As a theater geek, I was very excited to chat with Lin-Manuel Miranda about his thoughts on doing musicals for the screen and for the stage. The interview did not disappoint. Miranda plays Jack, a lamplighter that used to help Bert as a child. He remembers meeting Mary Poppins as a child and joins in the adventures with the Bank's children.
Thanks to Disney for bringing me to LA for the Mary Poppins Returns Event.
Listen to the full interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda in this video.
* The written interview has been edited and shortened.
Lin-Manuel Miranda compares live theater to musical films
It's been a long time since you really performed in anything other than your own, so how did that work for you doing Mary Poppins Returns?
Lin-Manuel Miranda – “It is the fruit of the harvest. No, honestly, I started writing “In The Heights” because I very quickly realized at age eighteen that no one was going to write my dream musical. That I did not have the ballet training to play Bernardo in “West Side Story.” Or Paul in “A Chorus Line.” And if you're a Puerto Rican dude that's all you get. In the cannon. So “In The Heights” really was the beginning of creating my own opportunities. Hamilton is an extension of that.
And then to have Rob Marshall call you and tell you it's Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins, and you're the only other person we have in mind, and we're gonna build from there, it felt like the fruit of the harvest. The harvest I began when I was eighteen years old.”
How is it different being in musical theater versus starring in a musical movie production?
LM – “You finish the eight-minute dance number, and you wait a year and a half for applause. But honestly, you're trying to tell the truth on stage, and you're trying to tell the truth in film. The difference is the energy source. Doing eight shows a week is a yoga. You're gonna hit the same positions every night, but you're gonna hit 'em differently depending on your energy, the audience, you're fellow performers.
The energy source in making a film is, especially a film like this, today you're dancing with penguins. Tomorrow you're singing with Meryl Streep. Friday you're shutting down Buckingham Palace with 800 bikers. And you're not coming back. We're not going back to the penguins next week. You don't get two shows a day with Meryl Streep tomorrow. So the adrenaline source becomes ‘this is a once-in-a-lifetime moment,' and you have to be completely present. And so it just shifts from the audience to the sheer one-of-a-kindness of it.”
Which scene are you most proud of?
LM – “There are so many scenes I'm proud of. Tommy Kail, who directed Hamilton, said that he was most moved when he saw me slide down the banister in “Trip A Little Light Fantastic” because that's like the one thing I actually know how to do really well. As Tommy Kail put it, ‘You don't know how to land a joke or sing a note or grow a beard without practice. But man you were born to slide down banisters.'
Then there are moments that represent hours and hours of hard work from the eight minute, continuous dance sequence in “Trip A Little Light Fantastic,” and Rob ran it as an eight-minute dance sequence. That sequence was run as if it was a Broadway musical number. From jumping on the lamppost to the flaming sticks balancing on my foot, that was all run of a piece with hundreds of cameras around. And I'm very proud of that. I've never danced like that in my life.”
Lin-Manuel Miranda on entering the world of Mary Poppins Returns
Do you remember the first time you saw Mary Poppins and what that meant to you?
LM – “I remember seeing the first two-thirds of Mary Poppins. Then I remember turning it off during “Feed The Birds.” “Feed The Birds” is the most emotionally devastating melody in the history of cinema. I was not ready for it as a kid. So I remember crying and turning it off. I didn't see the end of Mary Poppins 'til I was like in high school because that song was just too sad. It was just too sad for my tender little heart.”
What was the process of mastering the Dick Van Dyke Burt-esque accent?
LM – “Music is sort of my catalyst for everything. I had an amazing dialect coach named Sandra Butterworth. She realized that music was my way in. It was not just listening to music sung in the east end Cockney accent, it was music in the 1930s. Because it's not just about the part of the world, it's about the time of the world. It's about the when as well. So I listened to a lot of Anthony Newley, who was a big sort of music hall star who then also wrote a Broadway musical called “Stop the World, I Want To Get Off ” in the 1960s. But I listened to a lot of his early stuff, and that was my sort of north star for the accent.”
How do you feel that you can inspire children, your son, that everything is possible?
LM – “I was inspired by him. The biggest note Rob Marshall gave me is that all the other grownups forget what it's like to be a child except for Jack. And so my biggest research was watching my son play in Princess Diana park in Kensington Park in London, watching his boundless imagination. We are all born with that. I think we're all, that's inherent in us until life does what it does. That was my secret weapon in finding Jack was I had a two-year-old research assistant who kept me childlike and kept me in that mode.”
How was it to be in the upside down with Meryl Streep?
LM – “Every day with Meryl Streep feels like you're in the upside down. What Emily told me going in was that Meryl just kind of stays in the character, but not like method Daniel Day-Lewis cobbling shoes. She's just kind of in the spirit of it. And I felt so lucky that she was in the spirit of a character that's so mischievous and flirty and fun.
There's one moment between setups where she just looked at the kids and went, ‘Hey kids, you wanna know how to do a pratfall?' And she went… like from standing to face down. Everyone runs in like, Meryl Streep has died. And she gets up, and she goes, ‘I learned that at Yale School of Drama.' And it was just to show off for the kids. And so I was very grateful that I got to play with that version of Meryl Streep.”
That was probably the best story I've heard in an interview because we can all picture Meryl Streep doing something like that and getting up in her Devil Wears Prada look to tell everyone where she learned that move.
Get the Mary Poppins Returns soundtrack!
Mary Poppins Returns is in theaters December 19!