'Mary Poppins Returns' Is a Sequel Not a Remake, But Audiences Will Still Step In Time (Set Visit)
By Rachel McRady
It's not unusual for Mary Poppins to fly through the air, but on a crisp day in April 2017 at Shepperton Studios, not far outside of London, Emily Blunt has a little bit of help sailing across the set.
The actress is sporting a cherry red dress with a half-caped jacket, blue heels with matching red laces, and a jaunty royal blue hat with an embroidered robin perched on the brim. Two men donning pageboy caps and workmen's clothes from the 1930s are hoisting her up -- gracefully, of course -- as she flashes a smile and the men call out, "Join us, Mary Poppins!"
There's no need for the iconic character to "join" the leeries -- also known as lamplighters, this iteration's version of the chimney sweeps -- for she has already arrived. There is no illusion of imitation or mimicry as Blunt shows her total ease around the men who make London light up at night.
The song being rehearsed is one of the many brand new additions to the Disney songbook, written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who clearly revere the work of the Sherman brothers. It stars Broadway A-lister Lin-Manuel Miranda, playing Jack, the head of the leeries and a former apprentice to the lovable Burt (played by Dick Van Dyke). Despite Miranda's New York City upbringing and Puerto Rican roots, Jack has the same English cockney accent as Van Dyke. Well, not the same. Miranda's go at embodying a member of the working class is much less harsh with subtle emphases on all the right vowels. The accent, it turns out, is very important in the song being rehearsed.
It's an educational ditty, centered around teaching the children about the unique cockney rhyming slang and idioms, all of which Mary Poppins is, of course, familiar with.
The leeries dance around the imagined patch of Regents Park, swinging off the central fountain and flinging themselves from the lamposts like newsies. Blunt's strong singing voice carries above the rest, giving Mary more of a commanding, slightly stern presence than Julie Andrews before her.
The no-nonsense attitude in Blunt's Mary is fitting for this new time period, in what everyone in the cast and crew is keen to make clear is a sequel to, not a remake of, the original, which was set in 1910. "Having seen the first film, I would never consider a remake," director Rob Marshall tells ET. "You don't touch that film."
This new film, which loosely follows another one of author P.L. Travers' eight Poppins books, is set in Depression-era London. Though the scene being performed is taking place on a sound stage outside of London, much of the upcoming musical was actually filmed on the streets of the English capital.
"Mary is light and Jack is a lamplighter, and that's what they bring to the world, and you'll get a feel of that," producer Marc Platt tells ET. "So, we use London. You will feel its character very strongly."
Just drop the name Mary Poppins and doors begin to open. Landmarks like Buckingham Palace shut down to allow filming, and institutions like Royal Doulton China offer up their trademark seal on props.
Production designer John Myhre was even allowed to tour the inside of Elizabeth Tower, which holds Big Ben -- the actual name of the bell, not the tower itself. The visit, which is not offered to members of the public, allowed him to recreate, almost exactly, the clockface of the iconic landmark. The stunning glass facade was getting its finishing touches during the set visit, and it will be used in a scene which will combine footage shot from the actual location with the massive replica.
"It's really touchy with even reproducing [Big Ben]," Myhre tells ET. "So, thank goodness it's Mary Poppins,, because I think if Michael Bay was coming for the Transformers movies, they'd say thanks but no thanks."
The confidence in the Poppins name is also apparent in those who have appointed Blunt to run the ship and prescribe a spoonful of sugar to audiences around the world. "I don’t know who else could play the role besides Emily, to be quite honest," Marshall says.
Platt mirrors the sentiment, adding, "Being the consummate actress that she is, and the confident actress, she steps into the shoes and makes the character her own." He also makes a point to note that Andrews herself is "a big fan of Emily Blunt."
At the time, Blunt described the experience of being Mary as "surreal," but she focused hard on not letting the scale of the Poppins name get to her throughout filming. "I just try to approach her as I would any other character, and not be caught up in the white noise of, 'Oh my God, you are Mary Poppins,'" Blunt explains. "I think that has been my main focus, is just to approach her calmly as I would any other character."
Though Andrews was not a part of the filming -- it would make no sense for her to be in this entirely new world, despite its clear deference to its predecessor -- Miranda got some crucial help from his character's mentor: Van Dyke filmed scenes for the upcoming movie, reprising his Poppins role as Mr. Dawes Jr.
"It was a joyous two days," Miranda says of his time on set with Van Dyke. "I aspire to having that much energy in my life, someday, much less at 91!" Hopefully he will have absorbed plenty of "Super-cali-fragil-istic" energy when Mary Poppins Returns opens in theaters on Dec. 19. Miranda is eager to know the audience's take, which feels slightly delayed after his many years on Broadway.
"The only really key difference [between film and theater] is that you finish the musical number and they applaud in a year-and-a-half," he admitted, "which is jarring."