‘Mary Poppins Returns’ Songwriters on Facing the Pressure of Following a Classic

Oscar songs special: “How could we possibly be as brave or audacious or naïve as we needed to be to take on such a project?” says songwriter Marc Shaiman of his and Scott Wittman’s job on the Rob Marshall film

Last Updated: December 10, 2018 @ 8:17 AM

Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman are participating in TheWrap’s third annual songwriters panel at the Dolby Screening Room Hollywood Vine on Monday. A version of this story first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.

Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman have collaborated on Broadway hits and movies in the past, but they took on a formidable task when Disney decided to bring back Mary Poppins in the Rob Marshall film “Mary Poppins Returns.” The Sherman brothers wrote a string of classics for the 1964 film (including “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Supercalifragilisticexpealidocious,” “Step in Time” and the Oscar-winning “Chim Chim Cher-ee”), and Shaiman and Wittman had to step into their shoes for the new adventure.

The songwriting team wrote nine songs for the film, two of which were submitted to the Oscars for the Best Original Song category: the ballad “The Place Where Lost Things Go” and the large-scale dance number “Trip a Little Light Fantastic.”

TheWrap: Writing songs for “Mary Poppins Returns” seems to be the ultimate case of a gig you can’t turn down — but when you get it, how the hell do you do it?
MARC SHAIMAN You’ve nailed it. I had to have it and couldn’t imagine somebody else getting it, not to get too evil-show-businessy about it. When we were up for it, I truly was unsure how I would live the rest of my life if we didn’t get it — but if we got it, how could we possibly be as brave or audacious or naïve as we needed to be to take on such a project?

SCOTT WITTMAN I’m not as fear-based as Marc. So once we did get it, you just have to put pen to paper and get over the fear.

Let’s talk about the two songs that are being submitted to the Oscars. “The Place Where Lost Things Go” feels like an emotional centerpiece for the film.
WITTMAN Mary Poppins is singing to the children, because they’re missing their mother who has passed. The title is very much based on a P.L. Travers story that says Mary Poppins’ uncle is the Man on the Moon, and that the dark side of the moon is where all the lost things go.

SHAIMAN That story is not in the film and not even alluded to, but we liked the idea and used it so she could remind the children that those things are still out there.

“Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is a big dance number with Lin-Manuel Miranda and the lamplighters. Can you write a song like that and not think of “Step in Time?”
SHAIMAN The groove is not like “Step in Time,” but I can’t argue with you that if you put a large group of men dancing up a storm in front of Mary Poppins and the Banks children, it certainly gives you that frame of reference. And without ever trying to copy, we knew that the music in the film had to seem like it’s in the same neighborhood as the music from the first film. Everyone’s goal was to honor those filmmakers and songwriters. That’s what makes this special–it’s a chance to say thank you to the Sherman brothers.

Did you talk to Richard Sherman, the surviving brother, before and while you did this?
SHAIMAN While we were working on it, he was sent everything, and he gave his thumbs-up. But it wasn’t until he actually saw the film that he sent us a video, and he was so emotional and so sincere and so pure. He said things like, “I feel like it’s a relay, where you guys have picked up the baton.” That was the best review we could get.

To read more of TheWrap’s Race Begins issue, click here.

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