BWW Album Review: MARY POPPINS RETURNS Steps In Time For A New Era
There are few things as difficult as penning a follow-up to a beloved classic. That's the challenge that faced the writers of Disney's Mary Poppins Returns, the next-generation sequel to the iconic 1964 film. Fortunately for us all, veteran songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman were more than up to the task, creating a score that seamlessly blends in with our favorite songs of old while producing some new magical moments of its own.
Keen observers (and serious Poppins aficionados) will likely notice that the song list for Mary Poppins Returns maps almost perfectly onto the original movie's tracks: a song to introduce the Banks children to Mary Poppins's magic, a showstopper in an animated world, and so on. This structure means that comparisons are unavoidable, but Shaiman and Wittman lean into the nostalgia instead of trying to tiptoe around it. Also worth noting: Richard Sherman, the surviving Sherman brother who co-wrote the original songs, is credited as a "music consultant" on Returns.
The score wastes no time getting off to a start that fans will recognize: a jack-of-all-trades setting the scene in the streets of London. Here, it's Lin-Manuel Miranda as lamplighter Jack, singing "(Underneath The) Lovely London Sky." It's a charming, catchy scene-setter, one that reassures viewers that, although some things have changed since the last time we saw Mary Poppins and the Banks family, some things haven't changed at all.
Our musical introduction to Emily Blunt's practically perfect nanny is similarly old-but-new. "Can You Imagine That" is the next-generation "A Spoonful of Sugar," as Mary Poppins shows off the power of imagination and magic to initially-skeptical Banks children. The song is on a bigger scale than the original film; it has a bit more of a modern, show-biz feel than the chipper simplicity we recognize, but it's every bit as fun and charming.
It wouldn't be a Mary Poppins tale without an adventure alongside animated characters, and we've got some of that too. Instead of a jolly holiday and a made-up word, here we have "The Royal Daulton Music Hall" and "A Cover Is Not The Book." Appropriately, these songs borrow more from the music hall and vaudeville traditions, and it suits Blunt and Miranda wonderfully. The duo tear it up on both songs; it's clear how much fun they're having - and it gives Miranda a chance to briefly show off his rap skills with a section of rapid-fire patter. The real showstopper, though, comes late in the movie, with the "Step In Time"-esque "Trip A Little Light Fantastic."
For the most part, the new songs manage to make their own mark and don't dwell in the shadows of their classic counterparts, despite the clear connections and inspirations. Only in one case does the Returns soundtrack not quite live up to its predecessor: "The Place Where Lost Things Go." The gentle, bittersweet lullaby does the task of summing up the movie's themes beautifully: "nothing's lost forever, only out of place." The downside is simply that, because the movie so closely tracks with the original Mary Poppins, it's impossible not to compare "The Place Where Lost Things Go" to "Feed The Birds," whose poignancy simply cannot be matched.
The instrumental score is lovely and creates connections between the major musical numbers. It also provides a few moment of musical nostalgia, as bits and pieces of the original Sherman brothers melodies weave their way in at crucial moments. It's a sweet way to musically establish that we're still in the same world, but in a new age. Shaiman and Wittman have always been at their best when writing pastiches of the past (see: Smash and Hairspray), and this score is no exception.
Outside of Miranda and Blunt, the cast is excellent all around. Meryl Streep deliciously tears into "Topsy Turvy" as some madcap blend of her Witch from Into The Woods, Willy Wonka, and a mad Russian babushka. The new Banks children - played by Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, and Joel Dawson - are appropriately clever and sweet. And, as always, Mary Poppins has come superficially for the children but deep down to save the Banks patriarch. Ben Whishaw's Michael Banks is a devastating emotional core, with his journey mapped out between the early mourning song "A Conversation" and the gleeful joy of the finale "Nowhere To Go But Up." For longtime fans and newcomers alike, the soundtrack of Mary Poppins Returns is indeed practically perfect in every way.