“This has been an extraordinary experience. The only thing I can do now after [Mary Poppins Returns] is head off to Puerto Rico and do Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda told me earlier this week at the Cinema Society screening of Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns at the SVA Theater in New York City.
While many actors on the press circuit use platitudes like “unforgettable” to describe their experiences working on a movie, Miranda literally means it; After watching a rough cut of Poppins in February, his wife went into labor. “My wife was nine months pregnant. We watched the movie, had lunch and she went into labor with our second child. So I will always associate this movie with that very special day. It was incredible moment in our lives.”
The red carpet, star-studded event, drew stars Emily Blunt (Mary Poppins) and Miranda (Jack), as well as Rob Marshall (director/producer), David Magee (screenwriter), Marc Platt (producer), Marc Shaiman (composer/songwriter/co-lyricist), and Scott Wittman (co-lyricist). There were also plenty of celebrities in attendance to preview the beloved sequel – from John Leguizamo to Martha Stewart. “It’s so exciting to see anything that he does,” said Leguizamo, who attended the event with his daughter Allegra. “The man is brilliant. He brings a new voice and a new sound.”
Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns is poised to win several awards, as the sequel captures the ultimate expression of hope, imagination and child-like wonder. Filming concluded in London in May 2017, and Miranda couldn’t be happier to see it released. “It’s been like a secret for the past year and a half,” he said. “This is our gift to the world.”
It’s a gift that Miranda made sure to bring to his favorite New York neighborhood of Washington Heights, holding a screening at the historic uptown theater United Palace. “It was the best part of the process,” he added. “To bring it to United Palace [theater] on 175th Street and to bring back movie-going there. I helped contribute to the screen and the HD projector that they have. It felt like the closing of a circle. To premiere a film that I made there was like a dream come true.”
In Mary Poppins Returns, Miranda plays Jack, a character akin to Dick Van Dyke’s Bert from the original 1964 classic Mary Poppins. Jack, like Bert, is Poppins’ wingman and goes on adventures with the Banks children. As Lin-Manuel puts it,“Mary Poppins is authentically back to take care of the Banks children, but she is also really there to take care of Michael and Jane Banks.” Unlike Bert, a composite of several characters from PL Travers’ stories, Jack is a character specifically invented for Miranda by director/producer Marshall and screenwriters. “They thought of a Jack of all trades. So, [they decided] let’s call him Jack,” said Miranda, whose character is roughly the same age as the adult Michael J. Banks.
As Lin-Manuel tells it, the character of Jack is similar to Usnavi, the protagonist of his break-out Broadway show In the Heights – which is where Marshall first saw him acting at the Richard Rogers Theater.“Usnavi is a lot like Jack,” Miranda points out. “He’s a streetlight [literally and figuratively] as someone who illuminates his neighborhood. And then there’s Jack, who’s literally a lamplighter. He’s the guy who brings light to London in the darkness. It’s a metaphor for what he does in the film and it’s his job description.”
Unlike the original, in which any suggestion of romance between Mary and Bert was forbidden by author PL Travers, Mary Poppins Returns does allow for some romantic sparks to fly between Jack and Jane Banks, played by Emily Mortimer. “[Poppins] is continuing her work from the first film, allowing Michael to reconnect with his child-like joy and happiness again after the loss of his wife, and allowing Jane to find happiness. So, she’s sort of a matchmaker in that way,” Miranda said.
Movie fans will be excited to hear that Jack has his own line of toys. “What was weird and cool was that there is a Barbie doll of me and the next day there was a Funko doll, so not one, but two toys. I remember the surreal experience when the Moana dolls first came out – and those were characters that we helped create but this is on a whole other level.”
With the film’s anticipated success, we can predict a sequel to follow. “If Rob is in, I’m in,” Miranda says hypothetically, quipping “I can play a 90-year-old Jack [as Van Dyke did as Mr. Dawes Jr].”
Miranda will be spending New Year’s with his family in Puerto Rico, before reprising the title role of Hamilton in 24 performances from January 8-27 at the University of Puerto Rico. The proceeds from the performances will go to the Flamoyan Arts Fund, and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon will air a special Hamilton episode on January 15th with a rare performance of a song featuring Miranda and a new touring cast. The telecast will focus on the spirit and culture of Puerto Rico, in efforts to rebuild and raise awareness after the island’s Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017.
Simultaneously, Miranda is working on the film version of his hit In the Heights, which is currently in casting mode and will be shot in its entirety in Washington Heights. Mirada hopes to cast Latino legends and Latino talent no one has heard of. “Everything that currently happens in the streets of Washington Heights, will happen on the streets of In the Heights,” he confirmed. That means the movie will be “smartly updated for 2018-2019,” tackling hot topics like gentrification and immigration head-on.
So far, the role of Abuelita has not been secured (award-winning Boricua actress Rita Morena had previously been reported to be taking the role). “What a beautiful rumor,” said Miranda who affectionately calls her Titi Rita. “She’s an in-demand actress. I don’t know if it will happen.”
As for Mary Poppins Returns, it could’ve not come at a better time. “Rob [Marshall, director/producer] speaks to the right now,” Miranda admitted. “The world is a scary place. We are in a dark place right now. It’s a scary time. It felt we were doing so much good [when filming]. People have a collective joy and experience together in the movie.”
According to Miranda, when the world is in a dark time, musicals are a way for us to process and find an escape. He doesn’t believe it’s a coincidence that the movie musicals of the Golden Age of Hollywood peaked while the country was facing the Great Depression and the Second World War. “The only way the trend continues is if we continue to innovate in the musical form. I’m really happy that Mary Poppins Returns is super different from A Star is Born, Mamma Mia!, The Greatest Showman and Bohemian Rhapsody. We went to the movies to escape and to have joyous, hopeful experiences. It’s one of the values the arts can provide. It’s relevant now. [Mary Poppins Returns] is right on time.”
Mary Poppins Returns is now open nationwide.