Lin-Manuel Miranda just earned his second Golden Globe nomination for playing Jack the lamplighter in “Mary Poppins Returns.” Already an Oscar nominee for writing the song “How Far I’ll Go” from “Moana,” the “Mary Poppins” sequel is one of his first leading roles in a motion picture.
Miranda recently spoke with Gold Derby managing editor Chris Beachum about why he agreed to do “Mary Poppins Returns,” the elaborate musical numbers and why he doesn’t even intend to host the Oscars. Watch the exclusive webchat above and read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: First time you heard about “Mary Poppins Returns” was how and when?
Lin-Manuel Miranda: It was Rob Marshall and his partner, John DeLuca, taking me for a drink between shows on a “Hamilton” two-show day and saying, “We’re making this movie,” and I said, “Who the hell is playing Mary Poppins?” And they said Emily Blunt, and I said, “I’m in!” Honestly, the joy of discovering the P. L. Travers books and realizing there were more adventures that have not been brought to the screen and every day since that drink has been pretty great.
GD: If it hadn’t been Rob Marshall, would it have been more of a thought process of, “Do I really wanna do this?”
LMM: I would not have said yes, because honestly, selfishly, I think that Rob is one of the best people making movie musicals today. I think “Chicago” is the gold standard when it comes to adapting a stage musical to screen. I think he cracked it wide open. In addition to being an incredible experience with these incredible actors, this was film school for me. I said, “I don’t know how a sequel to ‘Mary Poppins’ is gonna play but I’m gonna learn so much watching Rob Marshall direct,” and I did. It’s been an incredible experience.
GD: And you’ve known Emily Blunt for a while, right?
LMM: A little bit. She had come to see “Hamilton” a couple times. I remember there was a time she brought her parents to see the show and it was when we both knew we were gonna be in “Poppins” but we were the only two cast at that point, and I remember just feeling like, “I feel like I’m auditioning for Mary Poppins, not Emily Blunt. Mary Poppins!” That was a scary performance.
GD: I remember two years ago when we talked, you had just hosted “SNL” and she had hosted the week after.
LMM: That’s right. We knew by that point.
GD: We came to that one, the Emily Blunt one, the only one we’d ever done, and you said that you were hanging out backstage.
LMM: Yeah, I was sitting holding hands with John Krasinski! It was such a joy. That’s one of the perks of getting to host “Saturday Night Live” is if you don’t abuse it too much you can go back and watch tapings and we saw Emily’s episode, which was great.
GD: I heard on this movie the way the shooting schedule worked, you were both thrown in day one with the big animation dancehall sequence.
LMM: Yeah. Well day one of rehearsal, they handed both me and Emily a bowler hat and a cane and they said, “Let’s get started,” because the first thing we filmed was “A Cover is Not the Book,” which is a huge animated sequence, all green screen for us but when you watch it on film we’re surrounded by a full menagerie of 2D animated animals and we had to film that first because the animators needed it right away. Every stitch of that is hand-drawn and I love that Rob insisted on that to Disney because it feels like it rhymes with the first movie. The best thing about making this movie is that the number one fan of the original “Mary Poppins” film is Rob Marshall and so he just kept asking himself, “What would I wanna see if Mary Poppins were back onscreen” and he took the care and the time to make all those things happen, down to the penguins.
GD: You’re on green screen but when you see the animation, you and Emily, everything together, what’s that moment like?
LMM: Oh, it’s very overwhelming. Rob does a great job of preparing us for what we’re up for. We had incredible dancers. In fact, some of the dancers in “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” doubled as penguins in green lycra for us when we were doing “A Cover is Not the Book” and showing us lots of pictures of what this will actually look like and having animators on-set to explain the weight and the size of the penguins around us so that we knew properly to account for them. You’re well-prepped but nothing can prepare you for the visual display that they’ve cooked up.
GD: Speaking of songs, what sort of input did you or Emily have along the way as they were writing those?
LMM: That was one of the most joyous parts of the process because really we were there as actors and to have Rob and John and Mark [Shaiman] and Scott Wittman writing these songs for us, it was sort of like getting the best tailored suits because we worked on those songs probably for about six to eight months before we even got to rehearsals. We did a week-long workshop in New York with a bunch of theater actors where we just tried out the songs. I’d go to Mark and Scott’s studio in Manhattan and get lyricist envy because they’ve got this pile of thesauri and British slang books and archaic Britannia. I was just like, “Where do they get all these wonderful words?” They just kept trying stuff out on us and what felt right and what didn’t, so we were really musical instruments for them.
GD: So what we hear in the movie, there’s vastly more songs that they would work a piece of or try out that just didn’t make the cut?
LMM: Yeah, doing an original musical, it’s not unlike mounting a Broadway musical. You’re gonna write the opening number a million times because as what you’re creating changes, you’ve gotta change what you’re setting up, what you’re setting up the audience to see, and it’s interesting, with my first song, “Underneath the Lovely London Sky,” that was the first song I was presented with and I loved it. Then we went to three other drafts of different songs and we basically went in a full circle and came back to “Underneath the Lovely London Sky.” I’m really glad we did, but we learned more about what the song needed to do and there’s this incredible exhalation that happens because it’s such a calm, quietly joyous way of bringing us into the world and you’re setting the tempo for the audience with an opening number.
GD: And you’re front and center right at the beginning of the movie.
LMM: Yeah, and for a long time I think they discussed whether that happens after the credits or before the credits and it’s like in “Oklahoma!” “Oklahoma!” was one of the most revolutionary musicals ever to exist because they didn’t start with a line of chorus girls. They started on a quiet Oklahoma morning. The audience went, “Oh,” and you’re teaching the audience how to see your show and this number functions in much the same way.
GD: The song you mentioned, “Trip the Light Fantastic,” is one of the two they’re submitting for Oscar voter consideration. Huge number, right in the middle of the movie, massive number. I wanna ask you two questions. One is, just tell us about working on that physically for the movie.
LMM: Most of the experience of making the movie was rehearsing for that number. It was one of the last things we filmed. If “Cover is Not the Book” was the first thing we filmed, ‘cause the animators needed it, “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” was one of the last things we filmed because we needed the rehearsal time. It’s an 11-minute dance number. I’m so grateful to Rob for this but he comes from the theater so we ran that as an 11-minute number. It’s three minutes of setup getting to that final set-piece and then eight minutes in that final set-piece in the abandoned park. The joy of really mastering that, going from just, “All right, here’s your lamppost. You spin on the lamppost” on day one to, “Now you’re accounting for the flaming stick you’re holding and there’s bicycles crisscrossing in between you,” going from that one Jenga piece to the final number is one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve ever had.
GD: That’s the very definition of elaborate. If that song is nominated, they usually ask the people involved to perform on the Oscars. Would you wanna be part of that?
LMM: I’m bursting into tears but it’s on the inside. I think you know this about me from the last time we spoke, I’m an Oscar junkie. I remember tape-recording when the great Geoffrey Holder did “The Little Mermaid” number for the Academy Awards… I think it’s 1989 or 1990? I live for the music portions of the Academy Awards. At the same time, I know that I will be coming from doing “Hamilton” in Puerto Rico in January. I’d love to. I’m scared to. I’d love to. I’m scared to (laughs).
GD: Maybe if they had you sing and let the dancers do their thing.
LMM: Yeah, maybe. We call that “park and bark” on Broadway (laughs). Stand center while everyone else dances.
GD: Well I know you love the Oscars so much. If they ever approached you to host?
LMM: No, never. That’s not my skill set.
GD: You wouldn’t even think about it?
LMM: I’m in awe of people like Neil Patrick Harris and Hugh Jackman that feel comfortable enough in their skin to stand in front of the world like that. I’m very comfortable in a character’s skin to do that but hosting, that’s not in my wheelhouse.
GD: Not the Tonys either?
LMM: No, I’d rather write in the back. I’ll write some cool stuff for Neil Patrick Harris to do, but I’ll be over here.
GD: Now that people are seeing the movie, in our SAG screening, there were at least four or five times that people just burst out into applause. One was your musical number we just mentioned, certainly when a certain three people appear onscreen. That’s the one I wanna ask you about. You got to work with Dick Van Dyke. I would love to see him at the Kennedy Center Honors. It’s amazing he has never been offered that.
LMM: He’s certainly a national treasure and he’s also human caffeine, so when he came to set, I think everyone you talk to from our film will say those are two of the most magical days we had on-set. He’s got more energy than anybody. He was 91 years old when we filmed that. He’s 92 years old now.
GD: He got two applause breaks at our screening when he just appears onscreen and then when he starts to dance, people are like, “Really?” I even had somebody ask me out in the hall, “Was that CGI?” I said, “I don’t think so.”
LMM: What was amazing is we had these contingency plans. He’s 91 years old, so we’re like, “All right, maybe there’s a world where you help him up and Emily, you spot him on the other side,” and we got there and he just waved us and just did it. He was really incredible. I was geeking out from the Broadway angle because my first big break was playing Conrad Birdie in the sixth grade play so I listened to Dick Van Dyke on that original “Bye Bye Birdie” cast album over and over again, singing “Put on a Happy Face.” God bless Charles Strauss. One of my favorite internal rhymes of all time is in “Put on a Happy Face.” It’s, “Take off that gloomy mask. A tragedy, it’s not your style. You look so good you’ll be glad ya de-cided to smile.” I don’t know how you think of “tragedy” and “glad-ya-de.” That’s just brilliant.
GD: Well, he just needs an Oscar like you just need an Oscar for EGOT. We just added three more a few months ago. What did you think about that, by the way, because a couple of those were Broadway legends? We went from 12 to 15 on EGOT.
LMM: You keep much more careful count of this than I do, I’m afraid!
GD: Andrew Lloyd Webber, Tim Rice, and John Legend.
GD: For Jesus Christ Superstar.” Moved us up from 12 to 15. We’d been stuck on 12 for years and years.
LMM: That was a wonderful production. I think “Jesus Christ Superstar” in particular is so hard to crack, not only onstage but onscreen because it really is an incredible concept album. It’s a series of songs and the fact that they staged it as this incredible concert. David Leveaux did an amazing job.
GD: And modernized it.
LMM: Yeah, modernized it but didn’t put so much of a concept on it that you were like, “Oh okay, this is like a concept.”
GD: But made you feel like it wasn’t a period piece.
LMM: Absolutely. The way they did it was just right and John sounds amazing. I still listen to his “Gethsemane” all the time from that recording.
GD: Last question, I think you joined the Motion Picture Academy after the “Moana” nomination.
LMM: I did!
GD: We already mentioned how much you love the Oscars. What was your first voting experience like?
LMM: Oh, it was so great. I voted pretty narrowly, ‘cause I’m a stickler for, “I’m not gonna vote in anything where I haven’t seen all the nominees.” But it was a joy. It was a joy to get to be a part of that.
GD: I’ll finish up with two questions along those lines. On the music side, you get to nominate and then, of course, you’re voting for winners on everything. You don’t have to give specifics of who you voted for, but what are you looking for from a creative standpoint that makes you wanna mark a composer down for their score or composers down for their song?
LMM: I think if the score is inextricably linked from the film and you can’t imagine that film without the score, and the same goes for the song. I’m never gonna be the guy who nominates the song in the closing credits. It needs to be that song that is the turning point of the movie or you can’t help but link the song and the film. Those are the ones that stay with you. I was actually just talking with Charlie over here before we got here. “City of Stars” from “La La Land,” every time I fly into L.A. that song pops into my head. I get it. It becomes an anthem, in a way, and a songwriter’s done their job when you’re in the real world and that song imposes itself on your consciousness.
GD: We just had Justin Hurwitz on a panel last night and he told the story of his parents are driving him to the airport in Wisconsin to fly back to L.A. and on the other side of the world, Damien [Chazelle]’s waiting on that, and the whistle part of it comes to him in the car. They have to pull over on the side of the road because he has no WiFi so he could send it over his phone so Damien can hear that before it leaves his mind.
LMM: (Laughs.) That’s great. That’s real talk from composers. I got to work with Justin a little bit on the last season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and that was really fun.
GD: Well, thank you so much. You had another incredible year. So glad about the Kennedy Center Honors, hope that’s a fun event for you. It’s gonna be nerve-wracking, though.
LMM: Well it’s fun because I’m not up against anyone. We’ve won. It’s gonna be great.