Destination D attendees got an extra spoonful of sugar tonight. In addition to a weekend full of programming celebrating Mickey Mouse’s 90th birthday, D23 threw in a bonus panel giving an unprecedented sneak peek into the upcoming film Mary Poppins Returns, in theaters December 19.
Songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Whittman treated guests to a walkthrough of the soundtrack, releasing December 7. Upon the duo performing them, I realized quite a handful of the songs have already been featured as instrumentals in trailers thus far.
Writing these songs was a dream come true for both musicians. Whitman said he was “made to be in show business” from a young age, citing the original Mary Poppins as an influence. Shaiman recalls listening to the original Mary Poppins vinyl record and being immediately transported by the tremolo of strings that opens the film, which he included as part of his new score for Mary Poppins Returns.
Despite this being the first theatrical sequel to 1964’s Mary Poppins, author P.L. Travers continued to write additional Mary Poppins books well into the later part of her life, as far as into the 1990s. The episodic nature of the books provided inspiration for story beats of Mary Poppins Returns, with Shaiman, Whittman, and director Rob Marshall selecting which stories from the books would translate best into the new feature. Whittman described the selection process as always having to include an opportunity for Mary Poppins to “drop breadcrumbs” for the Banks children toward where she’s wanting them to emotionally go. “She’s the architect,” he described.
During pre-production as Shaiman and Whittman wrote the songs in New York City, Emily Blunt would come to learn the songs from them in between filming Girl On The Train… a.k.a. a film in which she played a blackout drunk. Quite the contrast from Mary Poppins, eh?
Mary Poppins Returns takes place during “The Slump,” a period of London history in the 1930s equivalent to the United States’ Great Depression. From the big-picture standpoint of English economics and the more micro examination of the Banks family, the thread in the songs shared with D23 attendees was being a light to the darkness — in work, in relationships, and in ourselves.
Unlike most musicals where the singers record vocals separately from one another and with a temporary music track, for Mary Poppins Returns the cast recorded the soundtrack together with an 80-piece orchestra, a mandate from Marshall to help them feel the specialness of the project.
Here are the songs revealed this evening! D23 enforced a strict no-recording policy during this panel, so lyric recollection comes in the form of this Rotowriter scribbling furiously onto a notepad as fast as I could.
“Lovely London Sky”
A soft melody performed by Jack as he rides all over London on his bicycle lighting his lamps. Of his lamps, Jack sings, “When its light has hit the ground, there are treasures to be found underneath the lovely London sky.” Among the sights Jack passes is Saint Paul’s Cathedral, the landmark that the bird woman sits outside of during “Feed the Birds” in the 1964 film.
Meryl Streep plays Mary Poppins’s cousin, described as a “fix-it,” an eccentric woman who prides herself in fixing things. Despite this, “on every second Wednesday, her world goes topsy turvy.” This songs describes the many opposites that she feels on such a day as this, when everything, as it was, turns turtle. The song would fit right in with a medley combined with “Topsy Turvy Day” from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, not only in its subject matter but in its content. (Cue onslaught of YouTube a capella groups doing exactly that.) Shaiman and Whittman praised Streep’s performance and her dedication to getting the song and the character right. They unsurprisingly didn’t mention Streep’s vocal disapproval of Walt Disney.
“Can You Imagine That”
Performed by Mary Poppins at what seems like the same point in the film as “A Spoonful of Sugar” was to the original, this is what the nanny sings to the children as she prepares their bath. “Too much glee leaves rings around the brain,” she proclaims, describing different types of people before concluding with the repeated phrase, “Can you imagine that?”
“A Cover Is Not The Book”
Undoubtedly a showstopper, this is the song during the 2D animation sequence. Confirmed by Shaiman and Whitman, the scene was animated by veteran Disney artists who also worked on The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, among others. No specific animators were mentioned by name… but the sequence DOES include penguins! The premise of the moment in the film was somewhat hard to follow out of context, but the songwriters described it as starting with Mary Poppins telling everyone about her Uncle Guttenberg and the many eccentric tales he would share “when he wasn’t on the sauce.” Different verses share different tales from this dear uncle, with the theme among them being not to judge a book by its cover. The lyrics go, “One discovers that the king is a crook. The first impression was mistook! A cover is not the book.” A highlight of the song (and admittedly the entire panel) was the reveal that this tune includes a special rap moment (or, “patter,” if sticking with the period-specific term) written especially for Lin-Manuel Miranda with Hamilton in mind. Whitman performed it in full and it is fantastic.
“The Place Where Lost Things Go”
This is a lullaby Mary Poppins sings to the children to comfort them following the recent loss of their mother. It feels akin to “Feed the Birds,” as the nanny says that the mystical, wondrous dark side of the moon is “the place where lost things go,” both special, material belongings and fond, important memories. The lyrics are brimming with tweetables. “Do you ever dream or reminisce about those things that you truly miss?” “They’re all around you still, just disappeared.” Maybe all you’re missing lives inside of you.” “Nothing’s gone forever, just out of place.” It sounds like it will be a touching moment in the film.
“Trip a Little Light Fantastic”
Filmed partially in the mall outside Buckingham Palace, this number is akin to “Step In Time,” with Jack and his lamplighting crew showing the Banks children that against the darkness they face (“We’ve made a mess of everything… Father’s furious with us!”), they can be a light. Jack sings, “When the world is getting scary, be your own illuminary.” “If you start a spark inside your heart, you’ll always find your way.” Most of the finished scene from the film was shared as final footage for the audience, as opposed to the other songs in the panel being performed live on piano. I can’t wait to have this one on repeat.
“Nowhere To Go But Up”
Partially sung what sounded like earlier in the film by Angela Lansbury and then reprised as a finale, this song stems from Lansbury’s role as a “balloon lady.” She encourages the Banks children, “If you look into a balloon and see who you want to be, you’ll fly.” The song continues with instrumental nods to “Let’s Go Fly A Kite” and “A Spoonful of Sugar,” singing, “We’ll all hit the heights if we never look down.”
For what it’s worth, Disney Legend and songwriter of the original Mary Poppins soundtrack Richard Sherman approves of the new tunes. Sherman recently watched the new film in the same screening room that he used to view dailies for its predecessor. In a video sent to Shaiman and Whittman just after experiencing the movie, Sherman said he was “very pleased about the whole thing” and thought the soundtrack was “a loving treatment” of what came before it. He repeatedly described the production as “just wonderful.”
Mary Poppins Returns releases in theaters December 19. The soundtrack drops December 7.
Which of these songs are you most excited to hear?