In ‘Mary Poppins Returns,’ Lin-Manuel Miranda arrives as a movie-musical star
Lin-Manuel Miranda has already seen “Mary Poppins Returns” three times.
Usually, actors promoting projects around the globe are on duty before and after each screening for red-carpet photos and post-show chats. They might opt not to sit through their own film more than once. But at glitzy premieres and guild events for his new musical, Miranda often assumes his seat.
“Do people usually skip those?” he asked, shaking his head. “I worked too hard on this movie not to watch it.”
Of course, Miranda is no stranger to hard work. The 38-year-old theater composer spent five years practically perfecting the Tony-, Grammy- and Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway behemoth “Hamilton,” and starred in the three-hour production seven times per week.
But “Mary Poppins Returns,” Disney’s movie-musical sequel to the beloved 1964 Julie Andrews classic opening Wednesday, is Miranda’s first major film role. The movie opens and closes with its leading man, bicycling wide-eyed through 1930s London. He sings with a broad Cockney accent, he raps a nursery rhyme, he dances with hand-drawn animated animals. He leads an eight-minute, tongue-twisting number that, because of its numerous elements — tap! torches! BMX parkour! — required 50 dancers and two weeks to shoot across multiple locations.
While critics are mixed about the movie (reviews have ranged from “thoroughly delightful” to “bright, gaudy and mirthless”), the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. was pleased, awarding Miranda his first Golden Globe nomination for acting.
Watching himself on screen “felt like the first time I saw ‘Hamilton’ as an audience member,” he told The Times. Onstage as Hamilton, he said, “I was inside that thing, trusting my collaborators that we were telling the story. I knew from the reaction of the audiences that we were, but that didn’t prepare me for the first time I saw ‘Satisfied’ — holy ... , look at the 50 things going on here!
“That’s how I felt when I saw this movie. Shooting those animated sequences, we were dancing with nothing but imagination and faith on a big green staircase,” he continued. “Actually seeing these moments unfold exactly as [director] Rob [Marshall] described it two years ago is thrilling.”
Opposite Emily Blunt, who assumes the role of the magical Banks family nanny that Julie Andrews won an Oscar for, Miranda plays a lamplighter, or leerie, named Jack, a character not found in P.L. Travers’ writings but derivative of Bert, the charming chimney sweep Dick Van Dyke played in the original film. The new role was the brainchild of Marshall and his producer, choreographer and partner John DeLuca.
“They liked the idea of someone who brought light and hope into the world,” explained screenwriter David Magee. Enter Miranda’s character Jack — “I called him a ‘jack of all trades’ and it stuck,” Magee noted — who trained as a chimney sweep under Bert, and helps the now-adult Banks children (played by Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer). “Our story is about telling people you can get through hard times, so we wanted this character to be an orphan — someone who had suffered some losses but still held onto his youthful spirit and joy.
“Essentially, he was also raised by Bert and therefore must have met Mary Poppins at some point. And he inherited that enthusiasm for light and warmth and irrepressible optimism.”
Though Miranda is himself a positive person — so much so that his encouraging tweets have spawned a New York Times bestselling book with illustrator Jonny Sun — it’s hard to believe that Miranda was cast in this role of Jack, the ever-cheerful leerie, thanks to his onstage work in “Hamilton.”
He has this connection with his inner child that no one else in the movie has. I just give Rob [Marshall] infinite credit for seeing that in me.
Lin-Manuel Miranda on his “Mary Poppins Returns” character Jack
Miranda can’t quite believe it either. His Hamilton, he noted, has no “childlike wonder in his heart at all — he’s someone for whom early trauma and a disastrous childhood has cut all the brake lines to any sense of innocence and wonder. He’s all frenetic urgency and ‘I have to do all this ... before I die.’
“Contrast that with Jack singing ‘Underneath the Lovely London Sky’ — it’s a gray ... sky he’s singing about!” he laughed. “He has this connection with his inner child that no one else in the movie has. I just give Rob infinite credit for seeing that in me, because it’s not what was on display at the Richard Rodgers [Theater] at the time.”
Miranda and Van Dyke, who makes a joyful cameo in the new film, have more in common than their characters. “He went from ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ to ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show,’ which was 32 episodes a year, and he filmed ‘Mary Poppins’ ... on the summer break,” he explained. “I’m not close to busy, compared to Dick Van Dyke when he was making the first film. [On set], we connected on that level a lot.”
Miranda is, in fact, quite busy. Ever since “Hamilton,” the hip-hop phenomenon about America’s founding fathers, went from the hot ticket off-Broadway to the Must-See Thing not just in New York City but in pop culture at large, Miranda himself became just as coveted throughout Hollywood, at a moment of renewed fascination with musicals.
He composed original songs for Disney’s animated hit “Moana,” and is set to write the music of Disney’s eventual live-action “Little Mermaid.” He’s working on the film, TV and potential stage adaptation of the “The Kingkiller Chronicle” fantasy novels. He’s an executive producer of FX’s upcoming limited series about Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, starring Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams; and he’s part of the cast of the BBC’s much-anticipated series “His Dark Materials,” with James McAvoy, Ruth Wilson and “Logan” breakout Dafne Keen.
Two movie-musicals written with Quiara Alegría Hudes — Warner Bros.’ adaptation of his first Broadway show “In the Heights” and Sony’s animated adventure “Vivo” — will be released in 2020. And he’ll make his feature directorial debut with an adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical work “Tick, Tick … Boom!”
With so many musical-related projects ahead, Miranda used the large-scale “Mary Poppins Returns” production — which included eight weeks of rehearsal, on-location shoots at multiple London landmarks and eight elaborate soundstages at Shepperton Studios — as an immersive workshop in translating his favorite art form to the screen.
“It was film school for me,” he recalled. “When a camera is making your face 50-feet tall on a screen, it’s harder to suddenly break into song and have the audience buy it, right? Rob knows how to make that transition from speech into song, which we accept more willingly in the theater because we know we’re walking into a musical. If you buy a ticket to ‘Phantom of the Opera,’ you’re like, ‘If they don’t sing I’m gonna be pissed.’”
Miranda is encouraged by the numerous directors who are dabbling in the space, including Jon M. Chu, the “Crazy Rich Asians” director who is helming the “In the Heights” adaptation.
“The ambitions in some of the musical numbers of [Chu’s] ‘Step Up’ films — I would put them next to some musical numbers from the Golden Era.” he said. “I’m really excited to see what he does with Latin music and what he does in our neighborhood. Watching him direct will be my second year of film school.”
Miranda’s definition of “Zen” is stepping back into the lyrically demanding role that launched his meteoric ascent: he’s reprising his lead role in “Hamilton” for three weeks in Puerto Rico, at a theater that’s being rebuilt after the devastation of Hurricane Maria.
“Even in that first year, when the crowds were growing so big that it was just hard to go in and out of the theater, the most relaxing hours of my day were always doing the show,” he said. “My only job was to play Alexander Hamilton. It’s such a tough role that it’s like doing yoga: it requires all of your focus and you can’t slack off or you’ll get hit by a chair or fall off the turntable. But it’s peaceful in there, and I can use that.”
Amid all his upcoming commitments, Miranda will still make time to see “Mary Poppins Returns” at least once more, at a private screening in New York with his family and friends.
“Well, the 10-month-old [Francisco] is never going to remember it, but the 4-year-old [Sebastian] is gonna like it,” he said of his sons. "[Sebastian] saw me film this at a time when he was just starting to make memories, so it’s so weirdly seminal in his brain. And to him, Emily Blunt is his friend, the delightful lady who does a spot-on Peppa Pig impression on set. I’m very curious about what his reaction is gonna be.”
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