Lin-Manuel Miranda Geeks Out About All the Cool Theater Stuff in Mary Poppins Returns
Miranda stars opposite Emily Blunt in the new sequel to the beloved Disney film.
"Who would ever imagine a sequel to Mary Poppins?"
That was the big question that crossed Lin-Manuel Miranda's mind when director Rob Marshall and producer John DeLuca pitched him a role in their upcoming movie musical Mary Poppins Returns.
Inspired by the stories of P.L. Travers, the film is set some 25 years after Disney's iconic nanny first left the Banks family, and now, following a great loss, grown-up Michael (Ben Whishaw), his three children, and sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) need Mary back more than ever. Miranda, in his first major leading role in a film, plays Jack, a lamplighter and former apprentice to Dick Van Dyke's beloved chimney sweep Bert, who joins Mary and the kids on their adventures.
Luckily, Miranda was sold on the idea of the sequel from the second he heard that Emily Blunt would follow in the footsteps of Julie Andrews. And then Miranda went on his own adventure, one that relocated his family to London, found him acting opposite Van Dyke himself, and provided the kind of experiences beyond a theater geek's wildest dreams.
Was it a "yes" on the spot?
It was a "yes" in my head on the spot, but nothing's a "yes" on the spot 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 lives for a little bit?" She was all-in. So then it became a "yes."
What was the second thought that crossed your mind after you signed on?
"Will we have the tools to do this?" That's why Rob Marshall, coming from the theater, was such a godsend. It was like rehearsing a Broadway show, except we had more time. You're a theater site, so I'm gonna tell you all the cool theater stuff.
Before everyone was cast, we did a weeklong workshop in Disney's space while Aladdin was going on. It was just us and the best theater actors around. We had one of the Matildas, Oona Laurence, as one of the Banks children. The late Marin Mazzie sang Meryl Streep's role before Meryl signed on. We were testing out the material.
We had nine weeks of rehearsal in London, and on the first day, they hand me and Emily a hat and cane and we just start. By rehearsing it like a Broadway show, we became a company. By the time we were filming, I felt totally ready.
What's one thing that Rob did on set that you'd love to incorporate into your future projects?
What I was looking at from him is how you use theatrical principles to run a film set. Rob works in the same way that I'm comfortable in working with my collaborators on Hamilton, which is that the best idea wins. He's got a brain trust. He's got his partner, John DeLuca, and three associates, co-choreographer Joey Pizzi, assistant choreographer Marlon Pelayo, and associate choreographer Tara Nicole Hughes. Marlon will be working on choreography with me, Joey is working with the dancers, and Tara is wrangling the kids, but everyone is serving Rob's vision. When I direct Tick, Tick…BOOM!, I was mentally casting my brain trust as I was watching Rob work.
And then Dick Van Dyke walks on set. Was there a point where you were like "Be cool, Lin!"?
Yeah, but I also know that being cool gets you nothing with Dick Van Dyke. Honestly, I went at it sideways. I just geeked out about Broadway stuff. My first big break was Conrad Birdie in sixth grade, so I was like, "How was Chita Rivera?" and talking about how much that original recording of Bye Bye Birdie meant to me. He's just effervescent and earnest, and always has been. If you think I'm busy, that guy was filming 34 episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show, filmed Mary Poppins on his hiatus, and his way in was as Albert Peterson in Bye Bye Birdie, and that role is really heavy lifting. We commiserated about that grind.
The day he was on set was really special. It was the only day that Rob really broke. We never felt any pressure. We just felt like, "This is an awesome movie, these songs are great, let's just serve Rob." In the movie, Dick Van Dyke has a monologue and he finished it, we all waited for Rob to say cut, but nothing was happening. It's because Rob was crying and couldn't say it. We all lost it, of course, but Mary Poppins was Rob's first movie, so for him to be directing Dick Van Dyke and closing a circle from that first film…it's heavy.
How did you react when you first heard Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's score?
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 movie for the first time. The music starts and my son gasped. Kids don't gasp. Old ladies at the opera gasp. But this kid heard these French horns and went [gasps]. It was a genuine gasp. That was the same reaction Marc had.
On another note, are you excited to get back to playing Alexander Hamilton and doing it in Puerto Rico?
I really am. I've been scared all year, and for-real scared. Scared that the work we did on the theater wouldn't survive another hurricane season, scared that the ticket site would crash — it did not crash — scared about all the things outside my control. Now, I just get to be Hamilton and I'm remembering that the two hours and 40 minutes I was onstage in that show were the most fulfilling and relaxing time in my life, because my one job was to be Hamilton, and he requires all of my focus.
So much of your own work focuses on questions of legacy and what we leave behind. How does Mary Poppins Returns factor into that?
It's funny, because it's not what I was considering when I took the job. I just thought, "I'm gonna learn so much from Rob Marshall and Emily Blunt and all these amazing people." But it's wild that there's going to be a generation for whom this is a two-movie set. When I think of Mary Poppins in that fluffy white Disney VHS, I think this can sit next to it, and I'm proud of that.