Exclusive interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda: ‘We workshopped Mary Poppins Returns like it was a Broadway musical’
Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and star of smash-hit musical Hamilton, is taking on his first major role on the big screen, playing Jack in Mary Poppins Returns, the Disney sequel to the 1964 classic musical film. He talks to Georgia Snow about stepping into the iconic world, making musical theatre on screen and how Mary Poppins Returns, Mamma Mia! 2 and A Star Is Born signals “the rise of the musical”.
How much did the nostalgia around the original film inform your work on Mary Poppins Returns?
I think that we put the first Mary Poppins film in a bin with all of our childhood imagination, so Rob [Marshall, director] is playing with those elements – when you see the kite with the sash that says ‘Votes for Women’, or when Marc Shaiman brilliantly reprises a melody of Feed the Birds late in our film – there’s so much of it that’s in our DNA, it’s really amazing to see how emotional it makes you feel. I felt the same way on set.
Was the original film part of your own childhood?
Everyone keeps asking about the first time I saw it. I actually don’t remember. It lived in my house, along with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Sword in the Stone, basically the whole Disney collection section of our VHS library. I spent many hours watching Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious – that was my favourite song growing up.
What inspired you when creating your character, Jack, the lamplighter who becomes Mary Poppins’ companion in the film?
What’s wonderful about Jack, the character I play, is that he knows Mary Poppins’ magic is real. All the other [adult] characters have rationalised those adventures away. Michael and Jane Banks are grown in our film, and they have asked themselves about those stories they made up about Mary Poppins, saying: ‘They’re not real are they?’. They’ve put them in a separate file, but not Jack. He is very in touch with his inner child and inner imagination.
Tell us about the experience of performing someone else’s music, which must be a rarity for you.
It was great. I feel like, for my whole career, I’ve been building the dumb waiter and climbing it myself. But with this, I was offered the opportunity to be in a film of this calibre, with this incredible cast and Marc and Scott [Wittman]’s songs, that felt like the fruit of all the hard work I’ve been doing for my whole career.
How did working on a movie musical such as this compare to a stage musical?
Rob Marshall actually did the harder thing first when he brilliantly adapted stage musicals for the screen – Chicago, Nine, Into the Woods. That is way harder, but I’m here because I wanted to be part of his original musical, and so there was a year of work.
We workshopped this as if we were workshopping a Broadway musical. There were probably five different songs that were tried out before we stumbled on Underneath the Lovely London Sky [which opens the film]. It was like that for every moment because you’re looking for the exact right journey to go on. It’s like building a rollercoaster – when do we slowly climb up, when do we barrel down – creating that experience takes a lot of time and preparation.
Do you think it will encourage people to see live theatre on stage?
Absolutely. There’s a brilliant stage adaptation of the first Mary Poppins that Disney and Cameron Mackintosh produced, I was lucky enough to see that here in London. But I am thrilled with the rise of musicals in general. I love that Mary Poppins Returns comes out in the same year as Mamma Mia! 2 and A Star Is Born. You couldn’t pick three more different films, so I think the more stories musical films can tell, the healthier we [musical theatre] are as a genre.