written anything that aimed for the tear ducts on purpose. The assignment was to write a song explaining to children what loss is. And so it had to put in almost lullaby terms for them. So hopefully we succeeded.

This was nominated for the Oscar? What an honour!

Oh yes, it was very thrilling. I’m very proud of the song. We’ve gotten so many beautiful letters and responses from people about the song, and posts on social media. I’m glad it touched people in that way.

Did you get to congratulate Lady Gaga on the night, and commiserate?

Lady Gaga kisses her Oscar for best original song at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Yes, of course, I’ll say! Leading up to that event, you spend a lot of time together at various functions, and we’ve both been friends with Bradley [Cooper] for many years. When you spend so much time with them, and become so fond of them, you don’t feel so bad when you lose!

‘Turning Turtle’

Was Meryl Streep attached to the role of Topsy when you wrote this song and did it change when she came aboard?

No she wasn’t. She hadn’t been cast yet. The part was originally for a man. It’s one of the characters from PL Travers and so when Meryl, when Rob had the idea about the casting Meryl, we changed it around and then we got great fun with the idea that she had vaguely Eastern European accent. She loved singing it, and for her it was just a metaphor for the sort of fragile times we live in.

You must be over the moon with how it turned out?

Yeah, she worked so hard during the rehearsal process, and we said ‘my god, your work ethic is amazing!’ And she said ‘fear is a great motivator!’

‘Trip a Little Light Fantastic’

This feels like the film’s big ‘Chim Chim Cher-ee’ moment – was that the intention?

Rob and the choreographers, they knew they wanted a male driven dance number on that scale, and so Marc came up [with this]. Originally the title was just “Trip the Light Fantastic”, and then Marc was on a bike one day in the city, and he wasn’t happy with the title, and he was riding along and he heard the spokes speak to him, and so he got the idea that the title should be ‘Trip a Little, Trip a Little, Trip a Little’… so that’s how that came about!

We also had great fun with the Leery speak in it, which is the Cockney rhyming slang part.

‘Nowhere To Go But Up’

This brought a tear to my eye. The Balloon Lady role would have been perfect for Julie Andrews, and I know that the producers have said she was never considered for it, but it feels so obvious that it would have been the right moment for her to be included.

Possibly. But I think that she, in her very Dame Julie Andrews way, felt that this was Emily’s moment. And she felt it would detract possibly, but when you have someone like Angela Lansbury who has all the magic that you see and it’s sort of perfect, and that’s how it came about.

Are you starting a three year process for the next Mary Poppins film? Or are you taking a break?

We’re writing a new Broadway production of Some Like It Hot. I love that process. Hopefully it will be less than three years!

But if they if they wanted you to come back, would you be would you be keen to come back and do more Mary Poppins songs for a sequel?

If it was the same team? Sure.

Mary Poppins Returns is available to own on digital download, DVD and Blu-Ray from 15 April.