'Mary Poppins Returns': Everything We Learned on Set of Disney's Magical, Musical Sequel

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Prepare your umbrellas, swallow a spoonful of sugar and make sure your chimney is swept, because Mary Poppins is back with a new take and a new story! Mary Poppins Returns, the highly anticipated sequel to the 1964 classic, flies into theaters this December, and ET visited the set at Shepperton Studios, not far outside of London, in spring of last year to witness plenty of behind-the-scenes magic.

Below, everything we learned from our visit to Number 17 Cherry Tree Lane, as director Rob Marshall, producer Marc Platt, stars Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda, production designer John Myhre and costume designer Sandy Powell opened up about their take on the world’s most magical nanny.

It's a Sequel, NOT a Reboot

Those who are supercalifreakedout about the new film tarnishing the perfect legacy of the original likely don’t realize that no one is trying to repeat the wonder that Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke brought to the screen. Mary Poppins Returns does not follow the same story, nor is it even set in the same time period as the original.

Instead, the sequel is based on another of author P. L. Travers' eight Mary Poppins novels. The new film is set in Depression-era London, about 25 years after the first story, when the Banks children are grown (and played by Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer). And while there are plenty of Easter eggs that call back to the first film, this movie is entirely original.


Mary 2.0

It's hard to live up to, much less recreate the magic that is Julie Andrews. That’s why Blunt is making a Mary all her own, purposefully avoiding rewatching the original so she could make the famed nanny her own creation. "No one is going to outdo Julie Andrews,” she states. "This is just going to be my version."

Director Marshall previously worked with Blunt on the 2014 musical adaptation Into the Woods, and immediately thought of her for the role. "There's quite a list of things you must be able to do to play Mary Poppins. You need to be a great actor, but there’s also a humanity in the character,” he explains. “Even though she’s very upright and a strict nanny who is proper and so forth, underneath that there is this magical being who is bringing joy...I don’t know who else could play the role besides Emily, to be quite honest.”

This new Mary Poppins has also been given a fresh new wardrobe, thanks to Oscar-winning costume designer Powell, who was tasked with updating Mary's look while still maintaining her essence. True to tradition, she stuck with bold blues and reds for Mary's arrival ensemble, but added some special flourishes for this interpretation.

“Rob really wanted to have something in the hat that would be equivalent to the little flowers that she wears in the first film. I didn’t want to do flowers. I didn't want to go anywhere near floral looks for Mary Poppins at all," Powell reveals. So she made an embroidered robin to sit on the brim of Mary's hat as an accent, a nod to the bird Mary sings "A Spoonful of Sugar" with in the original.


Mary's New Sidekick

First there was Bert, now there's Jack! Hamilton creator Miranda is Mary's musical counterpart in this sequel, with the Puerto Rican actor adopting a Cockney British accent for the role. (It isn’t quite as exaggerated as that of Dick Van Dyke before him.) Jack and Bert are closely tied in the story, as Jack served as Bert's apprentice as a child before becoming a lamplighter, as opposed to a chimney sweep.

"What Bert and Jack share is that they don't lose the imagination that comes with childhood," Miranda says. "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.”

For a musical theater lover like Miranda, the role is a dream come true -- a dream, in fact, he never even had. "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," he says. "Who would have the audacity to have that dream? And here we are."

"There’s not a jaded quality about him, which is very unique,” Marshall explains of Miranda's "pure spirit." "We were looking for a wonderful companion to Mary Poppins who goes on these adventures, someone with that same spirit, that sort of purity of spirit. This is the project he chose to do after Hamilton, and the contemporary thing was actually very helpful because we made this film that's set in 1934 in 2018."


Mary's New Soundtrack

Speaking of music, Mary Poppins Returns boasts an entirely new soundtrack. While it wasn't crafted by the Sherman brothers, who won two Oscars for their work on the original film's iconic music, this soundtrack has been penned by Broadway legends Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. The songwriting team has lent their talents to such Broadway like Hairspray, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Catch Me If You Can as well as the TV series Smash.

"Marc was very influenced by the Sherman brothers," Platt says, adding that the new score "will take you on its own journey." And though the cast boasts a Tony- and GRAMMY-winning songwriter, Miranda was not consulted on the film's soundtrack, which he is very happy about.

"[Marc] and Scott are so well-suited to this musical," he exclaims. "I could never have written this score."

The movie's trailers have previewed two of the new songs, including one about dealing with death and grief and another more upbeat bathtime tune, both sung by Mary. ET was on set as the cast was filming a big dance number, "Trip a Little Light Fantastic," which features Miranda’s Jack and the rest of the lamplighters -- or "leeries" -- helping Mary teach the children about Cockney rhyming slang. It's a delightful combination of Newsies and Mary Poppins that will surely be stuck in your head for weeks after seeing the film.


London Is Another Character

"Our film lives and breathes in London," producer Platt explains. "London itself is very much a location. We are not only on set, but we are in and about the city everywhere."

The film opens with Jack, the lamplighter played by Miranda, riding his bicycle around London and lighting the street lamps by the city's most iconic landmarks. Thanks to the Poppins name, Disney was able to access some extremely rare filming locations, like Buckingham Palace and even Big Ben.

"Thank goodness it was Mary Poppins," production designer Myhre explains of Big Ben's "touchy" relationship with appearing in movies. "I think if Michael Bay was coming for the Transformers movies, they'd say, 'Thanks, but no thanks.'"

One of the most important sets in the film is that of Cherry Tree Lane, where the Banks family lives, though this version doesn't quite have the same opulent take on the picture-perfect street. "We didn’t really like the idea that it looked like they were all living in white mansions," Myhre says of the first film. "We took the size of their houses down. We added brick into them and made them a little more real."

And because the film starts in winter and ends in the spring, Cherry Tree Lane had to live up to its name. It took 15 people two months of hot gluing one million cherry blossoms onto real tree limbs to complete the transformation. But it will be well worth it: The film concludes with a spring carnival surrounded by cherry blossom trees.


Getting Animated

One of the most beloved scenes in the first film -- by everyone except P. L. Travers, for those of you who have not seen Saving Mr. Banks -- is the scene with the animated dancing penguins. TheMary Poppins Returns crew also wanted an animated sequence but with a new take on it: In the original, Mary, Bert and the Banks children jump into a chalk painting, but in the sequel, Mary, Jack and the Banks children find themselves whisked away into a painted scene inside of a Royal Doulton china bowl.

The setup is the children (Pixie Davies, Joel Dawson and Nathanael Saleh) drop the bowl and a wheel comes off in the china's painted image, so, naturally, the kids go inside the bowl to fix it. There, they are joined by the bowl’s inhabitants, all animals, leading up to the song "The Royal Doulton Music Hall." The real Royal Doulton china company loved the idea and gave the scene its blessing, even allowing the bowl used on set to sport the company's official seal.

"There's these cracks and things in the bowl, they call it crazing," production designer Myhre explains. "Rob said, 'If they're going into the world of the bowl, I want to see the crazing...So, it won’t just be this flat animation. It will be in this curved dimensional bowl shape."

That world is also reflected in the costumes, as designer Powell wanted the characters' outfits to appear as if they'd been painted on. "I got in touch with the animators at the beginning, because I wanted to see examples of how they were going to paint the style of the animation," she says. "I wanted the effect on all of these costumes to look like watercolor on paper with the white coming through."


Superstar Cameos

It won't just be Mary and Jack turning heads this December. Though Andrews does not make a cameo in the film, Van Dyke is back to reprise his second role from the original film, Mr. Dawes Jr.

“I aspire to having that much energy in my life someday, much less at 91,” Miranda says of Van Dyke’s two days shooting his appearance. "It was really thrilling just to swap Broadway stories about him and Chita Rivera, about everything in his incredible career."

Also appearing in the film is Meryl Streep, who worked with both Marshall and Blunt on Into the Woods. She will be playing Mary Poppins' cousin, Topsy, who owns an unusual fix-it shop. Streep gets her own song, and though she was only on set for a brief time, she managed to injure herself while goofing off with the children.

"She was showing them how to do a pratfall and got stabbed by her necklace," Powell reveals, noting that Topsy is very "eccentric" in her dress.

Streep’s Mamma Mia co-star, Colin Firth, plays villainous banker William Weatherall Wilkins, though it's still to be determined whether or not he shows off his singing chops in the film. The cast is also joined by musical veteran Angela Lansbury as the Balloon Lady, who has a special scene at the end of the film.

"There’s a lovely part of the books where when you go to the Balloon Lady, you get to choose the right balloon," Myhre teases. "If you choose the right balloon, something really fantastical happens. I can't tell you what it is, but I can say the song they're singing is 'Nowhere to Go But Up.'"

Mary Poppins Returns hits theaters Dec. 19.

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