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From ‘Mary Poppins Returns’ to ‘Wicked,’ Marc Platt keeps musicals alive on stage and screen

UNIVERSAL CITY, CALIF. -- WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 19, 2018: Marc Platt, the producer behind “Mary Poppin
Marc Platt is the Oscar-nominated producer behind “Mary Poppins Returns,” “Wicked,” “La La Land,” “Bridge of Spies” and many other film and stage productions.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

When most of Hollywood had already gone home for the holidays, producer Marc Platt was still hard at work one late December day, juggling the imminent opening of Disney’s “Mary Poppins Returns” and pre-production for “Rent ,” Fox’s upcoming live broadcast of the popular stage musical.

Platt was making his way through a soundstage on the Fox lot in Century City where crews were busy constructing New York’s East Village, circa 1989. The producer didn’t want to give too much away but revealed that the Jan. 27 broadcast would incorporate an in-studio audience like his previous broadcasts of “Jesus Christ Superstar” on NBC and “Grease” on Fox.

“Putting theater on live TV is its own genre,” Platt told The Times. “It’s part live theater and part cinema. How do you create a grammar that is original?”

Bringing musicals to the big and small screens is a tricky business, and few producers know the intricacies of the art form better than Platt. In a career divided between Hollywood and Broadway, Platt has successfully cross-pollinated the two worlds, churning out award-winning hits packed with hummable tunes.

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“I love music. I love that music has no filter. So the emotion of music speaks to me,” he said.

Platt, 61, is a trim man with a casual demeanor who speaks softly and doesn’t draw attention to himself when overseeing a working set. Friends and associates describe him as a producer who takes an active interest in all aspects of a project but who nonetheless exudes a calming presence and gives talent room to breathe. He has a knack for finding quality material with mass box-office potential — and picking the right artists for the job.

Platt was instrumental in casting Emily Blunt in the new “Mary Poppins,” after working with her twice before. In assembling the team for the “Rent” broadcast, he brought back Michael Greif, who staged the original musical. His versatility as a producer who appreciates creativity has earned him admiration among studio heads.

“He is [that] rare creator whose work is both artistically brilliant and incredibly commercial at the same time,” said Dana Walden, chairman and chief executive of Fox Television Group. “When you consider his body of work both as an executive and producer, he is almost peerless.”

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Fifteen years ago, Platt and producer David Stone teamed up with Universal to mount “Wicked” on Broadway. The show is still a top audience draw, grossing more than $4.7 billion worldwide. The touring production is currently running at the Pantages Theatre — the fifth time the musical has come to Los Angeles.

“Mary Poppins Returns,” which cost an estimated $130 million to produce, has defied unenthusiastic reviews and grossed more than $257 million in worldwide ticket sales since opening Dec. 19. The effervescent family musical has held its own against the blockbusters “Aquaman” and “Bumblebee.”

Theatrical talent infuses the movie musicals that Platt has produced. “Mary Poppins Returns” features songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, while the Oscar-winning “La La Land” was the film debut of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the songwriting duo behind the Broadway hit “Dear Evan Hansen.”

Platt has also produced movie versions of the musicals “Into the Woods,” which was a box-office hit, and “Nine,” which wasn’t. He said studio executives regularly ask him which musicals would make good movies, and increasingly, which movies could be turned into stage musicals.

“The question isn’t ‘Can they be?’ but ‘Why?’” Platt said. “Certain things on stage don’t work on film, and vice versa. They have to be enhanced in their own way.”

He cited Disney’s “The Lion King” and Universal’s “Billy Elliot: The Musical” as productions that have been successful because they brought something new to their cinematic source material.

Platt’s deliberative approach comes from experience. Stage musicals take years to develop because of the lengthy workshop process as well as the competition for limited real estate on Broadway. Commercial home runs like “Wicked” are exceedingly rare, and most Broadway productions lose money.

“Wicked” typically brings in more than $1.8 million a week in New York, putting it among the top five highest-grossing Broadway shows. It is still going strong against much younger blockbusters such as “Hamilton” and “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”

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But Platt has also had his share of Broadway disappointments, including “War Paint,” a recent musical set in the world of cosmetics that closed without recouping its investment.

Movie musicals aren’t a sure bet, either. Platt said he had to think twice before embarking on “Mary Poppins Returns,” which originated during the making of “Into the Woods” when he and director Rob Marshall discussed how much they enjoyed the original 1964 movie starring Julie Andrews. Walt Disney Co. then suggested the idea of doing a sequel.

“We were nervous about it and very cautious,” Platt recalled, adding that the pressure was high to live up to the original. “Because we loved the original so much, we thought we could be the guardians of that.”

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Emily Blunt in the title role of Disney’s “Mary Poppins Returns.”
(Walt Disney Co.)

Musical films fell out of fashion in the ’70s as Hollywood gravitated toward grittier, more realistic stories. Platt believes their resurgence in the last 15 years is due in large part to Hollywood’s hunger for “event” releases — movies or TV broadcasts that generate a lot of buzz and are usually tied to an existing intellectual property, such as a comic book or a popular Broadway show.

He also credited smartphones. “We’re always listening to music. It’s part of our everyday language.”

Though he is an independent producer, Platt has had a long-standing first-look deal with Universal, where he was once president of production and still has an office. He is working with the studio on the long-gestating movie version of “Wicked, which actually began as a nonmusical film project at Universal.

The studio already had a few possible screenplays adapting the original novel by Gregory Maguire. “None of them spoke to me,” Platt recalled.

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He then got a call from Stephen Schwartz, the acclaimed composer of “Pippin” and “Godspell.”

“He called me and said, ‘I know you have the rights to ‘Wicked.’ Did you ever consider turning it into a musical?’ The moment he said it, the light bulb went off over my head.”

Before his tenure at Universal, Platt served as head of movie production at Orion Pictures, working with Jonathan Demme on “The Silence of the Lambs,” and later led Sony’s TriStar Pictures during the mid-90s. But what he really craved was a life in the theater.

“I thought I was going to be a Broadway producer but took a detour,” he said.

Platt said his interest in musicals began as a youngster growing up in suburban Baltimore. His parents took him to the city to see musicals and movies.

“I remember being so transported that I thought that I’d love to be part of a world that makes something like that,” he recalled. He said “Mary Poppins” was the first movie musical he remembered seeing with his family.

Platt joined the glee club at the University of Pennsylvania and as a senior produced his first New York musical at a small off-Broadway theater. When he lost the opportunity to transfer to a larger venue, Platt vowed to learn more about the theater and entertainment business and entered NYU Law School.

He interned for various Broadway producers and later landed a job working for super talent agent Sam Cohn at ICM in New York, a formative period that launched his movie career.

During his time working for Cohn in the late ’70s, Platt crossed paths with a rising actress named Meryl Streep. A friendship formed and they would eventually work together on three movies, including “Mary Poppins Returns.”

“Many young people smitten with theatre and film go ahead and get a law degree to assure parents that there is a back up plan,” Streep said via email. “I suspect Marc has taken his dual skill sets and negotiated a life that is both secure and adventurous artistically. You can’t figure out how to mount a musical, a notoriously risky business, without being fueled by love of the form itself.”

Platt has passed his love of musicals to his family. All five of his children were involved with theater at the Adderley School, a performing arts-oriented academy in Pacific Palisades. His son Ben starred in the Broadway run of “Dear Evan Hansen,” winning a Tony Award. Another son, Jonah, is also an actor and has appeared in “Wicked.”

“People would call us the Von Platt family singers,” Marc Platt said. “We’re always singing at weddings and bar mitzvahs.” His wife, Julie, chairs the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Platt sees musical influences even in the nonmusical movies that he’s produced.

He cites the “Bend and Snap” sequence from “Legally Blonde,” the first movie he produced. (He wasn’t involved with the Broadway musical adaptation.) Even “Drive,” the stylish 2011 heist film starring Ryan Gosling, is structured around a soundtrack that consists of original music and pop songs.

“I like movies that use music as a character,” he said.

Platt sometimes strays from the musical form, as when he produced Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies,” which along with “La La Land” has earned him two best picture Oscar nominations.

But he keeps going back to his first passion. He is an executive producer on Disney’s upcoming live-action remake of “Aladdin,” and was one of a large group of producers for the Broadway run of “The Band’s Visit,” which won this year’s Tony for new musical.

“I always like a good musical number,” he said. “I lead with my emotions and feelings.”

david.ng@latimes.com

@DavidNgLAT


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