By Marc Snetiker
January 22, 2019 at 04:00 PM EST
Credit: Jay Maidment/Disney
  • Movie

You can thank a nursery rhyme for all those ugly tears.

Mary Poppins Returns floats into this year’s Academy Awards with four nominations — two of which belong in part to Marc Shaiman, who composed a new original score for the film in addition to co-writing nine new songs with his songwriting partner, Scott Wittman. One of them, “The Place Where Lost Things Go,” landed a coveted Oscar nomination for Best Original Song — and it’s fitting recognition for an important piece of the story that helped Disney’s sequel soar.

If director Rob Marshall needed a good reason to bring Mary Poppins back almost six decades after Walt Disney’s original movie, he found part of that in this song — a lullaby sung by Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) to the Banks children during a dark moment in the nursery when they grieve their late mother.

Blunt calls “The Place Where Lost Things Go” the song she was proudest to see in its finished form on screen. “You can talk about all those big dance numbers, but [it’s] the song that really always made my heart sing, partly being because of what it reveals in a character who doesn’t reveal much to anybody,” she tells EW. “Talk about Mary recognizing what they need in that moment. It is the most nurturing, the most tender that she is, and I think the song is so beautiful and so hopeful and so important for the world we’re in right now, with a lot of kids feeling a lot of loss. It’s very disconcerting. So the idea that ‘nothing’s gone forever, only out of place’… I remember first learning that song and not being able to get through it, ever. Especially the bit about the mother at the end, because I saw my own children in them. I’m going to cry if I even talk about it. That song probably means the most to me.”

Shaiman and Wittman knew that the song had to be an emotional home-run. Mary needed to help bring some peace to the Banks children, and it could only be a boon that the character’s most human side — the one that doesn’t rely on magic or marvel — might come through in the process. So, just as P.L. Travers’ original eight-book series inspired the story of Mary Poppins Returns, so too did it spark inspiration for the songs — and the concept that inspired “The Place Where Lost Things Go” looked significantly different in Travers’ terms before Shaiman and Wittman musicalized it to the screen.

“We would take a moment from one book and then transplant it into another moment so that it would say the right thing, and Scott had the great idea of [taking] a little moment in one of the later books about the kids going to see the Man in the Moon, who it turns out is Mary Poppins’ uncle,” Shaiman explains to EW. “So in the book, she takes the kids to the moon, and the Man in the Moon tells them that on the other side — the dark side of the moon — besides Pink Floyd, you will also find all of the lost things. Anything that anyone ever lost goes to the dark side of the moon, and he keeps track of it.” (And for those fans keeping track, that’s why the song’s lyrics include allusions to the gallivanting dish and the spoon of nursery-rhyme fame.)

Shaiman continues, “Just that idea of a place — if I can quote ourselves, a place where the lost things go — kind of stuck in our heads when we were trying to write the song Mary would sing to comfort the kids about how their mom is still with them. So that’s a moment where, even though in the books the place where lost things go is about knick-knacks and stuff, we had the idea to blow that up into something even more spiritual. Scott often mentions, the books are actually very metaphysical and very Eastern philosophy.” Wittman adds, “There’s a lot of zen in it.”

During several months of preliminary writing sessions, the songwriters had significant access in New York to Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda, for whom they custom-wrote every tune and, upon testing out each song on the actors, found themselves tossing out entire efforts and starting fresh with new ones. “There were spots in the movie where we wrote one, two, three, even five different songs in the search for just the right song, the right lyrics, the right music,” says Shaiman. But “The Place Where Lost Things Go” didn’t share the same trajectory, which only adds to the special quality the song brings to the movie and, if all goes well for the filmmakers, the Academy Awards.

“That ballad, once we wrote that, no one ever said to us, ‘Let’s take another pass at that,’” beams Shaiman. “And I think once we wrote it, that was a milestone for us, the feeling that we were finally in the right place.”

One less lost thing in the world.

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