Bathtub Gin, Fol-de-rol, and Bicycle Spokes: An Interview with Lyricist Scott Wittman from MARY POPPINS RETURNS
Alongside his longtime songwriting partner Marc Shaiman (who handles the music and co-writes the lyrics), Wittman has crafted songs for HAIRSPRAY, NBC’s SMASH, and the Broadway adaptations of CATCH ME IF YOU CAN and CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. He and Shaiman were nominated for an Academy Award for their work on the haunting ballad “The Place Where Lost Things Go” from MARY POPPINS RETURNS.
We’re huge fans of your work and jumped at the chance to ask you some questions about your work on this film. Can you tell me how you and Marc Shaiman landed this amazing gig?
A lot of praying! We’ve known Rob Marshall and Jon DeLuca for many years from Broadway. Rob was the original director of HAIRSPRAY, but then the CHICAGO movie happened and it was like a Sophie’s choice for him. So years later, when this project came up our names were on the top of the list. We met with our screenwriter, Dave Magee, Rob and Jon, and later got a lovely phone call from Rob asking – “which Sherman Brother do you want to be?”
How long have you been writing together?
Oh, nineteen-eighty-something. We wrote a show in the East Village that ran for a long time about Barbie and Ken. People also get confused sometimes, that Marc and I write the lyrics together and he writes the music.
I loved some of the references you snuck into the lyrics, like “bathtub gin” in “Can You Imagine That?”, surely a Disney first. It sounded so familiar to me when I saw the film and it took me awhile, but I finally realized I recognized it from another one of your songs – “Let’s Be Bad” from SMASH!
(Laughs) Wow, yes! We joked about how kids who saw the original film walked around singing “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”, while kids who watch our movie will be walking around singing about bathtub gin and fol-de-rol.
I’m sure you get asked this a lot, but how do you and Marc tackle a song? Where does it start and what’s the process?
We start with the title of the song. We write all the lyrics away from the piano. We site across from each other, and do a lot of research. For POPPINS, Dave Magee would write us a monologue about what he thinks the moment needs. We’d go back to the original P.L. Travers books, which had a great influence on almost all of it, then you start to word associate together, and slowly a title will appear. For example, we had settled on “Trip the Light Fantastic” for the big lamplighter number, but Marc never felt it tripped off the tongue the way it should. So he was in New York riding on a Citibike, and was listening to the spokes and as they spun he heard in his brain, trip-a-little trip-a-little trip-a-little – and it became “Trip A Little Light Fantastic.”
Tell me about some of the songs that got cut along the way. Were there “trunk songs” for this project?
Oh my yes. Originally, we had a longer section of the animation sequence, and this was in one of the books – an anthropomorphic zoo. Once a year on Mary’s birthday, the humans are in cages and the animals walk around. It was so fun – monkeys walking around looking at bankers in cages. So we had a conversation with Richard Sherman about it, and he said well you know, we wrote a song for that scene too! Of course their title was much better – “Chimpanzoo.”
We went through five different songs, all in varying styles, before settling on the current opening number for Lin-Manuel Miranda, “Underneath the Lovely London Sky.”
Did you know from the start that you were writing for Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda?
Emily Blunt was onboard from the beginning. Without her, there was no movie. She was in New York City, where we live, making THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN at the time. She’d come to the apartment and we got to tailor the songs to her as we went. Emily’s musical fear was banished by being involved in the process, and she approached it all in the spirit of the character.
Can’t wait to see what you do next. Any projects coming up we can look out for?
We’ve been writing the score for the new Broadway musical SOME LIKE IT HOT, which has a workshop coming up in two weeks.
Many thanks to Scott Wittman for taking the time to talk with us!
See it for Yourself
MARY POPPINS RETURNS arrives on Movies Anywhere Digital HD on March 12, 2019, and 4K UltraHD Blu-ray, Blu-ray and DVD on March 19, 2019.