Mary Poppins Returns does not technically descend upon theaters until next Wednesday, but its soundtrack of songs, written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray, Smash, Catch Me If You Can, Smash, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, SMASH BRING BACK SMASH), is already available to all. Considering how I (perhaps unnecessarily?) made the A Star Is Born soundtrack an exploration of musical-theater esoterica, a ranking of the new musical numbers from Poppins 2: Back in the Habit seemed a natural fit. This time, though? A Cinderella story, not unlike ASIB, a friend did invite me to an early screening, so that I might make informed decisions! Moving on up! To a deluxe apartment in the sky! That I live in with Emily Blunt’s Mary Poppins when she is not teaching important Life Lessons. Before diving into this incredibly scientific exploration, I must confess something.
I … loved this movie???? I … loved it. Is its run time six hours and 37 minutes???? Oh, to be sure! However, that is no longer than the original, nor any of the other Golden Age movie musicals it seeks to honor. Plus, anytime I got close to thinking, Hmmm, this movie is long, up popped Colin Firth twirling his mustache to antagonize voice-over usurper Ben Whishaw (the Eve Paddington to his Margo Channing) OR Meryl Streep Having Fun With Wigs and Accents OR Noma Dumezweni — original Hermione in The Cursed Child on the West End and on Broadway, making Mary Poppins Returns the best Harry Potter franchise film of the year — to keep me on my toes.
It is difficult for me to be impartial when it comes to Lin-Manuel Miranda, as several months ago he brutally murdered several members of my family and told me I had to watch or I would never work in this town again (I acquiesced; I’m a career gal!). Actually, what I need people to understand is that if you are not charmed by Lin-Manuel Miranda in this movie, I staunchly believe that’s something you need to work out for yourself. Look deep within your spirit. Are you mad that a self-professed nerd became successful and popular, like the musical-theater nerd Sandy Frink in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion? I will not stand idly by as a talented, hardworking, and by all accounts — except mine because, again, he did kill my sister in an unforgettably gruesome manner he said was “necessary for the ritual to work” — kind person who uses his considerable Powers for Good is made a scapegoat for your embittered ennui!!! “Natalie, I don’t think a wildly influential celebrity you have never met needs a defense this vehement from you; when was the last time you told a close friend you appreciate them? We should examine …” says my therapist, an idiot.
All this to say: If you clicked over to this in the hopes of reading some withering takedowns, I am as surprised and ashamed as you are by my overt sentimentality. I had a grand time watching this movie. I swooned over the performances. Still, I am honor bound to rank the new musical numbers, and while I, of course, love all my children equally, I don’t care for Gob. My unbiased, objective, and empirical ranking is based on which ones I personally like the best because they appeal to my specific tastes.
13. “The Place Where Lost Things Go (Reprise)”
The trio of Banks children sing this reprise to their father after he briefly loses his temper with them. Now. I began my screening of Mary Poppins Returns — a children’s movie — by turning to the row of noisy youths behind me and intoning “ladies …” like an Upper East Side dowager desperate for a rejuvenating Xanax nap after a particularly fraught Botox appointment, and by the end of the film, I was surprised to find I was smiling ear to ear, having reached a détente between myself and the concept of children. That said, for all the film’s gentle magic, there is no movie so miraculous as to make me enjoy the vocal stylings of children who are not Judy Garland singing “You Made Me Love You” or Jazmine Sullivan singing “Home.” The only children who exist musically to me are Dorothys, and that’s that.
12. “(Underneath the) Lovely London Sky”
The prologue. A Cockney “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” (very excited for Daniel Fish’s Mary Poppins Returns!) Lots of little 1930s-style vocal flourishes — “lucky gu-u-uy”, “looking hi-ee-igh” — for which I am very much a sucker. Still, though, simply an amuse-bouche. (That’s right, I have been to a fancy restaurant! I worked there as a busser and I am not allowed back until I can pay for damages to the espresso machine.)
Lush! I love a good overture, especially when they go with my favorite overture style “Megamix of What’s to Come.” Shades of The Sound of Music. One of the best things about movie musicals is hearing a huge orchestra play the score, and it’s exhilarating when a brand-new score is written with clear intent to take full advantage of that opportunity. However, I love words (“I love words” — a poet), I love Actors Acting, and I love Singers Singing, so this is gonna get a lower ranking than maybe it deserves.
10. “(Underneath the) Lovely London Sky (Reprise)”
Epilogue! Bookends! I do prefer this version to its predecessor just because anytime you return home after a journey, you more deeply appreciate where you started. Isn’t that the whole thing of “Moments in the Woods”? Emily Blunt! Full circle.
9. “A Conversation”
PADDINGTON’S SERENADE! Ben Whishaw is … an angel? I mean, is this song one your kids are gonna bop along to in the car? No. But this song is not for them! This song, adult reader, is for you and for me, as we wonder if there is anything Ben Whishaw cannot do! He acts, he bears, he looks non-porny with a thick mahogany mustache, he SINGS!!! Many great actors taking on roles in musicals seem to forget entirely how to convey emotion once they start to sing (I will not name names because I do think Russell Crowe was trying his best). Not at all so with Cherub Ben, whose speaking voice naturally and seamlessly gives way to a tender tremolo, and who even employs the advanced Musical Theater Acting “casually laugh off the end of a sung line” technique. The tender tinkly music-box intro is Peak Emotional Assassination. This probably shouldn’t rank so high, but I’ll be honest, this song and Eighth Grade have illuminated for me that Gentle Single Dads Struggling to Hold It Together are my kryptonite.
8. “Turning Turtle”
Yes. Meryl Streep in “what if Lynn Yaeger taught flute to children” drag? With an Eastern European accent provided by Rocky and Bullwinkle reruns? Committing wholeheartedly to a jazzy character number that will stop the show when Mary Testa does it in the inevitable stage adaptation (DANIEL. FISH’S. MARY. POPPINS. RETURNS.)? YES. Extremely correct, caters exclusively to my interests! This takes up the mantle of “I Love to Laugh” in Mary Poppins: First Blood — we go visit one of Mary’s kooky relatives; they deal with a whimsical and nonthreatening ailment; we end up on the ceiling. MERYL is BELTING and obviously JONESING for a Sweeney Todd benefit concert. The beleaguered sotto voce “I couldn’t get through it” after “Tolstoy certainly had the gift of gab” reminds me she really is one of our greatest living actresses.
7. “Nowhere to Go But Up”
During this song, Michael shouts “Jane! I remember! It’s all true! Every impossible thing we imagined with Mary Poppins — it all happened!” It is psycho that it took him this long to figure that out. A white woman shows up at your door after 25-plus years, having aged like Angela Bassett, but the thing that finally convinces you of magic afoot is … some colorful balloons? Oh, Michael, you gorgeous simpleton. Anyway, this number is mostly about Angela Lansbury saying, “Salutations bitch, Kites is Balloons now!” That’s why it’s not rated G! I assume this was the cameo Julie Andrews opted out of in favor of Aquaman, and I do wonder — if the Poppins crew had imposed a trade-off system, who from the Aquaman movie would have done this role? Patrick Wilson has the range (just want to link to that very formative video), but I prefer an element of surprise, so I will ask for mo-cap Djimon Hounsou as Eccentric Seller of Supernatural Balloons. Lansbury, of course, is flawless, though, as is to be expected from the woman who laid down the forever-definitive rendition of “Beauty and the Beast” in a single take.
6. “The Place Where Lost Things Go”
I cry at this song. Shut up. Every time. Again, shut up, thank you. Emily Blunt’s vibrato is very beautiful. I must ask you to please shut the fuck up. She has been so matter-of-fact and acerbic thus far that hearing more earnest sounds from her is very deeply affecting. What do I mean by “more earnest sounds,” you absolutely WORTHless FOOL?!?! Less speak-singing, more sustained notes, more time spent on Vowels than Consonants, which we all KNOW means more Feeling than Thinking. I swear to fucking God, I will bludgeon you if you keep looking at me while I clutch my heart listening to her use more of her vulnerable head voice STOP, STOP, STOP, STOP. TURN THE CAMERAS OFF; I AM STORMING OFF THE SET.
5. “Trip a Little Light Fantastic (Reprise)”
DICK! VAN! DYKE! NACK! VID! KEYD! Perfect tip of the hat to both his characters in the original film — he is playing the son of his secondary old banker character, but since “Trip a Little Light” is a clear analogue of “Step in Time,” he still gets to Bert it up for the fans. It’s a crowd-pleaser, and an earned one: A man in my row, after vociferously cheering Dick Van Dyke’s entrance with the rest of the audience, leaned over to his neighbor halfway through his song and whispered, “Who is that?” as though he were enchanted by this newcomer on the screen. Yes, in stark contrast to obligatory-seeming “I smile, I wave my little hat … I did that, so when do I get paid?” reboot or sequel cameos by original stars that depend on slavish devotion to the franchise/celebrity, Dick Van Dyke so ecstatically throws himself into this number it is an irresistible delight to people who recognize him and children and philistines who don’t.
4. “The Royal Doulton Music Hall”
A raucous mini–Moulin Rouge extravaganza, with Blunt and Miranda splitting Harold “EV’rything’s GOing so WELL” Zidler emcee duties until they are relieved by a gaggle of bird chorus girls (who all sound like Caroline O’Connor as Nini Legs in the Air) squawking the final refrain. As someone who comes down firmly and unabashedly in the pro-MR camp, I found this an immensely entertaining musical welcome into my favorite stretch of Mary Poppins Returns (the animated/live-action combination sequence).
3. “Can You Imagine That?”
This is Mary Poppins’s first musical moment in the film, and as an introduction to this incarnation of the character, it is practically perfect in every way. The song begins with Emily Blunt (at the height of her haughty condescension) sardonically congratulating a boy for having no imagination, and moves on to her giving instructions on bathing, and it … checks a lot of boxes for me! No two ways about it, conservatives: Emily Blunt’s Mary Poppins will turn your chaste heterosexual wives and daughters into wanton gay submissives. The number is “A Spoonful of Sugar” on bath salts — literally, as this extended fantasy sequence is borne out of a need to get the Banks children to hop in the tub and clean themselves up after loitering on public property. I love a bath-time musical fantasia, and I courageously love Mary Poppins being an alto/mezzo.
2. “Trip a Little Light Fantastic”
“Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is a blast, start to fin. It has the mark of a truly great dance showpiece, which is that it makes me believe I could be a dancer? The dancing looks so fun and the Hot West End Newsies make it look so easy that I assume I could also swing around a lamplight and do intricate leg stuff without immediate hospitalization. One of my favorite endings for a big production number is one person holding a money note while the ensemble makes energetic noises, and kudos to LMM for doing it on an E vowel. The title is an actual idiom, but all I can think is that “trip a light fandango” + “pitch the quick fantastic” + relentless patter + sustained note finish = “The Miller’s Son,” meaning this is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s audition to play Petra in A Little Night Music. Booked!
Frankly, the entire Mary Poppins Returns cast would do a gorgeous Night Music. Streep as Desiree. Firth as Frederik. Whishaw as Henrik. Julie Walters as Frid and we reinstate “Silly People” for her. Emilys Blunt and Mortimer do a Reilly/Hoffman True West (to get feminist about it: a Linney/Nixon Little Foxes) in the roles of Carl-Magnus and his wife, Charlotte, for gay reasons. Anne is … who cares? Who cares! (“Sorry, Anne.” An apology to the many beautiful sopranos who have played Anne and also an invocation of Glynis Johns’s line reading). SPEAKING OF GLYNIS JOHNS: SHE WAS IN MARY POPPINS, AND THIS NEWS ARTICLE IS ABOUT THAT! Moving on.
1. “A Cover Is Not the Book”
In a sharp contrast to A Star Is Born, there is only one dialogue track on the Mary Poppins Returns album, which I believe means the preamble to “A Cover Is Not the Book” (during which Miranda’s lamplighter Jack invites Mary Poppins to the stage of the Music Hall) is significant enough to factor into my assessment of the number as a whole. In another sharp contrast to A Star Is Born, listening to a man introduce a woman’s musical performance in this movie does not make me want to take a small chain saw to my ears. Plus, as a bonus, we get Emily Blunt re-creating Kristen Wiig’s “don’t make me sing” sketch for a few seconds before the song starts in earnest, as she pretends she’s not about to fuck all your lives up in a Velma Kelly wig. This serves as the “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” (just spelled that without checking any sources! RECKLESS! In the grand tradition of Bad Takes, I leave my potentially grave error for an editor to clean up or not clean up for clicks! [ed note: This was correct]) of MPR.
Blunt’s transition into full-on Cockney after beginning the song in her veddy arch, Mary dialect has a real “COME ON DOVER, MOVE YER BLOOMIN’ ARSE” vibe to it — an extra homage to Julie Andrews, who ended up in the original Poppins after being denied the opportunity to bring her Eliza Doolittle to the screen in My Fair Lady (silver lining of mythic comeuppance: She won the Oscar for her Mary while Audrey Hepburn, eligible the same year for MFL, was not nominated). “Cover”’s picaresque verses/gibberish “ta-ru-ra-lee, ta-ru-ra-la” refrain call to mind “Oom-Pah-Pah” from Oliver! and its rousing message chorus is a spiritual relative of The Mystery of Edwin Drood’s “Don’t Quit While You’re Ahead.”
Also, all the Puritanical hemming and hawing over Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sped-up verse injecting “rap” into the Poppinsverse must have been from people who have never heard “Getting Married Today.” Calling it a rap feels like a high-school drama teacher with wild-eyed youth-pastor energy saying, “If you really listen to it, ‘I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General’ is hip-hop …” to drum up student-body interest in Pirates of Penzance auditions. This top pick may be controversial (“Cover” was not one of the singles Disney pushed prerelease), but as I said before — the live-action/animation sequence took my breath away, Miranda and Blunt have easy, fun chemistry that is never more infectiously joyful than it is here, and again, I must repeat, EMILY BLUNT IN A VELMA KELLY WIG. Number one with a bullet.