“Wind in the east . . . there’s a mist comin’ in, like something is brewing, about to begin.” – Bert
From the time I was a wee chap of about three years old, I remember sitting down to watch the amazing Nanny with the incredible umbrella who could turn any situation into the magical. Her name was Mary Poppins. And to me indeed, she exuded perfection in every way. Yes, she could seem a bit condescending at times. And certainly, she would borderline on the conceited with her view of herself. But nothing would rescue me from my dreariness more than a showing of Mary Poppins.
With Mary Poppins, no matter when it played my parents allowed me to stay up late into the night to see this Nanny work her magic on an entire family. I took it as a challenge to stay up past the “Stay Awake”. With the new movie about to drop on Wednesday (or tonight for those adventurous souls needing a little Supercalifragilistic magic in their lives), I’m sending one shout out to the film with a review of the Mary Poppins Returns soundtrack.
Anyone who knows Mary Poppins knows that the music makes the piece . . . and Bert. But we will get to that in a moment. The music transforms every moment into wonder, turning it from a little magical to the truly exceptional. Which means that our first glimpse into the world of Mary Poppins returning, and a glimpse into whether this new film can be truly transcendent, comes in a look at the songs they have chosen to write for the new film. The original music came to us through the brilliant Sherman Brothers who took simple melodies and turned them into rich tapestries of art we can all appreciate. They were the soundtrack of our childhood.
With the new Mary Poppins movie, Disney tasked Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman with the creation of these new songs to recreate the wonderful world of Mary Poppins, all the while putting an entirely different spin on the character. No small feat indeed as they must navigate the shark-infested waters of the rabid Disney fans mixed in with those who love Mary Poppins. Secondarily, they have to worry about handling the shift in focus from film one to film two. While much of the first film dealt with the children, the father represented the key figure in the story. He needed to change. With a sequel, the focus shifts. How will the musical numbers contribute to that shift?
“First of all, I would like to make one thing quite clear. I never explain anything.” – Mary Poppins
While I would love to say I had all of the answers, I do not. As I am as excited as the rest of you for the advent of the latest of what I hope will be a further series of musical misadventures by the nanny from somewhere up in the clouds. But whether it is or not, we have this one reprise we can be thankful for. So on to the musical numbers for the new show, Mary Poppins Returns.
A Mary Poppins Returns Soundtrack Review
1) Lovely London Sky (Lin Manuel Miranda) –
Any person who has been listening to music, especially Broadway music has heard of the author and creator of the hit show Hamilton. Of course, later he branched off into writing the music for Moana, among other things. And my daughter is completely enamored of him. He begins this new soundtrack with Lovely London Sky. From the outset, they reintroduce us to the land of London. Just as Bert brought all of us into the lovely Cherry Tree Lane to meet the Banks’ family.
We begin with the light music of the violins and the oboe coming through broken eventually by Miranda’s version of the English accent not quite perfected by Dick Van Dyke. Miranda plays Jack, a corresponding character to Bert. As Bert was a chimney sweep, and one of P.L. Travers protecting guardian Angels, Jack is given a different job, but no less important. He controls the lamps of the cit. He and his crew turn up and down the lamps at night and morning, revealing to people things left in the dark.
While not a big number, it’s not supposed to be. Instead, it gives the audience the setting of the piece. And Marc Shaiman makes sure we know magic is coming as he throws in a few notes from the original Mary Poppins. The lyrics both set the mood and key in on what they want us to focus on: change in perspective. While the original Poppins showed us the honor and privilege of parenthood.. We have such a little time at it, so we need to engage our children while we can, and we can still make a difference. Yes, the dad’s perspective is out of sorts. But is misplaced priorities which Poppins is there to settle.
This time, it’s about a shift in perspective. And the key in is the lyrics as Jack tells us if we will only look up above, we will have such a better view of the world. Look past the small stuff into the beautiful possibility of life. While I do not know yet, I believe Michael Banks wife recently passed, and his warped perspective comes from tragedy and not a misplaced set of priorities. So he needs to see things anew to engage his kids the way they need him to. He needs to see the possibility of life and they tell us that even beginning with this lovely little opening number
2) Overture –
I am going to be pretty straightforward here. Honestly, its beautiful music with a lovely blend of old and new. It hits all the notes of the new pieces while blending in some of the old classics we love in Mary Poppins. While you might not think it’s glorious, it’s “practically perfect in every way.”
3) A Conversation (Ben Whishaw) –
We move directly to the Banks kids all of us Poppins lovers recognize in Michael. Ben Whishaw takes up the mantle of Michael Banks as an adult. He begins with a sad song. Not a song of hope sprung from his youth. Neither it is a conversion into the kind of parent his father turned into before Poppins got a hold of it. It’s a somber parent. And it’s a lost feeling, one many a parent can easily recognize. How do we direct our children when we ourselves feel lost?
He is talking in song to his dearly departed as he softly intones “we haven’t spoken in so long, dear.” Michael cannot find the direction and purpose he had when he was with his wife and everything seems to have gone by in a blur. What was once filled with love and magic seems filled up with empty silence and a disconnect from self and from the children who love and need you. The music itself seems to spring out of a music box. It is both simple and plaintive. We can feel both pain and loss.
But we also keenly sense that Michael himself is an innocent, not drowned out by the world’s worries. He’s just in need of a perspective shift. It’s quiet magic which feels more out of the Mary Poppins play which made sure we focused on the plight of the parents as opposed to those of the children from the start. Here we are given the keenest sense of Michael’s suffering and longing at the same time.
4) Can You Imagine That (Emily Blunt) –
The first of Blunt’s show-stopping numbers, this reintroduces us to the magical things Mary Poppins brings. While it’s a beautiful and fun powerhouse number, it’s where this movie really departs from the Mary Poppins of the original series. It’s not that I am saying it’s a bad choice. It’s just the Mary Poppins of the first movie seemed reluctant to use her powers. Not because she didn’t wish to use them. And not because she didn’t plan on using them. I feel like she held back because she was trying to show the children the balance between having a great imagination and being carried away so far you lose track of where you are. This was a distinct fault of the Banks children. Maybe it was because their father was so grounded they needed to find freedom somewhere.
Whatever the case, this Poppins almost speaks about those who focus on reality being limited in vision and imagination. Yes, she sings about logic being “the rock of our foundation.” But she sings it in such a way that you know she carries some disdain for those over preoccupied with what we know versus what is possible. It still is very focused on perspective shift. But this perspective shift tells you to ignore what you feel must be real in favor of the flights of fancy only Mary Poppins must produce. Maybe this is a factor of what she needs to change in Michael Banks. Or maybe just carrying the story in a different direction. But it certainly felt different. She even stated “off we go” once they have all jumped into the bath. It’s a definitely less demure version of Poppins than we were previously given.
By the time she gets to the end of the piece, she discusses that “stuff and nonsense” can be fun. And those who are grounded in the real world are weighed down by the anchor of what others tell them is so. This may be a call for a perspective change, but to what purpose. And to what end? I suppose, only Mary Poppins could tell us.
5) The Royal Doulton Music Hall (Mary Poppins Cast) –
For the uninitiated in the world of Mary Poppins, we are now thrust fully into a New Jolly Holiday. In the previous incarnation of the story, we flew into a chalk painting to find out the beauty of country stroll. It’s an idyllic place. But they ground the excursion reality as Bert remembers it through his sidewalk chalk sketcher. They grounded it in something real.
In a way, the songs still ground us in real things. Here, a piece of pottery speaks to them. Eventually, they must respond to the craziness and enter into the world of the Royal Doulton Music Hall. Here they treat us to the beauty of Mary Poppins mind, which she seems eager to display. Part of this, my best guess, would be because the children need to be able to be children again. And it’s not like before.
In this tale, they need to reawaken their innocence because the stress of the world came in and attacked their very foundations with the loss of their mother. They themselves need to see the beauty of what’s around them before it’s too late. This song represents a prelude. It feels like it connects right to the next song as it’s merely the introduction of this new world. We need a show-stopping number again, which we are just about to jump into. 1 – 2 – 3 – go!
6) Introducing Mary Poppins (Lin Manuel Miranda, Emily Blunt) –
Think Supercalifragilistic, right before they actually decide to sing the song, when they goad her into singing something. Blunt strikes the right notes here. But I feel like she doesn’t go far enough. Maybe it’s her own take on Mary Poppins. But she seems tells everyone no, she cannot sing with barely a moments pause before giving them the key to play the music in. I’m hoping I will see something different in the movie. But for now, it just feels like it’s what she always wanted to do. It’s not that anyone controls Mary Poppins in the other. But she plays it like they honestly convince her to do what they want her to do, which is to sing. Here it feels like she wants to sing all along but needs to say no because it’s expected.
7) A Cover Is Not the Book (Emily Blunt) –
Given the intro, this, of course, means this represents the corresponding Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious number in Mary Poppins. Once again, the song is thematically consistent. It’s a revival and a refreshment of the youth which had been lost to them such a short time ago. They get to see the world with fresh eyes and a fresh perspective which they need. Obviously, the song comes from the idea you cannot judge a book by the cover. Well in life, you cannot judge the things in life by just the outside. You need to dig in to really find out the true substance of the matter.
And for Michael Banks’ children, they cannot be forced to grow up at such a young age. They need to explore, create, and find out things on their own. They need to see life afresh and not merely assume what things must be because of the cover they seem to have.
As for the musical number, it’s a bit of a curiosity to me if we are to consider this Mary Poppins cannon. While I certainly see the uniqueness of the tone and tenor of the pieces before, stylistically speaking, they were all obviously Mary Poppins music. Musically I feel like this deviates in two very specific ways. Whereas Mary Poppins music could be raucous (Supercalifragilistic), it was never specifically bawdy in sound or tone. This straddles the line into bawdy in tone and Mary seems to really get into it. In that way, I feel like she has left the prim and proper Mary Poppins for one a little more forthright and direct. Not a criticism. Merely an observation.
Secondarily, she goes into a full cockney accent, something she would never have done in the original movie. While definitely comfortable with the lower classes and extremely supportive of them, Poppins still maintained an air of British upper-class society. This strips that pretense altogether to give us something new. Whatever you want to say, it’s a fresh look at the character and the music, while paying homage, has its own sense of freshness.
8) The Place Where Lost Things Go (Emily Blunt) –
This means it’s time for the “Stay Awake” lullaby, now titled The Place Where the Lost Things Go. In a bit of a twist, Poppins directs the necessary change which needs to take place at the children. They responded to their father’s pain by trying to become adults. But that robs them of their youth and their father the ability to engage with them in their innocence, during that magical moment they have while growing up.
Mary Poppins needs to remind them that lost things (their mom in particular and anything missing in general) do not vanish entirely. It just needs a little work to reveal. Their mother’s love still shines through them. And through this, the magic Michael Banks lamented being gone can be brought back. She does this in the form of a beautiful lullaby she tells the children. “For when you dream you’ll find all that’s lost, is found.” It’s bringing back those dreams and the possibility which will resurrect their family and put it back on track to be the beautiful family they should be now.
9) Turning Turtle (Meryl Streep) –
Even Mary Poppins needs a little comic relief, especially one which takes herself so seriously. And while the original had “I Love to Laugh” sung fantastically by the comic genius himself, Ed Wynn, this one turns to Meryl Streep to bring us out of the doldrums and into more hilarious flights of fancy with Turning Turtle. Definitely sung in a unique accent, Meryl Streep proves she still knows how to sell a number, even if most people do not consider her the strongest of singers. One can see why Rob Marshall, the director, loves her as she displays a unique voice. And she adds this to the mix, much the way Mr. Wynn did so long ago.
With a mixture of interesting rhythms, unique sounds and an ethnic flare, Turning Turtle focuses on the life of this lady which gets turned around once a week. She seems to hate this day because it signifies the day of the week nothing makes sense. Mary comes in and reminds her that it gives her the opportunity to see life from a new perspective. Sure, things never go back to the way they were once you have seen this new perspective. But things appear beautiful and so much brighter once you realize this change of perspective represents an opportunity, not a curse. And as horrible a loss can be to a child, it does give them a beautiful opportunity to appreciate life in a way others cannot.
10) Trip The Light Fantastic (Lin Manuel Miranda) –
You didn’t think we would leave the new “Bert” character without a show-stopping number, did you? Of course, you didn’t. This one gets both an initial playing and a reprise with a lovely part for the original Bert (Dick Van Dyke) reminding you he hasn’t even lost a step in his 90’s. They introduce us to the job of the Leerie, those lamplighters in London set to bring light to the darkness, as Mary represents light to those whose households she inhabits. Jack, being one of those Leeries, brings light to the town from the darkness.
He brings light, both actual and metaphorical. Because he helps bring light to the children. Not only in helping them to see their way through the darkness with the death of their mother, but in taking that light and letting it shine so that their father may be able to see his own way out of darkness. Now the kids need to let their lights shine in front of their parent. Long sections of music lead one to believe the action will take on a “Step In Time” quality. Which makes me excited to see what this will look like on the big screen. Nevertheless, it’s a fun piece and a chance for Jack (Lin Manuel Miranda) to strut his stuff. As opposed to being the guardian angel of the chimney sweep, Jack,as an angel, reveals light and truth to the children.
11) Nowhere To Go But Up (Angela Lansbury and Mary Poppins Cast) –
It’s the Let’s Go Fly A Kite of the Mary Poppins Returns film. Yes, this closes the most important parts of the soundtrack. Yes, the soundtrack contains some other pieces of music without lyrics , each with their own magical moments, but my review of the soundtrack will not focus on those pieces.
The piece itself focuses on the whimsical nature of life. We cannot control everything that happens to us. But we can change how we view the things which have transpired. And in those moments we can be grateful for a change in perspective. Once we see that, the song suggests there is nowhere to go but up. In these moments we see people taking a chance of love, others out seeking adventure, and a new and better Michael Banks who can reconcile past, present, and future, and realize the true gift of his children which he has now. It’s a beautiful recognition, with some fun original Mary Poppins musical lines thrown in.
But it also comes with the sad recognition that Mary Poppins leaves us once again to go to that cloud in the sky. And it reminds us in a strange way that the magical Mary Poppins was not the most important character of all. The transforming nature of love between a parent and child in general, and between a father and child more specifically represents the most important aspect of the story. There the magic happens, which Mary Poppins was not there to supplant. She only reminded them of its importance. And with that, she disappears . . . and the people forget her. But never us. Because we love Mary Poppins, even if she can only return for a short while.
Final Thoughts and Rating
While I have a lot of opinions about the new music, I do think it’s very well done and very much in the spirit and creativity of those Sherman brothers who wrote the original score. (Have to admit how cool it was to meet the surviving Sherman brother at a stage performance of the Mary Poppins Musical.) At the same time, they give it a unique flair and twist of their own. While I’m not fond of everything they did, I am trying to withhold some judgment about it as it’s one thing to listen to and another to see it visually. I may respond to some things differently when visuals are included. Nevertheless, the beautiful and entertaining score moves with life and the lyrics focus on a specific theme. That’s quite impressive for any show. While not perfect, it’s still magic.
Rating: 3 out of 4 stars
Continue The Conversation:
So have you listened to the Mary Poppins Soundtrack? If you have, what did you think of it so far? (If you haven’t you might want to check it out on YouTube and then purchase a copy.) How did you first experience the movie Mary Poppins? How old were you when you watched in the first time? And what do you think the pivotal character in the film was, aside from Mary Poppins herself? Leave me a message in the comments as well as your favorite Mary Poppins Song.
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Until next time, this is me signing off.
David Elliott, Single Dad’s Guide to Life