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Some actors relax during two-show days on Broadway; others find themselves getting involved with Mary Poppins.
Lin-Manuel Miranda first heard the pitch for Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns sequel between a matinee and evening performance of his Broadway smash, Hamilton (you probably haven’t heard of it). It was during his final few months in the musical, before his summer departure in 2016, when director Rob Marshall and producer John DeLuca met Miranda at a hotel across the street from the theatre to pitch the role they had in mind: Jack, a charming working man who watches over London’s gaslamp-lined neighborhoods with a band of lamplighters known as Leeries.
Miranda, who deems the film his “first big movie,” recalls the pitch: “They said, ‘We’re not asking you to be Dick Van Dyke, but what we know is, it’s Emily Blunt and you, and we want to build it around you guys.’ They told me Dave [Magee] was writing the script, and I just absolutely fell in love with the pitch and their story. Plus, Rob made Chicago — I think it’s the best modern musical adaptation we have — so I knew I wanted to be in that room and go on that ride. In no world in my mind did the chance to play in the land of Mary Poppins even exist. It’s just this sort of iconic thing that’s from your childhood, and it’s crazy to even get to do it.”
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That land of Mary Poppins, Miranda says, is fairly indescribable in and of itself, but wholly descriptive of the whimsy of Jack, who apprenticed as a kid to chimney sweep Bert: “The magical is commonplace, at least to a couple of people like Mary and Jack, similar to the way it was to Mary and Bert. It’s almost like, ‘Well, yeah, we’ll just jump into the painting and spend the day in the painting, because why wouldn’t we do that?’ They’ll say, ‘Come on, we have a very busy day,’ and that busy day involves dancing with penguins and flying. That’s the thrill of it.”
While much of Mary Poppins Returns is directly based on P.L. Travers’ book series, Jack is more of a new creation for the film who helps link the journey of the Banks family and provide a magical assist to pal Mary Poppins. Jack does share Bert’s up-for-anything spirit; he doesn’t share Bert’s infamous cockney accent (or at least, that’s what Miranda has been affectionately working hard to avoid). And although there won’t be an onscreen reunion between the patron and his protégée, Van Dyke did film a cameo as a different character, and Miranda was still reeling from the experience when EW visited just a day later.
“Imagine how cool you think Dick Van Dyke is, and double that — that’s how cool he was,” gushes Miranda, who shares deep theatre roots with the versatile 91-year-old star. “I wish I had as much energy as he has now at 91 than I do at 37. But he was just running laps around us. I’d see the little kids being tired, and there’s Dick Van Dyke running. The greatest acting challenge was just being in it with him during the scene because he’s Dick Van Dyke.”
Despite their kindred characters, no, Miranda didn’t ask for any advice. “He’s already just inspiring by way of who he is,” he counters. “You see him and you see what incredible work ethic he still has and how much fun he still has while he’s doing it. The twinkle in his eye could knock ya out at 50 paces.” Plus, a more pressing conversation needed to be had between the two Broadway showmen: “Honestly, I just spent the whole time grilling him about Bye Bye Birdie.”