Although I still cringe at every mention of “Memoirs of a Geisha” (and I’ve read the book, but not seen the whole movie), my childhood affection for Disney’s “Mary Poppins” and Dick Van Dyke made me an eager attendee of “Razzle Dazzle ‘Em! A Conversation with Rob Marshall ” at the TCL Chinese on Monday as part of AFI FEST 2018.
Introduced by producer Marc Platt (“La La Land,” “The Girl on the Train” and “Bridge of Spies”), Marshall talked briefly about his career from when he directed his Emmy Award-winning TV adaptation of “Annie” in 1999 to his 2002 adaptation of “Chicago” which was nominated for 13 Oscars and won six.
Marshall began as a dancer, graduated to dance captain, then choreographer and finally director. In 1998, Marshall revived “Cabaret” taking it on Broadway by transforming what had been the infamous disco, Studio 54, and making it into the Kit Kat Klub. Natasha Richardson was Sally and Alan Cummings the emcee. The production confronted more openly the ugliness of the changing social scene in Berlin with the rise of Hitler and the suppressing of non-heterosexual inclinations.
Both Platt and Marshall are involved with Disney’s “Mary Poppins Returns.” Marshall said, The first film I ever saw was ‘Mary Poppins'” and that makes his newest film feel like he’s come “full circle” because “I know it must have launched my love of musicals.”
Marshall was born into a family that loved musicals and at a time when there was a second-wave of musical films—“Sound of Music,” “My Fair Lady” and “Oliver.” It wasn’t until the documentary “That’s Entertainment” came out that he became aware of the Golden Age of Musicals. While he said it was hard to say exactly why he loves musicals, he admitted “nothing is worse than a bad musical.”
“Chicago” could have been just that. Marshall recalled that in the original script, the opening number was a worker coming out of a manhole, singing, “Come on baby,” because it established that this was a town and world where everyone sang. But Marshall’s vision was to have two worlds where the best musical numbers took place on stage just like “Cabaret” or “Bandwagon.”
With “Nine,” the problem was taking a flawed musical about a man searching for himself and finding a way to make the musical work, meaning that “you should never know a person’s about to sing. It should be seamless.”
Actors don’t have to be singers to be great in a musical. Renée Zellweger wasn’t a singer, but her performance as Roxie Hart sold the part and she earned a Golden Globe for the 2002 movie. Likewise, in “Mary Poppins Returns,” Ben Whishaw, who plays Michael Banks now grown up and widowed, tried to sing in a song that is a conversation with his dead wife, but Marshall told him rather to “speak on pitch.” Marshall noted, “I’m not moved by high big notes unless they come from a place that moves you.” Some of the Broadway greats such as Carol Channing and Zero Mostel (1915-1977) weren’t extraordinary singers, but they made you feel something.
“Mary Poppins Returns,” was three years in the making, an adventure that Marshall took on with a sliver of fear so he knew it was the right thing to do. The people in the cast and crew “had to love the first film so much, as much as I did.” In the end, it’s an homage, something that you can clearly see in the eight-minute dance sequence shown to the AFI FEST audience.
Like the original movie, Marshall combines live action with hand-painted cell animation. But keeping up with today’s technology, that’s in addition to 3D backgrounds and CGI. The hand-painted cell work required some old animators coming out of retirement and some twenty-somethings learning this old technique. That meant the post-production took over a year.
You’ll see part of that sequence in the trailer when the design elements on a Wedgwood bowl swirl and engulf the live actors and take them into a fantasy land.
The dance sequence that made its world premiere at AFI FEST featured Lin-Manual Miranda as the former apprentice of Bert and a lamplighter who summons the other lamplighters to lead the children and Mary Poppins back to Cherry Tree Lane. This is definitely a tip of the hat to the chimney sweeps number in the original. Of course, another delight of the movie is having Dick Van Dyke on board—playing the son of one of his characters in the original movie—was a dream come true.
Marshall indicated that in today’s dark socio-political climate, he wanted “Mary Poppins Returns” to be a symbol of hope, since it takes place during the Great Depression (called the Great Slump in the movie), but ends on a bright and cheery note.
“Mary Poppins Returns” opens on 19 December 2018.