PRECISELY WHAT IS MARY POPPINS? We know her to be a humanoid who does not age, is capable of telekinesis, is not constricted by the ordinary bounds of time, space, and gravity, and flies through the air with the aid of an umbrella, albeit in upright, duck-footed fashion. She is stern, fastidious, and speaks with a posh accent, but enjoys vaguely romantic relationships with common laborers. She is beloved by children and former children the world over, yet is, when contemplated at an intellectual distance, utterly unknowable, even bizarre.
“She’s a superhero,” says Emily Blunt without hesitation. “You could say she’s some sort of angel. She recognizes what people need, and she gives it to them, yet they discover something about themselves in the process.” With a rather Mary Poppins–like firmness, Blunt concludes, “I don’t think she concerns herself with what she is. There’s nobody else like her—which she quite likes.”
In ripped vintage blue jeans and a ruffled black velvet blouse by Frame, her hair blonde, Blunt does not bear much physical resemblance to Mary Poppins when I meet with her in early autumn, at a loft in lower Manhattan that she and her husband, the actor and director John Krasinski, use as an office. But in her rapid yet thoughtful response to my question, Blunt reveals how much consideration she has given to her starring role in next month’s Mary Poppins Returns.
And no wonder: Blunt has her work cut out for her. From the moment in the film when the character hovers into view—“As I live and breathe!” says an awed Lin-Manuel Miranda, playing Mary’s lamplighter friend Jack, admiring the supernormal caregiver’s emergence from the parting clouds—there has to be instant buy-in, not a moment of disbelief. The person portraying Mary Poppins in 2018 has to be—oh, what was that phrase on the magic tape measure?—practically perfect in every way.
This is because, for most of us, Mary Poppins has always been Julie Andrews, who made her screen debut in the 1964 original, winning an Oscar in the process. That film remains a canonical piece of American popular art, visually extravagant and full of unforgettable songs by the brothers Richard and Robert Sherman (“A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Feed the Birds [Tuppence a Bag],” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”). It’s a hell of a legacy to contend with—and Blunt knew that she was in for something big when she received a phone call of an uncommonly “ceremonious nature,” as she puts it, from Rob Marshall, the sequel’s director, in the summer of 2015. The two had worked together a couple of years earlier on Into the Woods, Marshall’s film adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim–James Lapine stage musical, and had developed an easy rapport.
This time, Blunt felt a different energy coming from Marshall, as if he were building up to a marriage proposal. Which he sort of was. After a long preamble in which he explained that he and John DeLuca, his partner in both his personal and professional lives, were closing in on an opportunity to work on a dream project—all the while withholding what the project was—Marshall finally let drop what he was talking about: another Mary Poppins. The original was the first film Marshall ever saw, with his parents at a theater in downtown Pittsburgh, when he was four years old. For the better part of his adult life, he had harbored a fantasy of making a sequel to it.
“Rob basically said, ‘If you don’t want to do this with us, we are going to find something else, because we won’t do it if you don’t want to,’ ” Blunt says.
“For me, there was no one else but Emily,” Marshall confirms. “There wasn’t even a possible other choice. She’s rare in this world because she’s incredibly warm and funny, and has a great deal of vulnerability as well. And at the same time, she’s British and can sing and dance.”
Blunt agreed on the spot. Only later did she consider the risks involved. Actually, there was a bit of a prompt for this: She told a friend about the pending project, and the friend remarked, “Oof, you’ve got balls of steel!”
“And then I remember a feeling of slight panic creeping in,” Blunt says.
AND WHAT OF MIRANDA, for whom Mary Poppins Returns would be his first major undertaking after departing the Broadway cast of his own Hamilton, the show that seismologically changed his life? And whose new character, Jack the lamplighter—or leerie, to use the Anglo-Scottish term preferred in the film—bears the weight of being both a protégé and heir to Dick Van Dyke’s beloved, chim-chimneying Bert?
“Were you leery of playing a leerie?” I ask Miranda in a Brooklyn café.
“I was not leery of playing a leerie, nor was I weary of playing a leerie. It was eerie to play a leerie,” Miranda replies.
“But did it get teary, playing a leerie?”
“It did,” Miranda says. “There are dreams you have when you’re a kid, and then there’s the notion that Mary Poppins would have a sequel someday and you could somehow possibly be in it. And if I had said that this was a dream of mine, you’d have been like, ‘What are you on?’
“I have a nod to the Sherman brothers in Hamilton, actually,” Miranda goes on. “In King George’s song, there’s a moment where he sings ‘Oceans rise, empires fall,’ and that’s a very Shermanesque move, to have the note go down on rise and up on fall—just like how the note goes up on the down in. . . .” He sings the line “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.”
Miranda began his Poppins prep by watching the ’64 movie for the first time since his boyhood. “It’s so timeless and weirdly resonant,” he says. “I mean, one of the first numbers is ‘Sister Suffragette,’ a men-are-stupid, voting-rights-for-women song”—sung by Glynis Johns as Mrs. Banks, the mother of the children to whom Mary Poppins ministers—“so that’s fantastic. And then the visual and musical sequences are as magical as anything you’d see in a movie today.”
Blunt took a different tack. Banishing her self-doubt, she made the executive decision not to rewatch the ’64 film, which she, too, had last seen in childhood. “I knew that if I watched Julie Andrews’s version, maybe I would take the edge off of what my instincts were telling me to do,” Blunt says. “Also, I didn’t want to be completely intimidated by the brilliance of her voice.”
Before Into the Woods, Blunt had done little in the way of professional singing, though she was not unmusical growing up. She played the cello as a child, and at Hurtwood House, the boarding school that she attended in her teens in England, she starred as Adelaide in a production of Guys and Dolls and performed in a four-girl vocal group. “We’d sing things like TLC’s ‘Waterfalls’—crushed it,” she says.
Still, there was some collective nervousness to be overcome. The film’s composers, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray, Smash), grappled with how “certifiably insane” it was to try to measure up to the Sherman brothers’ work. “And then, on top of that,” Shaiman says, “what could be more wonderfully torturous than ‘Let’s write songs for Lin-Manuel Miranda’?”
Blunt, Miranda, Shaiman, and Wittman all happen to be based in New York, and so, in the spring of 2016, the four regularly convened in a Chelsea studio. “We got to tailor the songs for Emily and Lin, make them bespoke,” Wittman says. For instance: The songwriters came up with a comic duet titled “A Cover Is Not the Book” that gives Miranda an extended moment to spit rhymes in the breakneck style for which he is known—“For it’s not so cut and dried/Well, unless it’s Dr. Jekyll/Then you better hide, petrified!”—albeit not, thankfully, in the form of an anachronistic rap. Among the conventions of the British music-hall genre is the patter song, a Gilbert and Sullivan–style demonstration of vocal dexterity, “so we felt we could deliver that kind of moment for Lin without compromising the style of the movie, or its time and the place,” Shaiman says.
For Blunt, these sessions served a therapeutic purpose. She was in the process of finishing up The Girl on the Train, in which she played a depressive voyeur, and was also heavily pregnant with the second of her two daughters with Krasinski, Violet, who is now two. (Their older girl, Hazel, is four.) “It was medicinal, singing these happy Mary Poppins songs after what I’d been through every day,” she says. “Poor Violet; she’d been rattling around inside me while I played this alcoholic train wreck. But then I think she benefited from all the singing.”
SIX WEEKS AFTER VIOLET’S BIRTH, Marshall arranged for Blunt and Miranda to workshop the new songs for a week opposite trained Broadway actor-singers in a mid-Manhattan rehearsal space—with Blunt ducking out every so often to pump milk. (“Mary Pump–ins; that’s what I felt like,” she says. “It was ridiculous.”) Next up was three months of rehearsals in England before filming would begin. Blunt, who moved her whole family to London for the shoot, told Marshall she needed some time off. “I said, ‘You’ve got to give me four or five months before I’m ready to crack on with the rehearsals, for the baby.’ ”
The downtime allowed Blunt to immerse herself in both films’ original source material, the eight children’s books by P. L. Travers, the series’ Australian-born, London-based author (who was so notoriously protective of her literary creation that Disney devoted an entire feature film, 2013’s Saving Mr. Banks, to the difficulties the studio had in securing Travers’s blessing to make the original picture). In the books, the title character is severe and forbidding, with some antiheroic traits, such as overweening vanity (“Mary Poppins was very vain and tried to look her best. Indeed, she was quite sure that she never looked anything else”) and a steadfast refusal to discuss her inner life (“Mary Poppins never told anybody anything”).
No surprise then, that the Mary Poppins that emerged from Blunt’s preparations is more tart, clipped, and expressly comic than Andrews’s—“closer to Dorothy Parker, or Katharine Hepburn in those thirties screwball movies, with a bit of Gene Wilder’s Wonka in there,” as Miranda puts it. Blunt says she drew inspiration from Rosalind Russell’s rat-a-tat speech cadences as the bulldog reporter Hildy Johnson in Howard Hawks’s screwball masterwork, His Girl Friday, and from the peculiar, frozen-in-the-thirties locutions of Princess Margaret, which she describes as “incredibly posh and quite strange, yet very light and well placed.”
The thirties, it so happens, were when the first two Poppins books were published, and there are glancing allusions within them to the financial hardships of “the Great Slump,” as the Depression was known in Britain. Number Seventeen Cherry Tree Lane, home to the Banks family, is the only house on the street “that is rather dilapidated and needs a coat of paint.” Walt Disney chose to transpose the first film’s action to the more manifestly merrie Edwardian era, circa 1910. But Marshall and the new film’s screenwriter, David Magee, decided to stay true to the author’s 1930s setting.
Their big departure was to leap ahead into the next generation. Jane and Michael Banks, played with tender sincerity and maximum adorableness by the moppet actors Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber in 1964, are now played by Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw. While Jane retains her spark, picking up her mother’s activist mantle (though her cause is organized labor), Michael is in the dumps. He is the father of three little Bankses, Annabel, John, and Georgie, but he is a recent widower, an unfulfilled bank employee, a creatively stunted artist, and a man so hopeless with finances that the very bank where both he and his father have worked is now threatening to repossess Number Seventeen—a suite of unfortunate circumstances that serves as the magical-nanny equivalent of a Bat-Signal.
All that said, what Marshall and Magee have not done is go down the well-trod path of the dark, dystopian franchise reboot; this is not Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Nanny. If anything, Mary Poppins Returns is remarkably faithful to the spirit of its predecessor. “The sequel sort of rhymes with the original,” says Miranda.
There is, once again, a bravura animated sequence, executed in the vintage hand-drawn Disney style, for which Marshall coaxed some veteran animators out of retirement. There are vibrant costumes, this time by Sandy Powell, that stand out against the London gray: caped, fitted overcoats in red and blue for Mary; knits in bright lime and Kelly green for Jane and Michael; bankers’ suits in irregular chalk stripes for Colin Firth (the film’s villain, devilishly cunning and wearing a Snidely Whiplash mustache) and his flunkies.
There is a visit by Mary Poppins and the children to a daffy relative of Mary’s, though this time it’s not Ed Wynn as Uncle Albert, whose levity literally made him levitate, but Meryl Streep as Cousin Topsy, done up in carrot-colored hair and chartreuse eye shadow, madly gallivanting about her fix-it shop, sometimes while upside down. There is—!!!—a hoofing 92-year-old Dick Van Dyke, echoing not his role as Bert but his other role, as the elderly banker Mr. Dawes. And Shaiman and Wittman have provided Miranda with his own “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” a gambol across London’s rooftops called “Trip a Little Light Fantastic.”
BY THE TIME filming began in London, in February of last year, the world was suddenly quite different from the one in which the plans for Mary Poppins Returns had been excitedly hatched. The unsettling outcomes of the Brexit referendum and the 2016 U.S. presidential election placed the making of the movie in a new perspective for its creators.
“It took on a new poignancy because of how volatile the times felt,” Blunt says. “I remember Meryl commenting on that, saying that coming in to work took on much more depth once things really started becoming more incendiary out there.”
“I couldn’t believe that, given all that was going on, this is what we got to put into the world,” says Miranda. “It’s so clichéd, but we got to make this enormous present, this beautiful, uplifting, joyous family movie that makes you cry, that made even my stone-hearted-scientist wife cry when she saw an early rough cut of it. I feel really grateful that that’s what we spent our year doing.”
LATE IN THE FILM, a character utters the words “I never thought I’d feel this much joy and wonder ever again”—about as unabashed a statement of a sequel’s intent as you’re ever likely to come across. To Marshall, I raise the question of whether such a sentiment will resonate with kids growing up in times like these—and whether they will be as responsive to Mary Poppins Returns as 1964 kids were to its forebear.
“It’s more important than ever that this film is out now,” he says emphatically. “Because kids are more cynical, and people are more cynical.” For the director, the lessons imparted by the Mary Poppins books and now the two movies amount to something resembling a wellness regimen, and one that bears propagating. “To be able to understand that the only way to get through life is to find, deep inside, that childlike wonder—I mean, that’s how I live,” Marshall says. “Without that, I would find the world an incredibly dark place. And I don’t feel old-fashioned saying that. To me, it’s a life choice.”
With the seal now unbroken, and the sacrosanctity of the ’64 film unviolated by its sequel, could this be the start of more Poppins screen adventures? The source material is not unlike that which fuels the James Bond movie franchise: a stack of lively books by an ornery British author concerning an iconic British character who neither grows old nor dies. So would the applicable parties be amenable to a return after Mary Poppins Returns?
Marshall, for now, is eager just to get the film out. “But I do know,” he adds, “that there’s a lot of material there and it’s very rich with all kinds of adventures and ideas. It’s certainly ripe for the picking.”
Blunt doesn’t hedge for a moment. “Oh, I would pay Rob to do it again with me. Yeah, I would. Definitely,” she says. “More stories left to tell.” There always are for superheroes.