• Ben Erickson

Mary Poppins Returns

Over fifty years have passed since the original magic inducing movie-musical Mary Poppins was brought to life, and all its fantastic, impossible fun has been restored with Mary Poppins Returns. Based on the P.L. Travers books Mary Poppins Comes Back and Mary Poppins Opens the Door, the late sequel film stars Emily Blunt in the titular role and Lin-Manuel Miranda as the supportive cockney companion, with original music and lyrics written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. Based in the depression era the story picks up with the now grown-up Banks siblings in a state of financial crisis, with Michael's three young children and their best-loved nanny reminding him of what matters most in their time of need. The film was directed by Rob Marshall, who had film adaptations of Chicago and Into the Woods under his belt prior to this long awaited production. Shaiman himself has had a far reaching history with musicals as well as a longtime collaboration with Wittman, scoring Sister Act and the 2002 Broadway theatre show Hairspray. The Oscar-nominated composer-songwriter has considerable credits to his name besides, with classic rom-coms like When Harry Met Sally... and Sleepless in Seattle, or dramatic features such as A Few Good Men and Patch Adams. Shaiman and Wittman were joined by Richard M. Sherman as music consultant for the film, the surviving brother to have scored the 1964 original with Edwardian concert hall inspired music. Shaiman claimed to have learned his craft from a young age by listening to the Sherman Brothers' music, and especially Mary Poppins. There is no doubt of this on hearing Mary Poppins Returns. The entire score follows in the style laid down by the Sherman Brothers, using clever and creative lyrical schemes with rhymes and double entendre abound. It is a bit of a mimic-fest, where every character and every song can be connected back as a nod or homage to the original, but it does so without feeling contrived. The vocal arrangements are a combination of pre-recorded and live vocals, allowing for more believable vocal custody from each character than most movie-musicals, and when off voice the score borrows from the song material with an appealing fluidity. Mary's introductory number "Can You Imagine That?" takes possession of the score as the film's theme, with Blunt donning a proper British accent for the occasion. Hints of "A Spoonful of Sugar" and other favourites are sprinkled in the score too, trailing as familiar character leitmotivs or impressionist recollections of a less difficult time. The orchestrations are sweet and lush, with animated levels of farcical storytelling taken to their furthest limits. More than just singing and dancing these lively arrangements feature slide whistles, glockenspiels, celestes, crash cymbals, bulb horns, drum hits, brass shots, extravagant harp portamenti, and a musical box, all backed by a traditional orchestra as part of the endearing, unapologetically old school approach to fun and camp. Already many critics have made comparisons regarding the different personalities of Mary Poppins between films, with Blunt connecting closer to the source material, but comparatively little has been discussed about the singing. Odd that, given this is a musical and all. Would it be fair to say Emily Blunt is no Julie Andrews? Sure, but let us not forget that Andrews is a classical trained singer who had top notes for days and the potential for an operatic career. Blunt has come to musical theatre as an actress first and a singer second. That her voice is deeper than Andrews in 1964, singing roughly an octave apart from film to film, is no basis on which to criticize (unless you mean to target the casting of course). Not only does the range difference have to do with Blunt's instrument - which is a very personal thing mind you - but it relates back to a fad that erupted through Broadway over the past two decades. It has been fashionable to compose part's written for women in a low register, such as with Frozen or Wicked, using one's belting range for the show-stopping moment. Blunt's voice has a similar depth of colour and richness befitting of this sort of flexible, contemporary theatre fach, and it has only grown fuller since her portrayal of the baker's wife from Into the Woods. She obviously worked hard for this role, and doubly hard on preparing the music, and for that I have nothing but praise and admiration for her. Miranda struts his stuff early on with "(Underneath the) Lovely London Sky", visibly at ease on set. To date Mary Poppins Returns is the biggest profile picture he has starred in, earning worldwide acclaim with the hit 2015 musical Hamilton and continuing to challenge conventions in musical theatre. Besides bookending the score the multifaceted artist delivers one of the best numbers with "Trip a Little Light Fantastic" late into the film, introducing "leerie-speak" and the ensemble cast for the obligatory dance sequence. Miranda's trademark rap style emerges with "A Cover Is Not the Book" alongside Blunt's best cockney accent, using his vocal skills in a patter-like way not uncommonly heard in the mid-1900s. Together the two handle most of the bigger ballads, singing in a true unison with one another at times ("A Cover Is Not the Book"), and at others with a satisfying growl ("The Royal Doulton Music Hall"). Honourable mention goes to Meryl Streep, who has been close friends with Blunt since The Devil Wears Prada and had leading roles in Mamma Mia! and Into the Woods. "Turning Turtle" was far from the strongest number, with some unexpected Jewish overtones in the use of cimbalom, Klezmer clarinets, and fiddles, but it looked like good fun to put together. Dick Van Dyck's energy in the decidedly older Mr. Dawes was what really blew me away ("Trip A Little Light Fantastic (Reprise)"). Some viewers seemed at a loss when Dame Angela Lansbury showed up as the balloon lady ("Nowhere To Go But Up"), a role I suspect had been written for Andrews, but Lansbury's palpable esteem and British pedigree put any questions I might otherwise have had to bed. And as my girlfriend was quick to point out, Angela Lansbury can do whatever she wants. With more and more movie-musicals being made these days it is amusing to consider the film score as the unofficial Original Broadway Cast recording, though that is essentially how it felt to sit down and listen. In any case, the real strength of the film is the message of hope in difficult times that one can never hear too often. Blunt's earnest compassion in "The Place Where the Lost Things Go" was just one of many moments to bring out happy tears. Whether or not the music has staying power to match the original, time will tell, but I would be lying if I said I had not been humming my favourites around the apartment. Until next time Mary Poppins.