Marc Shaiman has written music for Sleepless in Seattle, The First Wives Club, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, and Hairspray on Broadway. Shaiman scored two nominations for his work on Rob Marshall’s Mary Poppins Returns receiving a Best Song nomination for The Place Where Lost Things Go, shared with Scott Wittman. He also scored a nomination for Best Score. If Shaiman wins in either category he will enter the elite EGOT club.
Mary Poppins Returns he says on the phone while heading up to Santa Barbara was a dream come true. It was something he never thought would happen in his lifetime, but it did. Much like Marshall, Mary Poppins held a special place in Shaiman’s heart and he couldn’t imagine anyone else working on the music.
We talk about cracking the code to composing the score and writing the music to one of the most iconic roles of our time and writing music for Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Read our chat below.
Congratulations on your Oscar nomination. You’ve been honored at the Santa Barbara Film Festival and you’re being honored with the Guild of Music Supervisors’ Icon Award. What is it like and what were you doing on nomination morning?
My husband was in the navy for 20 years. He thinks stationed being in Afghanistan on a submarine was less stressful than sitting with me on the couch watching the nominations. If you write an original movie musical and there isn’t any recognition of the movie, the songs, or music there’s no doubt it would have been humiliating. For the movie itself, we were just so anxious hoping it would get some recognition because we are very proud of it. So, it was a great relief to my husband Lou. I was so happy to share this with Scott.
For all my heyday in the 90s and through to 2000, I was nominated 5 times and he had to sit with me, go and be the comforting one when I lost. I was also doing my movie career which left Scott and I not doing anything. We’d been writing long before I came to California, so it was a bad ten years as far as our relationship. We were life and writing partners at that time.
Hairspray came along and I insisted Scott and I write the lyrics for that. They only asked me to write the music and so I said I only want to do it if Scott and I are writing the lyrics. It changed our lives. I actually told someone that it was the first time I felt contentment.
Yes, I’ve had a lot of exhilarating times with five Oscar nominations. I’ve worked on movies that were very successful and some became iconic, but there was nothing like looking at that marquee like a successful Broadway show and that brought true contentment.
Mary Poppins Returns means everything to me. Like billions of other people, it was my favorite movie as a kid. I listened to that soundtrack endlessly for my whole life. It just means so much and I couldn’t believe that a sequel could be made and that I’d be alive and actually be hired to do it. I never dreamed of such a thing.
Rob Marshall calls you. You get hired. Did you think What the hell have I done?
It was a dichotomy of emotions. Even when I heard about it, I thought would anyone want that job? You just know you’re putting on a blindfold and walking in front of a firing squad. I could not imagine not doing it. I had the darkest thoughts a person could have wondering what to do if I didn’t get it. I couldn’t imagine how I was going to live life as I know it now.
The best case scenario would be me moving to a desert island and living in a hut where there are no movie posters announcing that film opening.
That overrode the fear and terror knowing we’d be compared to the incomparable. The word itself means you can’t compare. People have compared us to the original film as we knew we would. We wrote songs that fit the mood and the plot of the movie and I’m really proud of it. I’m proud of our work on it.
The Place Where the Lost Things Go is such a beautiful song about loss and grieving.
It touched me so deeply because it just was so comforting too.
We have received so much feedback from people saying the song has given them a chance to pinpoint the grief and the loss in a way that is comforting. As we wrote the lyrics we were asking “How do we write lyrics where you sing to children about losing their mother and that grief? How do you do something that comforts them? That was a challenge.
I was lucky that Scott remembered that in one of the books she takes the kids to the moon because as you’d expect the man in the moon is Mary’s uncle. He says on the dark side of the moon. He says, “That’s where all your lost things are.” He gives the kids one of the trinkets that they’ve lost and that’s the whole point of that story. Scott remembered that story and we thought it was the perfect way for her to sing to the kids about this.
It’s also how we used the PL Travers. We don’t illustrate the story from the book, but we take a concept. It’s one song where no one asked us to go back to the drawing board.
One song had five different songs before we came back to the original song we wrote. That was which was Underneath The Lovely London Sky. The Place Where Lost Things Go, that was a keeper, no one said a word. When Emily came in, she could barely get through it. She managed to get through it beautifully and in that Mary Poppins voice where she doesn’t get too caught up in the emotion. I could talk to you for hours about her performance.
I think in years to come we’ll be talking about her performance.
She completely made it her own. She brings this whole other side to her.
You’re putting the score together and there’s the overture, talk about putting that in.
It was in the style of the classic musicals to have that. We wanted to revisit that. Our movie is a whole slew of movies like Oliver and My Fair Lady, not just Mary Poppins where they’re big and lush. Once Scott and I suggested we wrote a song for Michael Banks, we realized the movie was going to start with two ballads and so the overture became really important to Rob. We wanted to give the audience a bump of adrenalin to go between the gentleness of Underneath The London Sky and A Conversation. So, the overture became really important. To see those beautiful images which was a tip of the hat to the original artwork in the first film.
We recorded it at Abbey Road.
I have recorded at Abbey Road. I was listening in from New York doing movies for Rob Reiner. It wasn’t in the budget to go there. I was at home doing the recording session.
For this, I was there with this 85-piece orchestra and during breaks, I was on the Let It Be piano and Lady Madonna piano. It was something else.
I was recording the overture to a sequel to Mary Poppins in the same studio where The Beatles recorded their records. I’m a child of the 60s and it was heaven.
Emily had been cast early on. What about writing for Lin who said he didn’t want to be Lin from Hamilton?
We had already started writing before he was cast. We had already done London sky. When he was cast, the monster we heard the most was “We have to deliver Lin-Manuel.” From the first time that he came over and we played what we’d been writing, and strangely enough most of the songs we played him that day got replaced. We re-wrote some of them. He sat on the couch with the biggest grin on his face. He was never thinking, “Is that the best lyric you can think of?” He seemed so enthused to be a performer letting other people write. He felt it was right up our alley.
He said, “I couldn’t write this, you guys are in the zone.” His confidence in us was really helpful. He’s the premier writer of this generation. It was so invaluable to us and he’s truly a mensch. After he was cast, we knew we could write the patter section of A Cover Is Not a Book and deliver Lin-Manuel to Marc.
We wrote a real Stanley Holloway type song called Just Around The Corner with an uplifting waltz. By the time we got to the fifth song and it was that with this great upbeat and energetic beat. Emily Blunt walked by our writing room and asked what it was. We told her it was the newest song we’d written for Lin. I sang it to her and she went directly to Rob and said, “You use the first song that they wrote for Lin.” It was all the different producers and Disney, she was the one who woke everyone up and we had gone back to the first song.
Was there a moment in the writing or music moment where you cracked Mary Poppins?
The first song we wrote for her was to write in the style of the English style bands of the 1930s. The intro to the first song we wrote went “John, you’re right, it’s good to know you’re bright” and it was called Stuff of Nonsense. It flopped out of me and it sounded very Mary Poppins.
It showed Mary Poppins where she landed. It stuck for months, but then Rob and Marc said, “It’s the first song Mary is going to be singing after 54 years.” Rob came to us and said whenever you tell someone to sing the title of a song, it’s not so much the title the remember, it’s the other parts that lead up to it. We wrote a few dance bands song and then we threw it out. We decided to stop being scared of “Spoonful of sugar” and started to write with that same rhythm. Initially, it was something we had shied away from. We found ourselves writing, “Can you Imagine that?” and Scott reminded me that my job was to remember that I’d also be scoring the movie and the songs would be informing each other. The song would inform the score, and the score would inform the song. Before I sent it out, I played it in film score fashion to let them know there was the thematic ability in it. What I played on the piano is note for note what’s on the soundtrack. That recording had an orchestral mockup done. Rob played it endlessly on the set. There’s something about the melody and chords when played in the film score style takes it away when she sings it as a song. There’s a longing for the past.
It makes you think there’s something I’ve been missing. They so brilliantly put in the temp score when they’re looking around the house. So, that really made me think, that’s when we nailed it with that theme and song. That was a good feeling.