'Mary Poppins' Returns Star Lin-Manuel Miranda On Playing The Spiritual Successor To Dick Van Dyke [Set Visit Interview]

Lin-Manuel Miranda is best known as the writer and star of the Broadway smash Hamilton, but pretty soon, he may be just as well-known for his work in Disney musicals. After snagging an Oscar nomination for his songwriting work on Moana, Miranda steps in front of the camera in Mary Poppins Returns, where he plays a singing and dancing lamplighter named Jack. With Dick Van Dyke's Burt nowhere to be seen, Jack gets to fill that role in Rob Marshall's sequel to the Disney classic. It certainly helps that Jack grew up as Burt's young protege.When we visited the set of Mary Poppins Returns last year, we sat down with Miranda for a moderated Q&A. He spoke about the differences between working on stage musicals and film musicals, his fondness for the original movie, and getting to meet (and work with) the legendary Dick Van Dyke.

I'll just ask a couple questions and we can get into this. This is an old friend of mine from back in the theater world where we both come from. So, speaking of the theater world, now you're making a musical film and how's it different making a stage musical from a film musical?

Well, the only really key difference is that you finish the musical number and they applaud in a year-and-a-half, which is jarring.... Just cause that's the weirdest part. We're doing a very elaborate musical numbers, more than anything you'd see on a Broadway stage and in 3D, and then you're [breathing heavy] and they yell "cut, let's do it again. So I miss the buzz of applause a little bit...

Do you remember seeing the original film when you were younger?

Oh, yeah. The original was on regular rotation in my house, as I'm sure it was in many of yours. I didn't see the end for many years because I would burst into tears at "The Birds," and I was like, "Turn it off! Turn it off!" She broke my heart, the bird lady. So I didn't see the end for a very long time. But I watched it many times in my youth.

So I gave a little background on the character of Jack and he and Mary, so can you tell us a little bit about him and what you're creating with him and who he is?

Yeah, you know, Jack is a lamp-lighter. He apprenticed under Burt from the original films so he knows all about Mary. He knows that Mary shows up and stuff's going to happen and cool adventures will be had. So it's really nice to play the Burt position in this film. You kind of get to go on all the fun adventures with the Banks family. But the joy of playing — when Rob and John first sort of approached me with this role, it was across the street from Hamilton. I went and met with them between shows. It was at the restaurant in the Paramount hotel across the street. They said, we want you to play a lamp-lighter. I said, what is that? They said they light up the lamps. I said, oh, I played this already, because my first show In the Heights was about — I plays a guy named Usnavi and the central metaphor from that was he's the street lighter in the neighborhood. At first he sees it as, he's stuck here and everyone gets to go everywhere else. But then he sort of refocuses himself after the thing and says, oh, it's my job to tell these stories, to shine a light on these stories on this corner, so it felt very close to home, the role, as soon as they pitched it to me.

That's very cool. What's your experience been, working with Rob?

I mean, it's amazing. And that's the other reason I wanted to do this. Because, you know, there are dreams come true moments; getting your show on Broadway, getting to be in a movie. And then there are dreams that you didn't even have the audacity to have, like that there would be a sequel to Mary Poppins and you could be dancing with Mary Poppins someday. Who would have the audacity to have that dream? And here we are. But you know, the other, the main reason I'm here is because I think Rob Marshall's the best at making movie musicals. I think Chicago is the best movie adaptation of a musical, which is the hardest thing to pull off. And I've talked about it with Rob many times. I mean, he was born in the wrong era. Like if he were born during the MGM unit, there'd be tons of Rob Marshall classics, so seeing him get to work on an original musical is really thrilling because you're there from the ground up. You're building the music, you're building the story, so he already did the hardest thing, which was to adapt a two-act musical into a three-act film. So now to get to build an original musical and to watching him do it has been one of the great learning experiences of my life.

You're here as an actor on this film. Also, your other life, brilliant composer and songwriter. So what's it been like singing and engaging with [songwriters] Marc [Shaiman] and Scott [Wittman] in this original musical?

Well, I'm a fan of Marc and Scott's music for many years. I remember getting rush tickets to previews of Hairspray right out of college when it was in previews, and losing my mind that this could be happening. I remember seeing Marc Shaiman sitting next to me, taking notes because he was [unintelligible]. And here we are working all these years later. I'm also a fan of Marc's work in everything from South Park to his work with Billy Crystal when he would write, [sings] "It's a wonderful night for Oscar." Like, he wrote those. To see him play live, Bette Midler on Johnny Carson's last show. and he and Scott are so well-suited to this musical. I could never have written this score. It's really funny, actually. This morning on my Facebook, and I'll post it on Twitter later, to prove it to you, I had Marc Shaiman's very kind words after he saw Hamilton, which was, as you said, thank God I don't write scores like this or I would be strangling him instead of hugging him. And that's sort of how I feel. We write so differently that there's no jealousy. It's just like a thrill that I get to play in this world. We don't normally get to play together. So to get to sing Marc and Scott's music is a real joy. And it's such a love letter to the Sherman brothers as you will soon see, that it's great. It just feels like a love letter to the original.

We heard that Jack was an apprentice of Burt, but Burt did a lot of stuff. What did he learn from him? Was it kind of like a jack-of-all-trades?

[laughs] Yeah, I think it is. I think you beat me to the pun! Yeah, absolutely. And I think that's one of the fun things about the movie. I mean, there's that great opening scene in the original where he's playing like six instruments at once and singing a song. And so yeah, I think Jack apprenticed to him and was just kind of his — I just picture a little mini-Burt running around after him. And he sort of grows up and doesn't lose that spark. I think what Burt and Jack share is that they don't lose the imagination that comes with childhood. I think that's one of the themes, too, that grownups forget. Grownups forget imbuing the world with imagination at every turn. And what sets Burt apart and Jack apart is that they don't. He doesn't — he remembers Mary Poppins and he remembers everything she's capable of. She's not just a nanny in his head. She is a bringer of wonder. That's what they should [remember].

Did you talk to Dick Van Dyke when preparing for your role?

He filmed his stuff here already. And it was like the best two days ever. I aspire to having that much energy in my life, someday, much less at 91. It was a joyous two days. We were in the scene together, and we were just huddled off in the corner, and I was asking questions about Bye Bye Birdie. You want to talk about a run — that guy went from debuting on Broadway in Bye Bye Birdie to getting The Dick Van Dyke Show to filming Mary Poppins like, on his hiatus. And that's when they did the 32 hours of TV not the 24. So that's, you know, if anyone has a right to be retired and chilling, it's Dick Van Dyke! [laughs] And yet he's with us singing and dancing, and it was really thrilling, you know, just to swap Broadway stories about him, about Cheetah [Rivera], about sort of everything in his incredible career.


Mary Poppins Returns opens in theaters on December 19, 2018.