Lin-Manuel Miranda Didn't Have the 'Audacity' to Dream He'd Be in 'Mary Poppins Returns' (Set Visit)
By Rachel McRady
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
He rose to fame creating and starring in the Broadway smash Hamilton, but Lin-Manuel Miranda is stepping away from his songwriting roots to star in Disney's Mary Poppins Returns as Jack the lamplighter. ET visited the film's set at Shepperton Studios outside of London in April 2017, as he was filming one of Jack's biggest musical numbers. (Think his version of "Step in Time.")
"There are 'dream come true' moments -- getting your show on Broadway, getting to be in a movie -- and then there are dreams that you didn’t even have the audacity to have," Miranda revealed. "Like, that there would be a sequel to Mary Poppins and you could be dancing with Mary Poppins someday. Who would have the audacity to have that dream?"
The seasoned performer, dressed in a pageboy cap, vest and jaunty neck scarf, took a brief break to sit down with producer Marc Platt and discuss how his humble turn as Jack -- Cockney accent and all -- is a far cry from his most famous role as Founding Father Alexander Hamilton.
Marc Platt: How is it different making a stage musical from a film musical?
Lin-Manuel Miranda: The only really key difference is that you finish the musical number and they applaud in a year and a half, which is jarring. That's the weirdest part. We're doing very elaborate musical numbers, more than anything you'd see on a Broadway stage and in 3-D. And then you're [breathing heavy] and they yell, "Cut, let's do it again." So, I miss the buzz of applause a little bit, but I'm looking forward to the [release].
Do you remember seeing the original film when you were younger?
Oh, yeah. The original was on regular rotation in my house, as I’m sure it was in many of yours. I didn’t see the end for many years because I would burst into tears at "The Birds," and I was like, "Turn it off! Turn it off!" She broke my heart, the Bird Lady. So, I didn’t see the end for a very long time, but I watched it many times in my youth.
Can you tell us a little bit about the character Jack and what you're creating with him and who he is?
Jack is a lamplighter. He apprenticed under Bert from the original films, so he knows all about Mary. He knows that Mary shows up and stuff's going to happen and cool adventures will be had. It's really nice to play the Bert position in this film, you get to go on all the fun adventures with the Banks family.
When Rob [Marshall] and John [DeLuca] first approached me with this role, it was across the street from Hamilton. I went and met with them between shows. It was at the restaurant in the Paramount Hotel across the street and they said, "We want you to play a lamplighter." I said, "What is that?" They said, "They light up the lamps." I said, "Oh, I played this already," because my first show In the Heights, I played a guy named Usnavi and the central metaphor from that was he’s the streetlighter in the neighborhood. At first, he sees it as, he’s stuck here and everyone gets to go everywhere else, but then he refocuses himself and says, "Oh, it’s my job to tell these stories, to shine a light on these stories on this corner." So, it felt very close to home, the role, as soon as they pitched it to me.
That’s very cool. What’s your experience been, working with Rob?
I mean, it’s amazing. And that’s the other reason I wanted to do this, because there are "dream come true" moments -- getting your show on Broadway, getting to be in a movie -- and then there are dreams that you didn’t even have the audacity to have, like that there would be a sequel to Mary Poppins and you could be dancing with Mary Poppins someday. Who would have the audacity to have that dream? And here we are. But the main reason I’m here is because I think Rob Marshall's the best at making movie musicals. I think Chicago is the best movie adaptation of a musical, which is the hardest thing to pull off. I've talked about it with Rob many times. He was born in the wrong era. Like, if he were born during the MGM unit, there'd be tons of Rob Marshall classics. So, seeing him get to work on an original musical is really thrilling because you're there from the ground up. You're building the music, you're building the story. He already did the hardest thing, which was to adapt a two-act musical into a three-act film. Now to get to build an original musical and to watch him do it has been one of the great learning experiences of my life.
You're here as an actor on this film. In your other life, you are a brilliant composer and songwriter. What has it been like singing and engaging with Marc [Shaiman] and Scott [Wittman] in this original musical?
I'm a fan of Marc and Scott's music for many years. I remember getting rush tickets to previews of Hairspray right out of college and losing my mind that this could be happening. I remember seeing Marc Shaiman sitting next to me, taking notes, and here we are working all these years later. I'm also a fan of Marc’s work in everything from South Park to his work with Billy Crystal when he would write, "It’s a wonderful night for Oscar." He wrote those. And he and Scott are so well-suited to this musical.
I could never have written this score. It’s really funny, actually. This morning on my Facebook -- and I’ll post it on Twitter later, to prove it to you -- I had Marc Shaiman's very kind words after he saw Hamilton, which was, "Thank God I don’t write scores like this or I would be strangling him instead of hugging him." And that’s sort of how I feel. We write so differently that there's no jealousy. It's just like a thrill that I get to play in this world. We don't normally get to play together, so to get to sing Marc and Scott’s music is a real joy. And it’s such a love letter to the Sherman brothers as you will soon see. It just feels like a love letter to the original.
Jack was an apprentice of Bert, but Bert did a lot of stuff. What did he learn from him? Was it like a jack-of-all-trades?
[Laughs.] Yeah, I think it is. I think you beat me to the pun! Absolutely, and that's one of the fun things about the movie. There's that great opening scene in the original, where he's playing, like, six instruments at once and singing a song. I think Jack apprenticed to him, and I just picture a little mini-Bert running around after him. And he grows up and doesn't lose that spark. I think what Bert and Jack share is that they don't lose the imagination that comes with childhood. That's one of the themes, too, that grownups forget. Grownups forget imbuing the world with imagination at every turn. And what sets Bert apart and Jack apart is that they don't. He remembers Mary Poppins and he remembers everything she’s capable of. She’s not just a nanny in his head. She is a bringer of wonder.
Did you talk to Dick Van Dyke when preparing for your role?
Oh, yeah. Well, he films his-- Can I talk about that now?
He filmed his stuff here already. And it was like the best two days ever. I aspire to have that much energy in my life, someday, much less at 91! It was a joyous two days. We were in the scene together, and we were just huddled off in the corner, and I was asking questions about Bye Bye Birdie. You want to talk about a run, that guy went from debuting on Broadway in Bye Bye Birdie to getting The Dick Van Dyke Show to filming Mary Poppins, like, on his hiatus. And that’s when they did the 32 hours of TV, not the 24. If anyone has a right to be retired and chilling, it’s Dick Van Dyke! [Laughs.] And yet, he's with us singing and dancing, and it was really thrilling just to swap Broadway stories about him, about Chita [Rivera], about everything in his incredible career.
Mary Poppins Returns flies into theaters on Dec. 19.