Say what you like about Disney and their growing portfolio of movie franchises. They are shrewd business people, they know how to exploit their properties, but they are also expert entertainers and a great judge of what the public will respond to. There have been a lot of recent live action or CGI remakes of classic Disney movies but in the case of Mary Poppins, after almost 55 years since the original movie in 1964 they have opted on this occasion for a sequel. Despite there being many additional books in the Mary Poppins series by the late P. L. Travers, the writers (David Magee with Rob Marshall & John DeLuca) have opted for a new story based around the now grown-up Banks children set 25 years after the previous film. However it is perhaps risky to tinker too much with a well-loved classic so while the plot is new there are a lot of parallels with the original "Mary Poppins". Of course the magical Mary Poppins has not aged and is now played by Emily Blunt. Though Dick Van Dyke makes a remarkable and fitting appearance for a man in his 90s, there is now a functional replacement for chimney sweep Bert in the form of new Cockney character lamplighter Jack played by Lin Manuel-Miranda.
Heading up the music department is Marc Shaiman writing the music for all the songs, co-writing the lyrics with Scott Wittman, and composing the music score. Shaiman has a wealth of experience in film scoring (The Addams Family & City Slickers) and musicals on film and stage (Hairspray, Sister Act, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), and on this project he had the support of Richard M. Sherman as Music Consultant. The Sherman Brothers (Robert B. Sherman died in 2012) wrote the songs for Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book, Chitty Chitty Bang-Bang and many more musicals, and the new songs pay a number of small homages to the original songs with little quotes and some more subtle suggestions. Scott Wittman as lyricist has worked with Marc Shaiman on a number of musicals including Hairspray, Catch Me If You Can, & Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The songs and score have certainly managed to capture the character of the original movie so that tonally it feels like we are in the same magical universe. The director for Mary Poppins Returns is Rob Marshall, who also comes with celebrated experience on musicals most notably Chicago and Into the Woods.
Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins puts a different spin on the character, a little haughtier and naughtier than Julie Andrews and so a little closer to the Mary Poppins of the books. Her acting, singing and dancing do justice to the character and we couldn't ask for a better replacement for Julie Andrews, who decided not to be involved in the sequel. Lin-Manuel Miranda is a perfect all-round performer, with a noticeably better Cockney accent than Dick Van Dyke from the original. It should be noted here that Miranda is an experienced songwriter in his own right, composing or co-writing many of the songs on the animated Disney musical Moana and winning a Grammy for the song "How Far I'll Go" (which was also nominated for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe). The other singing cast do well, with Ben Wishaw as the adult Michael Banks recently widowed with 3 young children (the young cast playing them are excellent), and cameos from Angela Lansbury and the aforementioned Dick Van Dyke as the now elderly son of the elderly Banker he also played (under heavy make-up) in the original "Mary Poppins".
The Songs in many cases have analogues in the original movie, but they are far from being carbon copies. Rather they have certain similarities as they visit aspects of the same magical world but from a new perspective, and there are some distinctly new elements. There is a certain debt in some songs to Music Hall traditions such as the opening waltz with Miranda introducing the setting of London, but especially in the songs relating to the visit to "The Royal Doulton Hall". The "A Cover is Not the Book" number also shows another side of Mary Poppins (and Emily Blunt) as she loses her "posh" voice for one more suited to the cockney music hall venue. Blunt's posh voice returns when Mary Poppins sings "The Place Where Lost Things Go" to the children and starts her process of mending the family. Then Meryl Streep does her "foreign" voice for the nonsense song "Turning Turtle". "Trip a Little Light Fantastic" has Miranda leading the lamplighters or "Leeries" in their song, and introducing the children to their own version of Rhyming Slang. This song is reprised later by Dick Van Dyke, before Angela Lansbury as the Balloon Lady gives us "Nowhere to Go But Up" which owes an obvious debt to "Fly a Kite". So all the Mary Poppins boxes are ticked, but in a new vibrant way which feels completely fresh.
In the album's score notes Shaiman describes how an instrumental version of "Can You Imagine That?" was used as a demo track for the film execs and then recorded and played by the director on set to help create the required Poppins atmosphere. This track is included on the album as "Theme from Mary Poppins Returns" to kick off the score section of the album. Shaiman's Score as a whole is naturally full of the various song melodies providing unity to the whole. It is in the nature of score music that it loses the constraint of singability whilst adopting new constraints in terms of its purpose as underscore, and so while it uses the same voice as the songs it is nevertheless more varied in tempo, style, instrumentation and emotional range. This is especially the case as the story unfolds and we hear some darker moments with elements of jeopardy, mystery and action coming to the fore. However the lightness is never far away, and there is even a small touch of 1920's style Charleston music to add to the fun. The overall result is a journey full of fun and magic with a sense of resolution.